Stairway to Opportunity
Couple reflects on the purchase of Newnan business
by Clay Neely
When James and Christy Johnson purchased downtown Newnan business Stairway to Heaven in September, they knew they had something.
However, what they didn’t know was the hidden potential lying underneath the numerous stacks, piles and inventory — all of which remained behind when they bought the store lock, stock and barrell from Randall and Bonnie Streetman.
“When we bought the business, we inherited everything in this building,” said James. “I think they only took the clothes on their back when they gave us the keys. Everything else remained behind.”
Johnson had been a vendor at Stairway to Heaven prior to his opportunity to purchase the business. After a long discussion with his wife, Christy, they decided the timing was perfect and made the move.
“I was driving a semi-truck, watching my hours get cut and my health was taking a hit. I hadn’t had a raise in over two years and spent my days driving a dedicated route to Tennessee and back. Christy was up for retirement from Publix and she was tired of seeing me destroy myself with the truck driving. We figured this was our chance to make a change,” said Johnson.
“The truck driving was wreaking havoc on his back and the entire trucking lifestyle doesn’t exactly lend itself to healthy choices,” said Christy. “But he’s always loved antiques, so it was a perfect fit.”
The location was ideal. Downtown Newnan had always been appealing to the Johnsons. James continues to work with the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society, recently participating in their “Victory At All Costs” event, where his extensive collection of World War II memorabilia was on display.
“We decided this was such a unique opportunity to take advantage of. Coweta is a place we’re proud to call home and it’s in the midst of a vital period of growth. The growth in education, the new businesses, the film industry and the medical facilities — it truly has it all and we’re very fortunate to be a part of it,” said James.
James believes that part of the responsibility of being a local business owner is keeping history alive for the residents of Newnan and Coweta County.
“We were very sad to see Scott’s [Bookstore] go, so we do our best to insure that local authors have a place with us. We support our local authors like Jeff Bishop, Christina Barber and always make sure we have a copy of ‘Murder in Coweta County’ that’s available for sale,” said James.
As new owners, the Johnsons had their work cut out for them and James believes it will be a continuing process for the foreseeable future.
“We certainly have something going on every day here,” said James. “Obviously, one of our main goals is letting the public know that the store is under new ownership, so we spend as much time as possible trying to promote that aspect.”
“Oh, we’re constantly cleaning and reorganizing,” said Christy. “Advertising sure has helped a lot. The previous owners never advertised and as a result, they almost let the whole place die. We have so many people that come up to visit us now and say things like ‘Wow, I never knew you were here,’ which is kind of puzzling since the store has been open since 2009.”
“I’d say taking the time to talk to every customer and show them our gratitude is a very important aspect of our new ownership model,” said James. “We’re trying to regain the foot traffic that might have been lost and we’ve updated our signage to indicate the new shift the store has taken. We wanted to give everything a fresh look.”
Part of the shift in the store’s new direction has been Johnson’s creation of Newnan Tactical & Surplus, a store-within-a-store concept which focuses on the sales of new and used tactical and military surplus items.
“It’s a very unique idea,” said James. “We want to cater from the vintage collectors of military surplus to the active members of public safety. It’s a little bit of old and a little bit of new and ties in with my love of military memorabilia.”
The surplus area initially started in a small vendor area which had recently been cleared out.
“I saw the potential a year ago for this when I was still just a vendor here,” said James. “We opened the area in October and it has already surpassed the annual goals I had set for it. It’s quickly becoming a very important part of the store and we’re already expanding it.”
James recalls the moment which validated his idea for the shop.
“Well, I carry a variety of veterans hats. One day, a young man walked into the surplus area and he spotted the Afghanistan veteran hat. He picked it up, adjusted it and put it on his head. As he was paying for the cap, he told me, ‘This is the first one of these I’ve ever seen. Thank you.’ ”
“That felt really good,” said James.
While running a business is a first for both James and Christy, the rewards far outweigh the risk in their eyes.
“I’m here six days a week, eight hours a day — sometimes a little later depending on how business is,” said Christy. “I love it though. We’ve found so many interesting things in this place since we took over. You just uncover all these little gems as you sort through the store.”
One recent item was a letter from World War I, informing the recipient that their loved one had been released from a P.O.W. camp. James has subsequently turned the letter over to the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society.
“It’s one of the many perks of the job, uncovering treasures like that. As a military buff, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said James.
The Stairway to Heaven building has also hosted a variety of tenants over the years — some a little more spectral than others.
“Back in October, we hosted our own ghost tour of Newnan and we sold out of tickets. The paranormal researchers found a lot activity in the back corner,” said Christy.
“I personally haven’t witnessed anything with my own eyes but I’ve heard some doors open and the sound of footsteps while working in here alone,” said Christy.
Once, while James was with a customer, he heard a loud boom in the store’s back room. He ran into the back and, upon his arrival, found a wooden purse sitting on the floor by the door. The purse had originally sat atop a glass shelf on the other side of the room.
“You hear things all the time in here,” said Christy.
Undeterred by the shop’s ethereal trappings, James and Christy remain “all in” as new business owners and believe that owning a business as a husband and wife has only strengthened their marriage.
“We love being business owners,” said James. “It’s such a unique opportunity to work together in such a great community like downtown Newnan. I could never imagine having to work for someone else again. Don’t get me wrong, this is certainly hard work but it’s nice not having to answer to anyone.”
Christy looked down at the floor and smiled.
“Well… almost no one,” chuckled James.