When you pull into the driveway of Austin Guthrie’s Cedar Point home, you’ll see a decorative sign attached to the carport roof:
“It all started with a little red raincoat”.
The sign refers to the first time a young Austin saw Janet Odham in downtown Swansboro, who would later become his bride and the sprawling and successful family that would result.
Janet’s family, like Guthrie’s, has been in the Swansboro community for generations. The two were married in 1958 and later had three children: Darlene, Buddy and Janelle; all of them inheriting their parents’ entrepreneurial spirit.
For Austin, the path to owning and operating several retail businesses in the community, including Cedar Point’s Sound Furniture and Appliance and Sound Ace Hardware of Emerald Isle, started behind a mule. Austin was the son of a Cedar Point fisherman, farmer and merchant. As a young man, he said he would hitch up the gray mule after school and plow.
I’d follow that mule until dark,” he said. “One night, she was ready to go home, and she drug me from Highway 24 to the shore on my stomach.”
Perhaps, more than any other thing, that quarter-mile trip convinced Austin there might be a better way than “following the old gray mule.”
So, after graduating from Swansboro High School in 1947 and spending two years in the Army, Austin used his GI Bill and hitchhiked his way from Swansboro to a one-year TV and radio repair school at Coyne Electric in Chicago.
While he was away, he noted wryly, the family bought a tractor to replace the mule.
Austin noted that his father bought the 16 acres he tended, and which included 450 feet of sound-front and reached N.C. 24, for $1,700. The property would eventually become Cedar Point Beach.
Once Austin returned to Swansboro from radio repair school, he apprenticed at Camp Lejeune and spent 19 years working aboard the base at the post-exchange repair shop.
Austin learned a valuable lesson when he received his first weekly paycheck. He took the $35 check ($33.30 take-home pay) and he and Janet went to county fair in Beaufort.
That first paycheck… I lost it gambling”,
In a game of chance, he was trying to win a clock that Janet wanted. He spent all but a quarter trying to win it, and never did. With the quarter, he bought two tickets for the Ferris wheel, and it broke down while they were riding. Janet was not happy with the way things had gone. “She chewed me out the whole time.”
When he got home that night, he found that his brother, Aggie, had lost all his money gambling, too. But before he could share his tale of woe, their mother spoke up: telling Aggie, “Austin has more sense than that, to lose his money gambling.”
Austin now proclaims: “I learned my lesson right there. Maybe not with cards, dice or games of chance but I am a gambler.”
And that is true, as he has shown a willingness to take chances, at least when it comes to business.
All the while he was at Camp Lejeune, Austin was working to establish his own business.
I started in my basement”,
he said.He also made house calls. Daily, on the way home from work at Camp Lejeune, he’d stop at homes in Bear Creek and Hubert and work on radios and TVs.
I had a lot of energy,” he said. “I’d make service calls on the way home.”
Then, once he was back in Cedar Point, he’d head East to do repairs at homes toward Morehead City.
On weekends, he’d mostly work on ship-to-shore radios. Before they were solid state, they were always in need of repair, Austin said.
Especially in Swansboro. On weekends, I’d stay at Dudley’s (Marina) a lot. There was a lot of work to be done.”
Austin also did contract work aboard Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point for a computer company out of California.
He juggled the work on base and the work at home, opening Sound Electronics, but operating it in Janet’s name.
I worked at Camp Lejeune then. I didn’t want it in my name because I wasn’t supposed to have a business,” Austin said. “So, I put it her name. She was the boss.”
A receipt that he keeps from those shows that in June 1965, the store was required to pay $1.58 in sales tax.
Eventually, he decided to take the step to become self-employed.
Austin remembers, “When I told my wife I was quitting Camp Lejeune, she said, ‘You can quit that job.’ I know she liked that steady paycheck.”
In Janet’s defense, she had three children at home and the thought of Austin giving up that job must have been unsettling.
Austin told Janet:
‘I’m taking the plow. I’m looking ahead, I’m not looking back.’
“And I quit”, he recalled.
He opened Sound Electronics in Cedar Point, which would form the cornerstone of the family business.
