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Her business went down in a blaze but its legacy will remain

CUMMING, Ga. (AP) – From the very beginning of her career as a local hairdresser and entrepreneur, Barbara Thompson was ahead of her time.

In the 1970s and ‘80s when it wasn’t all too common for women to open and run their own businesses, Thompson took dreams of opening a beauty shop in downtown Cumming and followed them with confidence and optimism, no matter the roadblocks laid before her, according to friends and family.

For decades, Thompson owned the Forsyth County beauty salon, The Barbara Shoppe, and The Little Village, a small four-unit shopping center that stood on Dahlonega Highway until the business was destroyed by fire in the early morning hours of Jan. 3.

But Thompson’s legacy in the local community won’t be so easily destroyed, according to those who know her best.

“She started that shop in the ‘70s and she was truly an entrepreneur when women didn’t do things like that,” said Thompson’s niece, Jill Tate, who worked at The Barbara Shoppe as a girl and eventually took over after Thompson’s retirement.

“I started when I was 15, my mom worked there for 30 years. There’s a big history with that shop,” Tate added.

According to Thompson, all that history started in the 1960s while she worked as a secretary at the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory in Dawson County.

“I had a dream. I was working at the Georgia Nuclear Flight Laboratory in Dawsonville as a secretary and I always wanted to be a hairdresser,” Thompson said. “I wanted to go to beauty school so bad, so I found a school in Gainesville and it took me two years going to school at night, two nights a week.”

And for nearly 10 years after leaving beauty school, Thompson did the hair of friends, neighbors and a growing list of clients from her home off Mary Alice Park Road in Forsyth County.

Thompson, who retired in 2009 after three knee replacements brought on from 40 years of standing and cutting hair, still remembers how her customers would walk to her house, which wasn’t paved, from the main road to get their hair done on days when the weather and roads were bad.

“I was really the only beauty shop for a while,” she said. “And I had to work, ice or snow.”

In the 1970s, Thompson began thinking about establishing a real storefront beauty shop in the county. Eventually, she formed a plan to build the shop on a piece of property in downtown Cumming where her husband’s family had once had a home, and with a little convincing, her husband agreed to the plan.

“He said, ‘Oh Barbara, we can’t do that,’ and I said, ‘Yes, we can. We can,’” Thompson said. “So I talked him into it.”

With the help of a local builder that Thompson was friends with, plans were drawn up for the building and after securing a loan from the Forsyth County Bank, the shop was built on Dahlonega Highway in Cumming.

Very quickly the plan became a success, Thompson said. Friends and acquaintances signed on to lease units in The Little Village and the new businessowner hired on three women she knew from her home salon to work at the new location.

One of those women, Allison Cumbo, remembers those times fondly, explaining that Thompson made life at the shop fun and inspired the three of them to strive towards expanding their horizons.

“I started working for her in her home beauty shop when I was 15,” Cumbo said. “We all got our start there.”

After working at The Barbara Shoppe for several years, Cumbo and several other women went on to open their own shop, Scissor Happy, which formerly stood on Canton Highway in Cumming.

According to Cumbo and Tate, over the decades there were dozens of women that got their start at The Barbara Shoppe who went on to open their own businesses in Forsyth County and beyond.

Much of that success can be traced to the influence of Thompson’s mentorship, Cumbo said.

“She helped us when we all got married, she helped us with all of our weddings, and she really set us on our career paths,” she said. “And it was fun; she made everything fun.”

After she built her shop, the entrepreneur bug bit her hard, Thompson said.

In 1985, she began building a series of homes on Mary Alice Park Road, using about four acres of property that she had purchased from back when she and her husband built their first home.

“Nobody else could believe that I would go and borrow money. All the ladies in the beauty shop would say, ‘Barbara, what are you doing?’” she said with a laugh. “And again, my husband thought I had lost my mind.”

Even though the family recently sold the last of the four houses that Thompson built, the homes still stand on Mary Alice Park Road today.

And as difficult as it was to see her homes and business go, Thompson says she wouldn’t trade all those years for anything.

“I loved it. I loved it,” Thompson said. “I took that money, and I helped my family and the people I loved.”

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