The luckiest thing that ever happened to Elrod Ayers was getting shot.
In fact, had it not been for that gunshot wound a lifetime ago, Elrod almost certainly never would have gone on to open Ayers Leather Shop, the second-oldest retail store in Greenville, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary.
Now with the third generation of the Ayers family at the helm of the downtown shop, the anniversary is offering a chance to look back at a lifetime of “good, honest work” here in the Upstate.
And it all began due to the most unlikely of blessings.
At the time he was wounded by that gunshot, Elrod didn’t feel lucky at all.
He was serving on a Navy ship during WWII, and one night as he was lying in his bunk, a loud bang erupted, and a bolt of pain shot through his whole body.
This was no enemy attack, however.
“Turns out the bunk mate below him had been cleaning his gun, and somehow it went off and shot my dad in the rear,” says Deb Ayers, Elrod’s daughter.
It’s a story Deb has told countless times, and although she can laugh now at the thought of her father being carried off that ship face-down on a stretcher, with “his rear end all bandaged up,” her tone changes when discussing what happened next.
“Right after he was taken off the ship and went to the hospital, the ship sank,” she says. “Almost everyone he was close to, his friends, all of them were killed.”
Lying in his hospital bed, his thoughts lingering over his dead friends, Elrod spiraled into a depression.
“He went through that darkness that so many people in war go through,” Deb says. “He asked: ‘Why me? Why did I live and all my friends die?’ And so he had what they termed a nervous breakdown.”
Elrod went through a rehabilitation program with the military that included a leatherworking program, and he found he had a knack for the craft. After being discharged, he went home to Atlanta,Georgia, and married his first-grade sweetheart, Charlotte.
In Atlanta, Elrod found work in a leather repair shop, but when he wanted to branch out and start his own leather repair and retail shop, the couple opted to move to Greenville, where Charlotte had family.
“They chose Greenville together,” Deb says. “They were the ultimate couple in that way, everything a 50-50 decision. Looking back, I distinctly remember so many businesses that were couples who ended up here. It seems the foundation of business in Greenville back then was strong, resilient couples.”
Elrod and Charlotte only had about $500 to their name when they moved to Greenville, and that money was quickly eaten up by the cost of a business license, repair tools and the first month’s rent on a storefront beside the old federal courthouse.
When they opened their doors in 1950, the Ayers family had nothing more than $50 in their pockets and a dream.
Deb Ayers began working at her parents’ leather shop when she was at the ripe old age of about six months.
“As a baby, I absolutely refused to stay with anybody,” she says. “Mother said when she left me I was screaming like crazy, and when she came back at the end of the day I was still screaming. After a week of that, they gave up and brought me to work with them.”
Deb’s earliest memories are of the shop: rocking back and forth in her crib in the back, customers standing over her, the smell of leather in the air.
She got to know everything that was going on in downtown Greenville. As a toddler, she clung to her mother’s arm as she walked to the bank or went on errands. She knew the policemen by name, and the businessmen and shoppers would stop to comment on how big Deb was getting.
“It was my everything — my day-to-day home, my daycare, my early schooling,” Deb says. “I feel like I can say absolutely my entire life I have been at work here.”
Deb went on to earn a degree in foreign languages at Guilford College and came back in 1971 to work alongside her parents. As she grew, so did the shop, with additional locations opened in McAlister Square and Haywood Mall.
But she says the heart of the business has always been downtown. For decades, Ayers Leather Shop occupied space at the corner of North Main and West North streets, before moving to 24 W. North St. in 2015, where it still stands today as the lone Ayers shop location left.
“Being downtown is what I love the most, being at the heart of it all,” Deb says. “At one point everybody was all entranced with malls and big brand names, but now, and especially with the pandemic, I think people have stepped back and realized what a local business can offer in the way of personal service, personal understanding.”
Deb officially took over the family business after her father Elrod retired in the early 1990s, although her mother Charlotte stayed on to work in the shop until after 2000 before retiring herself.
But Deb isn’t the only one working the shop. Her son, Payton, now works alongside her as the third generation to run the family business.
Payton says he has no plans to change things.
“I just want to stay here in Greenville,” he says. “I don’t want to make a killing; I just want to make a living. That’s how we’ve made it 70 years. Making an honest living and being able to meet the wonderful people that come to this town — that’s all I really want to do.”
Whenever he thinks about his role as the steward of a legacy that began three generations ago, Payton just points to the front entrance of the shop, where a sign reads “Ayers Leather Shop.”
“That’s our name on the door,” he says. “I have to protect that name, do a good job, make sure we’re doing quality work. Just that name being there has always kept me in check.”
‘It’s still wonderful’
Elrod Ayers died in 2005 at age 83. Charlotte is now 97 years old, living in a memory care facility nearby.
The day before the shop’s 70th anniversary, Deb paid her mother a visit.
She sat beside Charlotte and talked about the big day, how seven decades have now passed since she and Elrod first opened the original shop in 1950. Deb asked her mother: Did she remember the anniversary?
“She looked at me,” Deb says, “and finally she said, ‘No I don’t remember.’”
Deb understood. At her mother’s age, sometimes memories came and went.
“But then,” Deb says, “my mom said to me, ‘I didn’t remember the anniversary, but I remember the shop. It was so wonderful. And it’s still wonderful.’”