Being local allowed Austin and his family to establish relationships. When customers – neighbors, really – would come in, they expect Austin to give them a deal.
They’d try to work me over,” he said. “I think they enjoyed that. It was a lot of fun.”
Austin brought his son, Buddy, along to work when Buddy was 11 years old.
The Islander was one of the early motels in Emerald Isle. Buddy helped Austin install TVs at the Islander. Austin sold and serviced their TVs. Buddy installed the antennas and cables.
It was the beginning of a successful business relationship for Buddy.
“I enjoyed most of it,” Buddy said. “I was the little one, so I was the one who had to crawl under the buildings.”
After graduating from Swansboro High in 1978, Buddy studied at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, taking a one-year course in electronics and earning an associate degree in business.
While working with his father at Sound Electronics, Buddy convinced Austin to expand.
I talked him into going into the furniture business,” Buddy said. “That was in 1982. I bought him out in 2000, but I was doing the majority of the managing going back to 1991.
Austin was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1990. He came back from it at first but relapsed in 1996 and was near death twice in those early years. He eventually lost the use of his legs and now relies on a wheelchair for mobility.
While Buddy was taking on the task of running Sound Furniture, he was also serving as Mayor of Cedar Point. It was an office Austin once held, being the town’s first Mayor following incorporation in 1988.
The first retail business Austin expanded into was Frostee Treat, the only fast-food establishment around.
Austin came to be involved by default. He had leased the property to a man from Sneads Ferry who was about halfway through building the restaurant when he and his wife split up. Austin said at the time there were five or six bars in the community, and he was afraid that if he rented to someone else, another beer joint might spring up. So, he bought it himself.
He finished it and opened the restaurant.
“That was his first retail business,” Buddy said.
It was a thriving business, widely known for its excellent shrimp sandwiches. Success was due in no small part to the fact that the manager, Austin’s aunt, Hazel Weeks, was a great cook.
Austin said it was quite popular with the locals.
“They’d order dinner on the phone and come pick it up,” he said.
Weeks ran it until she retired, dealing the business a blow, but then Hardee’s moved into Cape Carteret.
“When the big boys came to town,” Austin said, it didn’t help. But the end came when N.C. 24 was widened through Cedar Point.
During those early years, as Austin was expanding his business to include rentals, townspeople came to him to see if he could rent space to a physician. To do so, he had to empty the storefront he’d been using for carpet sales. And while it was not the first doctor’s office in the Swansboro community, it was the only one for a long time. To make room, he cleared out the building he had been using to sell carpet.
But the big change came in 1986, according to Buddy.
They were in three buildings at one time for the furniture store. Once they built the single building that allowed them to lease more space; this may have been the catalyst for another business, Guthrie Rentals. The buildings now span three blocks on Cedar Point Boulevard on HWY 24.
Austin and Buddy noted that one of the early tenants was Walston’s Hardware.
“You talked him into going into the hardware business,” Buddy told Austin as they were discussing those early days.
Austin said that Linwood Williams, the former mayor of Swansboro who was a real estate broker, came to him one day and told him about a tract of land just east on N.C. 24 that was for sale for $50,000.
I went to Don and said, ‘Let’s buy that land and move the hardware store.’ The next day, he went and bought the land,” Austin said. “I got him back, though,” he said with a laugh. “I opened the hardware store in Emerald Isle. “I always wanted to open a hardware store.
Austin’s daughter Janel White now runs Sound Ace Hardware in Emerald Isle.
The eldest of the three children, Austins late daughter, Darlene and her husband Alan have two children, Derek and Brittany. Buddy and his wife Patti have three children, Mallori, Dana and Drew. And Janel and her husband John also have three children, Jordan, Jeremy and John Austin.
Buddy’s wife, Patti, a retired teacher, works at Sound Furniture and Appliance as a bookkeeper. Their son Drew and daughter Dana are also working at Sound now and their daughter, Mallori, started out working in the furniture business but has since stepped up into the role of motherhood.
The fact that his children and grandchildren have taken to the family business pleases Austin.
I’m really happy with what they are doing,” he said. “I’m glad they’ve taken an interest. All three of them, working with what I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished over the years.
I’m going to leave it to them!”