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Oldest family-owned business in the South thrives in Roanoke

Driving through Roanoke, it’s a bit disheartening to see some of the old, vacant buildings. These empty buildings once held businesses that contributed so much to downtown life.

But drive a little down the street and the multitude of flowers sitting outside of Pat Awbrey’s hardware store tell a different story: a story of how a local family business can survive changing times and the advent of superstores like Wal-Mart or Target.

The M.L. Awbrey’s Store is like a flower growing in concrete, a thing of stubborn beauty.

Businesses come and go. They’re especially liable to shut down or change locations in small towns that have to compete with a new superstore like a Wal-Mart, just as Roanoke has seen.

However, in Roanoke, M. L. Awbrey Inc. is an exception. It’s been family-owned for about 108 years, making M. L. Awbrey Inc. the longest lasting family-owned business south of the Mason-Dixon line.

M. L. Awbrey Inc. sells a variety of items: flowers, hardware equipment, clothes, and many other products. It has about seven employees. Some are seasonal workers hired to keep up with increased sales in spring and summer.

Today the store is owned and operated by Pat Awbrey. Founded in 1909 by Awbrey’s grandfather, Awbrey’s store has stood the test of time and the challenges big box stores can bring to local businesses.

Awbrey credits his products’ quality, whether it be soil, plants, or both. “Wal-Mart doesn’t have anything that would compare.”

The business went to Pat’s father after Pat’s grandfather passed, and then the business was passed down to Pat and his brother Mark. Pat eventually bought Mark’s share. 

Awbrey’s life has been intertwined with the hardware store for his whole life. His first memory of working at the hardware store goes back to when he was a 5 year old helping his 15-year-old brother roll in some wire.

Eventually, when he was around 15, he was assigned to watch the store until it closed while his father was out completing deliveries. During these evenings, neighbors across the street would check up on Awbrey and make sure everything was going okay.

Tara Seago, an employee at M. L. Awbrey’s, says her favorite part about working there is the atmosphere. “Me, Pat, and all the other coworkers, we can all laugh and joke and have a good time. There’s stress sometimes, but most days are a good time.”

Seago said one of the ways M. L. Awbrey’s stays competitive is by providing a personal customer experience. “With Wal-Mart, it’s not so bad if you don’t give each customer a personal experience. But here as soon as a customer comes through the door, we want to be able to get right there and say ‘hey, how are you?’”

After surviving more than a century by offering superior products and customer service, M. L. Awbrey’s has survived the test of time in Roanoke.