There’s been an air of melancholy every time I walk down Second Avenue this week, every time I pass that “closing sale” sign at Country Cousins.
Most who grew up in Alpena know that iconic bright pink storefront– and remember its owner, Betty Douville Johnston, sitting in her chair, even a few months before she passed away April this year. Some may even remember the Douville Bakery that was here before the women’s clothing store opened.
The story begins in 1885 when Jeremiah Douville, who originally came to Alpena at age 15 to work as a lumber camp cook, and his wife Odile opened a bakery at 612 N. Second Avenue in Alpena. Over the years, the bakery was passed on to their son, Louis, and then in 1946, to his son-in-law Frederick Johnston, Betty’s husband.
Over nearly 100 years, the bakery went from producing a few loaves each day (and delivering them by horse & buggy or horse & sleigh) to over 2,000 loaves a day, plus 2,000 dozen buns and sweet rolls and 100 decorated cakes. Douville Bakery Company would be only one of the companies under the Douville-Johnston Corporation.
In 1967, the bakery company was sold to a Grand Rapids company– and in 1970, it would close its northside plant due to cost of upgrades.
With the 1967 sale, the downtown retail branch, which sold coffee, baked goods, candy, and lunch, was promised to “continue in operation without change” in the hands of the family.
However, in November of 1968, on the first day of deer season that year, Betty Douville Johnston, granddaughter of the bakery’s original founders, would open the women’s “ready to wear” clothing store in the building. Originally, the store was a Villager Store until the franchise went under. It then became Country Cousins– and Betty hand-chose the items to carry in the store from then on.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve stopped in Country Cousins a few times. Why the name Country Cousins? I asked Julie McCoy, Betty’s daughter who has been a manager for the store for many, many years. Growing up, she explained, her mother had no siblings, so everyone became “family” to her, often calling them cousins, aunts, uncles.
Since the store has announced its closing, Julie told me lots of customers have come in to say goodbye to the staff and to the store, many from Alpena and many not from the area, as far as Ohio. Almost all share some story about the store, about Betty, about the family.
Each time I was in the store, Julie and the staff would ask me about my new position, about my family, my boyfriend, my new house, commenting that they loved my shoes, that I would look darling in this sweater, or that scarf. (I bought the sweater, and of course, the next time I was in, she remembered).
When I was reading through articles about the Johnston family, I came across the following quote: “Betty’s time is well occupied at the Country Cousins ladies’ apparel store where she enjoys serving her many customers. Her zest for life and love of people sometimes interferes, however, with closing a sale, as she oft’ times gets carried away in conversation with a friend. But her store is popular and business is good.”
While I never had the pleasure of meeting Betty, I can say for certain that that zest for life and love of people was still alive and well in the store.
When asked if there was anything else she wanted to add to the article, Julie wished to thank their customers over the years, telling them they have appreciated their business. And after a few quiet moments, she added “it’s been fun.”
That zest will certainly not be forgotten.
Anne Gentry wrote this article. A special thank you to the staff at Country Cousins for providing much information & many stories and to the Special Collections staff at the Alpena Public Library for helping with research.