Downtown merchant carves a niche in Washington history

Published 10:14 am Monday, June 15, 2020

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It seems every small town has one: a legendary figure, that person who welcomes everyone, makes friends of perfect strangers, makes friends into family and is always willing to lend a helping hand.

For downtown Washington, that person is Billy Jefferson.

“He’s been a staple of downtown for as long as I can remember, even when I was growing up, with my parents’ store down there. I don’t remember a time when he hasn’t been there,” said Catherine Glover, executive director of the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce. “To see him sitting in that rocking chair and talking to everyone passing on the street. He’s always positive, sweet and kind, and he could sell anything.”

Recently diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, the almost 87-year-old — his birthday is Tuesday — still comes to work at Big Bargain Furniture for a little while every day to touch base with customers, employees and the business he built from the ground up, and has continued to grow through the years, through good economic times and bad.

Billy Jefferson’s history with downtown Washington started many years ago, according to his son, Bill Jefferson. As a boy, the Chocowinity native first delivered papers for the Washington Daily News, but gave that up for a very specific reason: girls.

“My dad could shake a leg back in the day — he was a good dancer — and he was embarrassed to ride that bike and have the girls see him,” Bill Jefferson laughed. “So he told his mother he wanted to come work on Main Street because he was tired of riding a bike and throwing newspapers because it embarrassed him in front of the girls.”

At 12 years old, Billy Jefferson was bagging groceries and selling produce on Main Street. At 25 years old, he opened Big Bargain Supply furniture store on East Main. At 45, he moved the entire operation to the Keech building on Market Street. Supply was dropped from the name and Big Bargain Furniture moved to a much larger space on West Main Street in the early 1990s.

“We moved into this building and expanded quite a bit in 1991 or 1992,” Bill Jefferson said. “I remember him saying, ‘I don’t know how we’ll ever fill this up’ and a decade later, we were expanding to two satellite sites across the street.”

The secret to his success over the past six decades is really no secret, according to friend and neighboring merchant Russell Smith, owner of Russell’s Men’s Shop.

“He’s a real people person. That’s why he’s still downtown. For Billy, it’s not about money; it’s about the relationships he’s built over the years,” Smith said. “He’s well-respected and well-loved by a lot of people.”

Smith said Billy Jefferson has served as a mentor to him, and readily shared his business acumen based not on figures, but wisdom and common sense. He applied the same wisdom and common sense to his nearly 30 years of serving on Beaufort County Schools’ Board of Education.

“I’ve seen him reach people because he was so fair,” Bill Jefferson said. “And he would listen; he would listen to people. Even people who had different opinions from him, he would listen and try to find a compromise.”

According to Bill Jefferson, that fairness built community and trust. In an era when other business owners refused to extend credit to the black community, Billy Jefferson, in turn, refused to follow their lead, instead offering credit to those with none.

“He’s always felt a special connection to people who helped him, and he never forgot them. He’s always been proud of that fact: of helping people of meager means, to give them a leg up and help them out,” Bill Jefferson said. “He came from meager means, and it was the Phillips family in Pinetops that offered him terms if he wanted to carry their mattresses and sofas. That was the first vendor that offered him terms, and it allowed him to get started.”

From its start to current day, Billy Jefferson and Big Bargain Furniture represent the best of small towns and small businesses, according to Glover.

“Family owned businesses are amazing, and (Big Bargain is) the definition of a small business that has thrived even in economic downtowns, because he evolved his business to give people what they wanted,” Glover said. “That’s the kind of businesses we want to recruit for downtown Washington.”

For his father’s 87th birthday, Bill Jefferson is enlisting friends and customers, old and new, to help wish Billy Jefferson a happy birthday with a card or a note, which he plans to box up and present to his father on Sunday.

“If people have a fond memory or a picture or something that they want to share,” Bill Jefferson said. “Just having that personal contact … it would mean so much to him.”