B.J. Cooper is retiring. The personable leader at the U.S. Cellular store in Fountain City says June 2 will be his last day.
“We’ll ask all of your friends to come and buy something to say good-bye,” we joked.
“Would you, really???” he beamed.
And I had a vision of B.J. on his last day, leaving the Fountain City store with co-workers in tears while he’s turning up the music volume with one hand and helping a senior citizen learn to text with the other.
Oak Ridge High School, Carson-Newman University, a job at the mall. And then he landed at U.S. Cellular just as the system was coming online. “I told them I had never used a cell phone or a computer,” he said. “And they hired me anyway.
“I think it was because being young and new, they could train me their way,” he said, deftly turning a disadvantage into a major plus.
U.S. Cellular introduced wireless phones in Knoxville, as I recall. The bulky dudes were made by Motorola and must have weighed 10 pounds with a heavy battery and antenna plus a cord to connect to your car’s cigarette lighter – all in a black bag. There were rumors that holding one too close to the ear could cause brain damage. Oh, yeah. And the towers weren’t built yet, but they were getting right on that. And we won’t even mention the price.
Cooper started 26 years ago at a retail store in Halls’ Black Oak Plaza. He credits Mary Lou Horner and Bill Enix as folks who helped him get started. Not happy to sit and hope that customers would come in, Cooper started networking through the area business & professional associations. Soon he needed more space and, in 2006, the store was opened at the new strip center on Broadway that is anchored by Panera Bread.
When it was time to expand again, B.J. convinced the VP of operations to lease the adjoining space. “And we started tearing down that wall.”
He says it’s time to retire. “I’m 63 and my dad died at age 66. I want to travel some, maybe go to Italy.”
But he says the staff and even the customers at the Fountain City store “are like my family.” He will be around.
So, which is U.S. Cellular’s main retail store?
Sevierville is the region’s biggest, but in Knoxville, it’s between Fountain City and Kingston Pike, he said. “We are the main store and I’m the only person still here after 26 years. … I just don’t like change.”
And with that, we snapped a photo and I left. B.J. said U.S. Cellular has been good to him. And likewise, B.J. has been good for U.S. Cellular.
Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.