During the holiday season, when you see the 10-foot-tall reindeer topiary after turning off Pratt Avenue and going under Interstate Highway 565 in downtown Huntsville, you’ve arrived at Brooks & Collier.
From the big picture window decked out with twinkle lights and fresh wreaths on the front door to the ornate iron chandelier over the cash registers laced with tree boughs, Brooks & Collier goes all out for the holidays.
“It is always joyful to walk into the store” after decorator Hal Pennington, aka “the Elf,” is done working his magic each year, said Foster Brooks, operations manager for the year-round lifestyle destination, which is one of the largest home and garden centers in north Alabama.
“Besides everybody walking around with masks and keeping their distance,” the two showrooms and garden centers stretching over 2 acres will be “the same as always,” decorated top to bottom, said Foster of the upcoming holiday shopping season amid the global pandemic. As with most stores, Brooks & Collier orders Christmas and other holiday merchandise each year in January. The star, tree, snowman and winter wonderland-themed decorations and accessories started arriving weekly in September, he said.
A family and a team
Foster is a fourth-generation operator of the Brooks family venture, which will celebrate its 75th year in 2021. “This is what I’ve grown up doing,” said the 28-year-old, whose wife, Sarah, also pitches in at the store.
Foster’s parents – third-generation president and vice president, Greg and Kim Brooks – began their leadership of the company in 1993. Like Foster, Greg grew up in the business, working seven days a week once he graduated college in 1987.
“Honestly, she never gave me a day off,” he said with a laugh about his mother and second-generation owner, Doris, who continues to pop in from time to time, bringing treats for the store’s canine greeters, Lucy and Ivy.
“While Brooks & Collier is a family-owned business, everyone that is a part of this company is part of the family,” said Foster. With its showrooms closed from late March to May due to the state health order to slow the spread of coronavirus, “everyone had extra roles to play,” he said. But the store’s 20 employees didn’t skip a beat, and its outdoor nursery and garden centers never closed.
“A lot of our plants are outside – all of our bedding plants and annuals. It was a safe place to shop,” Foster said. “We would write up people’s tickets, go inside, check them out and bring the receipt back outside to them. We had to do a lot of extra steps and work a lot harder.”
“We also did curbside pickup,” he added. “People were calling in for plants. ‘I need six petunias. Five of these, five of those.’ Everyone pitched in and had good teamwork.”
“2020 is the busiest year we’ve ever had,” Greg said. “People are working in the yard, improving their patios, grilling out a lot.”
Making friends and new customers
Besides the public’s growing interest in gardening, Brooks & Collier was perfectly positioned with inventory for those looking to spruce up their outdoor spaces, furnish a lake house or add a house plant or two.
“We’ve helped a lot of customers re-landscape their yards, set up outdoor kitchens and furnish their patios,” Foster said. “Maybe they had vacations planned that they were not able to take. They had a little extra spending money and decided, ‘Let’s build a pool in our backyard, set up chairs there and make that our vacation.’
“I’m meeting a lot of new people each day and building friendships,” he said.
Adding an e-commerce portal in June to its 3-year-old website also has meant new customers. As more and more people go online to research and purchase products, virtually expanding its showroom was the next logical step for Brooks & Collier.
“We’ve had a lot of success attracting people who never knew about us until they came across us on the internet,” he said. “And people are calling from all over the Southeast. A lady even called recently from New Jersey and asked us to send her something.”
Both before and amid the pandemic, “our delivery system has been crucial,” Foster said. The store offers free design services and delivery to the Huntsville and Madison area. The store regularly delivers to customers as far south as Birmingham and north to Tennessee.
Growing, changing with Huntsville
T.E. Brooks and partner Ernest Collier founded Brooks & Collier Feed & Seed in 1946 in a metal building on Brown Street. In the 1960s, the feed and seed moved into a larger building on Washington Street. Collier retired; then in 1968, when T.E. died, his son, the late Billy Brooks, became the sole owner. Billy maintained the Collier name in the business as a tribute to its beloved co-founder, then transformed the business into an outdoor nursery and gardening store in the 1970s.
As Huntsville grew from a small farming community to the “Rocket City,” Brooks & Collier took off with it. “As Huntsville changes, we change,” Foster said.
In 1987, Billy’s wife, Doris, opened a second location on South Parkway, selling outdoor furniture with a mixture of indoor accessories. That is when Greg began working in the family business. “Dad laughs and says my grandparents competed with each other a little,” said Foster. “(Doris) ran the South Parkway store, while my grandfather was downtown” at the garden center.
In 1993, the second-generation owners retired and sold the South Parkway store. Since the mid-1980s, the downtown store has been at 813 Meridian St. N. in the Lincoln Mill District of Huntsville. Greg and Kim bought and expanded that location. From 2005 to 2011, they leased the building to a furniture distributor while maintaining Brooks & Collier’s wholesale business.
On a Saturday in late November 2011, Brooks & Collier’s retail space reopened. “We opened on Small Business Saturday,” the traditional beginning of the holiday shopping season, Kim said. “That was our goal.”
Brooks & Collier has an affinity for this time of year. In 2018, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle kicked off the city’s Small Business Saturday campaign in the store with the whole Brooks family present.
“Shopping small is good for the local economy,” said Foster. “You are shopping with your neighbors. We always are going to take care of the customer, no matter what.”
The fourth-generation Brooks has high hopes for his small, family business. “Whether it is opening another location or expanding our current location eventually, I look forward to the future,” he said.
Number of employees: 20
Mentors: “My parents, Greg and Kim Brooks. I believe each generation learns so much from the one ahead. I have learned from my parents what it means and takes to be a part of the Brooks & Collier family.”
Smart move: “Renovating our store in the ’90s. It was a big transition from the feed and seed garden center to our current ‘home and garden’ retail store. We didn’t have air conditioning until the early ’90s, and that is key during the summer months.”
Learning moment: “2020. I am proud of how our staff and customers have adjusted and adapted to the current workday lifestyle.”
Wisdom shared: “When it all boils down to it, you really aren’t anything without your employees and your customers. Thankful for every single one of them.”
This story originally appeared in Alabama Retailer.