By Ansley Walker
Anne Shepherd, owner of Chick Music, shares her story of family, a love for historic downtown and how despite big changes to Athens retail, she kept a piano store alive for over 50 years.
A reporter walks into Chick Music on Clayton Street and asks to speak to the owner. A salesman points to the back where a matronly woman with brown hair types at a desk. The reporter approaches and asks if she can speak with Anne. To her surprise, the woman looks to her right and says, “Someone’s here to see you.” A pair of bright eyes rimmed by large, circular glasses peek out from the corner desk, and down the stairs descends an assumed grandmother.
“Excuse me ma’am, are you Anne Shepherd?” the reporter asks.
“I call myself the ‘oldest thing in downtown Athens,’ but I’m also known by that name,” she replies.
For 51 years, Anne Shepherd watched through the windows of her company, Chick Music, as downtown Athens transformed. She recalls the period when “everything” was downtown. Car dealerships, grocery stores and funeral homes all congregated in downtown Athens and coexisted with the family retail shops. As a small business owner, Shepherd experienced firsthand the transfer of retail power from the local owners to the large chain businesses that occupy downtown today. She once served as a block captain for what used to be a family of small retailers, but today can name the store owners she knows on one hand.
Lewis Chick opened Chick Piano in 1942. As a lover of music, Shepherd’s late husband, Billy, started work at the company straight out of high school in 1947, says Shepherd, so buying the business in 1965 felt natural.
In a place where retail shops come and go, Chick Music defied the odds and the store became an iconic Athens landmark. Shepherd has committed more than half her life to the business and attributes the company’s success to a strong work ethic. At 86-years-old, she never misses a day of work.
“The good Lord said to work six days and rest on the seventh,” Shepherd says when asked why she hasn’t retired. “I do that.”
Despite the company’s overall success story, Shepherd and her business have experienced their share of obstacles. Some years ago, the city pursued streetscape construction and started with Clayton Street. The predicted time to finish the project was about three months, which stretched to almost two years, says Shepherd.
With their front door blocked and the street without parking, Shepherd feared her business would fall under. On the contrary, business surged as people would park on Washington Street and walk down to the backdoor.
“We’ve had a lot of good faithful customers that carried us through,” Shepherd said. “They want us to succeed.”
The relationship between Chick Music and its customers goes past the standard of good customer service. The family run business notoriously treats their patrons as such; family. Three generations of Shepherds operate the store as it is today. Shepherd’s four children grew up in the shop and stayed in Athens to work at the family business.
When asked about the single greatest hardship as owner of Chick Music, Shepherd ran her fingers down the pearls hanging from her neck and sighed. Husband, father and co-owner, Billy, died in 1988, and Shepherd wasn’t sure how to move forward. She had promised her husband that she wouldn’t sell the company, but many times felt the stress of making that promise. Shepherd credits her ability to overcome this time with the help of her customers, and more so, her family.
After the loss of their father, the Shepherd children took on more responsibility to help their mother run the business. While she manages to delegate the workload, they all know she’s still in charge.
“There’s not much difference between her at home than in the store,” says son and store manager Van Shepherd. “She’s got a mother complex over the whole business.”
From across the store his mother chimes in, “Don’t say I’m a control freak.” Van and the other workers laugh.
“She’s got them teacher ears,” piano department manager Ben Robinson said. “She can hear you from a mile away.”
“It’s like cheers without the alcohol,” said guitar instructor Kevin Flemming about the store dynamic.
Looking ahead, the former president of the Athens Downtown Council says she’d like to see a rebirth of the historic classic city. She recounts walking down Clayton Street; flanked on either side by an abundance of local retailers.
“It’s disheartening to see so many restaurants and so little retail when you know what it used to look like,” Shepherd said.
No matter the future appearance of downtown, Anne Shepherd will always be an irrevocable piece of Athens’ character.