An Avondale original marks 66 yearsJonathan Belcher, left, and Mark Belcher, right, run Ray's Indian Originals in Avondale. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
This story has been updated.
The Belcher family says it has been in business in Avondale Estates for 66 years and is the oldest in town, something city leaders won’t acknowledge.
Today the family business exists as Ray’s Indian Originals, an offshoot of what started as Ray Belcher’s radio and television business. It sells American Indian artifacts, purchased from reservations throughout the country. Inside the store, customers hear peaceful flute music playing over the speakers.
Two of Belcher’s sons, Mark and Jonathan, run the business. Mark has a blond, bowl haircut and a quiet way about him. Jonathan has long hair, favors wraparound sunglasses and is a more of a firecracker.
They’re two halves of who they say their father was: a generous man who wasn’t afraid to stand up for himself.
The Ray’s name is a blue collar relic, a reminder that Avondale Estates wasn’t always so gentrified. The Belcher sons have asked the city to recognize the family’s 66 years in business with a proclamation, a ceremonial gesture bestowed by city officials. The city has refused on the basis that the family can’t prove its business is the oldest in Avondale, Jonathan said.
City officials did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Jonathan said being on the outs with city leadership isn’t unusual for his family.
“My dad had always said Avondale was a little bit like a Peyton Place,” Jonathan said. “You were either on the right side of the hedges or the wrong side of the hedges. He never owned a house here in Avondale. We just always had a business.”
According to an account Ray Belcher, who was half Cherokee, penned before his death in 2005, he opened Ray’s Radio and Record Shop on Old Stone Mountain Road, now called North Clarendon Avenue, in 1948.
“My total operation consisted of 300 phonograph records from a defunct jukebox business, two pieces of test equipment, a 1941 Studebaker Chevy Coupe and me, a World War II veteran, unable to qualify for a public job,” Belcher wrote.
The company grew to three locations and four spin off businesses, but today it’s just the shop on North Avondale Road, run by two of his sons. In the 1960’s, their father erected the infamous Ray’s pole sign on North Avondale Road. The city now owns the property and has recently demolished that sign. Jonathan said his dad spent about $10,000 on that sign and went round and round with the city over it after the city was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
“Avondale got on the National Historical Society, daddy called it the, ‘Hysterical Society,’ and they came back and said, ‘Look you’ve got to tear down that sign it doesn’t meet the ordinances. It’s got to be old English because Avondale is now an old English town,'” Jonathan recalled.
Ray Belcher wasn’t having any of it. He hired an attorney and eventually the sign was deemed to be “grandfathered” in under the city code.
Their mother, Peggy, who is Scotch Irish, started the American Indian apparel business. Jonathan said his dad became involved in the Wounded Knee Incident in South Dakota in 1973, a protest staged by the Lakota tribe.
“He sent tractor trailer loads of food and clothing to the reservation, to the people,” Jonathan said. “They acknowledged him by adopting him into the tribe. The Lakota tribe gave him the name ‘Swift arrow.'”
Their mother took to wearing the American Indian artifacts and got the idea to open a store after numerous people asked her where she got them. The business started in the back of the TV store.
“In 1973 my dad said, ironically, ‘We can’t be having Indian stuff in here. It confuses people,'” Jonathan said. ” … So in 1973 to 1980 she had her place in North DeKalb Mall, Ray’s Indian Originals. In 1980 they got tired of paying the rent. The mall had gone downhill.”
The family cleaned out some storage rooms and moved the business back into the TV shop. When a developer came to the family in 2006 to buy the old property, the family took the money and moved down the street.
The official anniversary is in October.
“What we’re probably going to do is an open house, some drinks and eats,” Jonathan said.
Jonathan would like to have an official proclamation in hand, too, recognizing his family’s place in Avondale. His mother is ill and it would mean a lot to her, he said.
State Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, got wind of the Belcher’s request to the city and spoke to Mayor Ed Rieker on their behalf. Rieker told her there was “some confusion” about whose business was the oldest, Drenner said.
Drenner offered to have her office draft a proclamation noting that the family started doing business in Avondale in 1948.
“I don’t think it’s going to say anything about who’s got the oldest business in Avondale,” Drenner said. “It seems so simple and so silly to kind of argue about something like that. … It’s just small. It seemed like a no-brainer kind of thing.”