Strolling through the streets of idyllic downtown Fairhope, it’s hard not to notice the sunny yellow exterior of M&F Casuals. Once you step through the green canopied doors, the warmth of Southern hospitality invites you to stay a while, make new friends and truly enjoy the shopping experience.
It’s been 43 years since Ann and Marc Miller opened M&F Casuals in Fairhope – one of the first retail shops in the city’s downtown. At the time, the husband and wife team owned four other M&F stores in central and south Alabama.
“The Fairhope location was just a freak accident,” Ann says with a smile. “My husband was driving to Foley and Robertsdale and could not find a hotel room to stay in. He called me, and said, ‘I’ve come through this cute little town called Fairhope, and we’ve got to open a store here.’ ”
That was 1970. Three years later, in 1973, that store became a reality joining a pharmacy, a hardware store, a department store and a jeweler as the downtown retailers. The Millers rented and later purchased an office building and renovated the front half to house the retail store and the back half became a two-bedroom apartment. Back then, Ann, Marc and their three young daughters – Leslie, Carol and Barbara – lived in Selma and would come to Fairhope on the weekends.
“It worked beautifully. We’d come down here on the weekends with the girls and walk down to the pier. We never dreamed of moving here, but of course we did, in 1990,” added Ann.
As the retail business evolved, the family gradually closed M&F’s other locations, except for the Fairhope store. Thanks to a facelift of the building in the early 1990s, the selling floor is now double its original size. Today, the store remains one of the busiest in the heart of Fairhope’s downtown, specializing in ladies apparel, accessories and shoes.
“There is a lot of talk that brick and mortar is dead, but we do not think so,” said Ann. “We think that there will always be a place for this. Women don’t shop because they need things. They shop because they need to talk to people, to see people and to connect.”
The beginnings of M&F Casuals reach back more than 90 years. The story began in 1925, when Harry Maring, who owned a dry goods store in Selma, decided to go into a retail business with one of his top salesmen, John Faulkenberry. The two used the first initials of their last names for M&F Department Stores, which they opened in 1927, carrying men’s, women’s and children’s apparel as well as home goods. Maring and his son-in-law Lester Yates expanded the business before Yates’ daughter Ann and her husband, Marc, moved back home to Selma from Atlanta and took over in 1966. When the two were planning the opening of the Fairhope store, they learned that another department store wouldn’t fit the feel of Fairhope. And so, the name M&F Casuals was chosen.
Nowadays, Ann still is actively involved in the shop, and her daughters Carol Eberlein and Barbara Levitt oversee the operations and merchandising/buying respectively.
“We are known as the store where we understand that our bodies aren’t perfect. But you can come in here and find an outfit that makes you feel confident and know that you look good,” said Barbara.
Barbara, who has worked in retail her whole career, started as an executive trainee at Bloomingdales after college, going on to work for the JCrew group and later an online business.
“When I left home,” Barbara said, “I wanted to work for a big company. But after all those years, one day I found myself thinking, I am tired of big corporations, I want to get back to family, and I have enjoyed it ever since.”
Carol jokes, “I was probably the least likely of the daughters to come into the business. But when my children were young, it was perfect timing. It’s been a rewarding opportunity for the whole family. My daughter, worked here when she was in high school, and she was able to gain so much experience. That’s what working in a family business does.”
Ann added, “You never know in life what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful journey. And to have had my daughters join me and take this to another level. So, we’re excited to see where it takes us from here.”
The team at M&F Casuals takes great pride in supporting and giving back to the community. The store regularly sponsors fundraising projects benefiting the arts, the schools and the business community.
Carol said, “That’s what’s special about small stores, we are able to help the causes that are important to our customers. We have always been told that small organizations have a hard time getting assistance from big stores. But with local stores like us, because we are so small, the owners are right here on the spot. We can make quick decisions and immediately get involved.”
“It is wonderful that we can offer enough to keep the community vibrant and keep the customers shopping in town,” added Carol.
Barbara, who serves as an executive board member for the Downtown Fairhope Business Association (DFBA), said, “It’s our city. We are never going to sit here and hope people come here to shop. We see it as our mission to do our part to bring people into our downtown.”
Marc was one of the founders of DFBA, which has grown to more than 100 business members. In addition to organizing community events, the association goes as far as to put together the city’s official visitor’s guide, so tourists get the most out of their stay in town.
“It’s about the people – it’s all about people,” said Ann. “As I look back over the years, I hope people know that we appreciate the growth of downtown Fairhope. We like to think we are a part of it and hope it continues.”
Number of Employees: 12
Mentor: Marc Miller – husband, father,
shrewd businessman and visionary
Smart Move: Expanding and updating our Fairhope location in 1990s
Learning Moment: Ever-changing technology has enhanced our knowledge and our capabilities to better serve our customers, both locally and afar.
Wisdom Shared: Never stay stagnant or complacent! Embrace change since change is the only constant in business!
M&F Casuals at 380 Fairhope Avenue is open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Visit online at mfcasuals.com.
Story by Melissa Johnson Warnke
Photos by Brandon Robbins