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Store founder built institution in Forest Park

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

When shopping for home goods and appliances often required one to travel into the City of Atlanta, Smith Ace Hardware, originally Smith Hardware & Supply Co., gave the people of Forest Park a central place to stop and shop for all their household needs.

Billy T. Smith, the last surviving founder of the Forest Park institution, passed away on Tuesday, Aug. 25, following a battle with prostate cancer. He was 81.

Billy Smith's son, Michael Smith, who spent 40 years working for the hardware store franchise, said his father's store served as an oasis for Forest Park when "there really wasn't much around."

"Small-town businesses were all you had south of Atlanta or really around Atlanta," the younger Smith said. "We were one of the only major mercantile operations in the area. It serviced the city and the community with a wide range of products. We were one of the only General Electrical dealers south of Atlanta in the 1950s. It was the golden age of appliances when nobody had one. We were there to service their needs."

According to friends and family members, Smith Hardware & Supply Co., which was founded in 1947, supplied the Southern Crescent community with wood, building supplies and gardening tools, as well as washing machines, televisions, range ovens and electric blenders.

The store moved twice on Forest Park's Main Street before settling at its final location at 858 Main Street, where the Forest Park Army-Navy Store now stands.

In 1966, Smith Hardware became Smith Ace Hardware. Michael Smith opened a second Smith Ace Hardware, in Riverdale, in 1985 and operated it for 20 years. In 2006, the Forest Park store closed.

Jim Wood, who went to Jones Memorial United Methodist Church with Billy Smith, said the store in Forest Park was a place where many area residents spent their weekends. He said Billy Smith, who ran the shop along with his brothers, J.W. and Mike Smith, treated everyone with genuine kindness.

"You had not spent your weekend if you hadn't gone by Smith Hardware to pick up some item for a home project," Wood said. "They usually had every item of hardware and building material that a homeowner might need. The atmosphere was very friendly and the people you met were your friends and neighbors. He was friendly and polite. It wasn't just 'because I'm running this store.' It was genuine friendliness."

Cheryl Lee, Billy Smith's daughter, worked part time in her father's store throughout high school. Lee, a retired pharmacist, said her father knew the store inside and out.

"He was always brilliant with numbers," she said. "The hardware store had thousands of six-digit SKU numbers. He knew many of them by heart and it blew people away. Inventory control before the computer was done in his head. He could remember how many he had of this and that."

To Billy Smith, according to family members, family was paramount. His father passed away when he was 15. Upon graduating from Forest Park High School, he turned down a full scholarship to the Georgia Institute of Technology to take care of his mother. After being drafted to serve in the Korean War and serving in Ethiopia as a part of the Army Signal Corps, he came back to Forest Park to operate the store with his two brothers, who are now deceased.

In addition to family, God was central to his life. According Lee, his shop was always closed on Sundays. Billy Smith was an involved member of Jones Memorial United Methodist Church and played a key role overseeing the church's move from Forest Parkway in Forest Park to a new sanctuary on Phillips Drive in Morrow.

According to Agnes Martin, who in April retired as the church's secretary after 40 years, Billy Smith was not only vital to the growth of the church, but to the growth of the city itself.

"Billy served on just about every ministry that was created over there," Martin said. "He was a part of the committee that drew up the plans for the new church. We moved there in 1980. He sold us everything we had to buy over there at a discounted price. He was generous to a fault.

"The Smiths were like the Kennedys of Forest Park," Martin added. "They were that important to the city. They were intensively vital to the growth of Forest Park."