By Angye Morrison, Statesboro Herald
Lottie Gaines says she told the Lord that if he would just give her a job, she’d never leave it until he saw fit to take it away.
The Lord kept his word, and when the doors finally close at JCPenney in Statesboro, Gaines will keep her end of the bargain and officially retire – she has worked at the store since it opened in 1980. After filing bankruptcy in May, the retailer is closing more than 150 of its stores, including the Statesboro location.
Gaines says that even though customers in recent months asked about the store closing, she didn’t know for sure until she was officially told recently in the manager’s office. The store had closed briefly during the early days of COVID-19, and when it reopened in April, she said she began to think that “it was high-time” she retired.
Gaines had planned to retire, but after hearing the store would close for good, she determined that she would be there for that last day – Oct. 18. Working at Penney’s for the last 40 years, Gaines said her two youngest sons always said, “You’re probably gonna to be there until the store closes.”
She laughs when she says that she called to tell them the store is closing, and says, “They said we told you so.”
Despite the difficult times, Gaines said it was a shock to hear the store would close.
“I thought we were doing good, as far as sales. We didn’t know anything,” she said.
She’s the only employee left from the original opening. Gaines started at JCP in April 1980, and it was the first job she’d ever had, other than working in the cotton field. She’d always been a housewife, and had concentrated on raising her seven children.
She soon found herself talking to the manager at JCP, who spent more time talking to her son, who was along for the interview. She credits her son for helping her get the job.
“The manager said, ‘Let me talk to your baby, he has a lot to tell.’ (My son) talked more to (the manager) than I did. He told him that I didn’t need to work, that I needed to stay home and look after him,” she said, smiling.
She was hired. And since that first day behind a counter, Gaines said she’s been dedicated to her job.
“I didn’t miss any work unless I had to. I’m always on time, never late. I go to the job and sit in the parking lot until time for me to go to work. I didn’t believe in being late,” she said.
Starting at JCPenney
But when her youngest child started school, she realized that it was time for her to get out of the house. She made up her mind to do just that, and the very next Monday, she went in to the Georgia Department of Labor office, and they surprised her by telling her they had a job for her.
Gaines has worked for seven different managers. “And I’m still standing,” she said.
Gaines started out working in the women’s department, then moved to men’s, then home furnishings.
She was then made an associate in the jewelry department, the same department she works in today. She said that home furnishings was her favorite, until she came to jewelry.
“When I came to jewelry, and all that glamor and stuff, I like that,” she said, laughing.
Gaines said that over the years, she is proud of work, particularly in jewelry. She won an iPad for getting the most credit card applications a few years ago, and has become known as the “queen” of credit card apps.
“I was good at what I did,” she said, smiling. She says she almost always makes the sale when people come to look at jewelry.
But what Gaines has enjoyed the most about her job is the customers. Getting them to smile was important to her, and something that she worked at each day.
“A smile is worth everything to me,” she said, adding that she learned over the years that some customers may come in with a bad attitude – but she could change all that.
“You have to learn how to relate to them,” she said.
Gaines says that things are much different now than when she started. Back then, employees dressed up to come to work, in what she calls “church clothes.”
“Now it’s casual wear. Back then, we couldn’t wear pants, and we wore heels. Now it’s casual. But I still dress up for the department I work in,” she said.
Gaines also said that back in her early days at the store, the employees were mostly more mature people. Now, there are a lot of college students.
“They’re still good workers. The mature people seem to be more dedicated than the younger generation. But then the younger generation has their own way of doing things. It’s not my way, or your way, it’s their way,” she said.
During her tenure, Gaines said she has learned a lot, and she’s grown a lot. Forty years is a long time to work anywhere, but she said she never considered going anywhere else.
“I didn’t go to college, but yet and still, God has advanced me. I didn’t have any knowledge about computers or stuff like that, but by prayer, God changes things. I have advanced a lot. I’m proud that they gave me that chance. I have learned so much since I have been there, things I can’t forget. And I won’t forget,” she said. “It just became my home. I never thought about going any place else because I was treated so good.”
Gaines says in her 40 years at the store, she has seen many people come and go. But she was never tempted to leave because she had made a deal.
“I always said to myself, God if you give me a job, I’ll never leave it. God gave me that job, and I said I’ll never leave it unless you take it away. And that’s what’s happened. I never left. I stayed until the end.”
Gaines has been a surrogate mom and grandmother to many employees as well, and they can’t say enough positive things about her.
Ashlee Corbin, who started working at JCP as a high school junior, said she was the youngest employee for a long time. She was just 17 at the time. Corbin is now employed at the Statesboro Herald.
“Mrs. Lottie treated us all like children or grandchildren,” she said. “She was always so sweet and caring and never seemed to meet a stranger. Her customer service skills were definitely an example for new employees to emulate.”
Teresa Brewton, who has been with Penney’s on and off since 2005, works with Gaines in the jewelry department currently, and calls her an “inspiration.”
“She knows her job well. She’s friendly, driven and dependable. She is such a pleasure to work with,” she said.
Don’t expect Gaines to be sad on her last day on the job, although she expects she will be tearful.
“When you’ve been in a place for so long and you look around and it’s like it’s crumbling down around you, you’re gonna miss it,” she said.
When the doors finally close on Oct. 18 at the Statesboro location, Gaines said she has some plans that involve a rocking chair on her back porch. She lives out in the country, and she plans to just sit in that chair and watch the animals.
“I’m just going to enjoy the rest of my life,” she said, adding that her children are excited that she’ll have more time to visit with them, and with her 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She lives with her oldest son and his son, and her children are scattered as far away as California.
But she said those are their plans, not hers. For now, she wants to just be at home.
“It will be an adjustment, but there’s always something to do around the house. I do believe when I retire, that I’m gonna be satisfied,” she said. “I am 75 years old. I’m not going anywhere else but home.”