Bill Hopkins recently sat along the edge of an open cooler surrounded by colorful fruits and vegetables inside B J Produce in Pell City.
“I’m calling it quits,” said the 85-year-old businessman, who opened B J Produce more than 30 years ago, Sept. 11, 1988. “We’re closing shop by the end of the month.”
B J Produce, the bright yellow and green building, has been a fixture on U.S. 231, just north of the 19th Street intersection. The initials B J stand for Bill and Jewells, Hopkins’ late wife.
The store is generally filled with all types of produce, such as oranges, apples, grapes, cucumbers, potatoes, cantaloupes, pears, lettuce, onions and much more.
“I need to be retired,” said Hopkins, who grew up in Fultondale, a city just north of Birmingham.
Hopkins was exposed to the produce business at an early age. He was 12 when he went to work for his brother-in-law at the Birmingham Farmer’s Market.
“That was my first experience with produce,” he said.
Hopkins also worked for A&P Tea Company (the old A&P store), and then a trucking equipment company before heading to Texas after being laid off in 1953. He landed a job with Phillips 66 Petroleum in Odessa, Texas. Thirty-five years later he retired from the company as a senior supervisor for Transportation in West Texas.
“My wife wanted to come home,” he said. “What mamma wants, mamma gets.”
So the couple returned to Alabama, near the Birmingham area.
“She had a sister in Birmingham who was in the produce business,” Hopkins said. “They told us about how much money was in the produce business.”
Hopkins laughs about that now.
“They lied to me,” he said. “It’s been a pretty deep hole.”
The couple moved to Mays Bend, opening their produce store in Pell City. Hopkins had a sister who lived in Talladega at the time. She has since died.
Through the years, he said, B J Produce has had some devoted customers. Much of the produce he sold was grown locally.
“I buy as much local stuff as I possibly can during the growing season,” he said. He would also buy his produce from a local Birmingham distributor.
Hopkins said he is uncertain what he’ll do when he retires.
“I haven’t decided,” he said. “I have a daughter in Dallas who wants me to come spend time with her. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.”
But his attachment to B J Produce is strong, a place where he worked for so many years, where he made many friendships through customers who shopped there.
He said it is emotional to close a business that he has run and operated for more than 30 years.
“That’s only natural.”