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End of the road for long-time South Boston dealership

Another family business with generations of service to South Boston and Southern Virginia is shutting down, with Wyatt Chevrolet closing its doors May 1.

Owner Jackie Caldwell confirmed the closing Monday morning, citing the costs of required façade improvements he would need to make to his business as well as the struggling economy in Southern Virginia and a decline in sales of GM products.

“We will close our affiliation with GM and Chevrolet May 1,” Caldwell said Monday.

“I’ve been in this business about 40 years, and I figured it was about time to retire,” the veteran businessman added.

The Chevrolet dealership has been part of the community since 1939, when you could buy a new Chevy for $500.

That was the year when E.J. Wyatt, formerly of Danville, came to South Boston and established the dealership that operated without interruption for the past 74 years.

There are 13 employees at Wyatt Chevrolet, the majority of them long-time employees with at least 10-15 years of service, Caldwell noted.

Parts Manager Clyde Holt has been with Wyatt Chevrolet over 40 years, Dale Compton 27 years, Wayne Roller 20 years and Ray Perkins, a technician, 25 years.

Another employee, Jane Womack, has been with Wyatt for about 12 years.

“A family business is something special,” Caldwell explained.

“People work with you, not for you.  A family business can teach you how important it is to be good to your customers.”

In a world dominated by big box retailers, smaller, family-owned businesses are struggling to keep pace, Caldwell added. 

It’s a sad reality, the demise of the family-owned and family-run business across the country, he explained.

“The prices of these vehicles are getting so extreme, and all your margins have been cut to the bone,” said Caldwell.

“It’s extremely hard to make a living,” said Caldwell, who added retail in general has become a young man’s and young lady’s business.

Wyatt’s cars and trucks were first sold inside the Big Four Warehouse on Wilborn Avenue near its intersection with Main Street.

Just over a year after Wyatt took over the General Motors franchise a fire on April 1, 1941, leveled the warehouse claiming several businesses including the dealership and more than a dozen vehicles.

Wyatt leased space on lower Main Street until 1950 when he managed to purchase land on the corner of Wilborn and Leigh streets where multiple GM franchises have offered customers not just Chevys, but Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Pontiacs.

E.J. Wyatt, Bill Wyatt, Jackie Caldwell’s late father, Jack C. Caldwell and Ed Stembridge have carried the GM mantle over the years, with Jackie Caldwell returning to South Boston in 1974 to join the family business after completing Virginia Tech’s school of marketing.

Jackie Caldwell and his uncle operated the business until 1987 when Bill Wyatt retired, and he purchased the remaining stock in the dealership to become its sole owner.

“I had been here for 40 years and the dealer for 25 years, since 1987,” said Caldwell.

“The idea of retirement sounded good, so I thought I’d try it for awhile.”

For those who currently have their vehicles serviced at Wyatt Chevrolet, Caldwell suggests they take their vehicles to Moore’s Chevrolet in Clarksville. 

“They’re a smaller dealer like us, and they treat you as an individual and not a number,” he said.

One of the hardest parts of closing is saying goodbye to the employees and customers he’s worked with through the years, added Caldwell.

“I’ve enjoyed being here and working with people whom we’ve treated with the utmost respect, the same way I would want them to treat me,” he said.

“Over the years, I’ve had so many employees who have worked with me and stuck with me, and also my family, three generations of wives, daughters and sons who also have supported everyone here.”

“That’s the way we’ve always done business, and it’s a shame that type of business is going away.”

“I want to thank everyone for being so loyal and doing their business in town.”

“It’s been a privilege to work here and help my customers all these years and make so many friends,” said Compton, who came to Wyatt Chevrolet in 1986.

“You’re not just a customer, you’re a friend, and you look after your customers.

“I’ll miss that very much, and one thing I’ve always strived to do is what my father told me, always treat people like you want to be treated.”