As shops reel and recover from the impact of the coronavirus lockdown, there is one store that has survived and thrived throughout the decades.
A. L. Thompson’s has been serving the people of Cayman with steadfast loyalty since 1950.
Even the destruction of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, when the Category 5 storm devastated the building and its contents, could not deter the spirit of the family-run company which puts the community at the core of its operations.
Now, as the islands emerge from the COVID-19 curfews, the store is as important and popular as ever.
Moving further into hurricane season, A. L Thompson’s is a go-to place for supplies and materials necessary for preparations, should a storm approach.
The Outdoors section has also proved a lifeline for many people who have taken up gardening and backyard farming to help ease the stress of the global pandemic and its local effects.
Others, meantime, have turned to the home departments to ensure their households are as lovely and comfortable as possible while they spend time in self-isolation or working from home.
And, of course, it is the hardware store where builders source supplies for all kinds of construction projects.
A. L. Thompson’s has two locations: the distinctive blue building facing North Sound Road in George Town, and a smaller store at Countryside Shopping Village in Savannah.
The main store, located at the busiest intersection on Grand Cayman, is 180,000-square-feet of retail space with a variety of departments and services.
It contains everything from appliances and fixtures and fittings, to homeware, decorating items, lighting and tools, lumber and building supplies. Everything is located under one roof.
However, the stylish store and its convenient counterpart in Savannah have come a long way from their humble beginnings 70 years ago.
Nowadays the store is run by Al Thompson and his sister Berna Thompson Cummins, along with other family members.
But it was their father, Alfred Lawrence Thompson and his wife Corinne, who first had the idea and the foresight to begin the business.
Newly back on-island from working on the Panama Canal, Lawrence (as Mr. Thompson Snr. was known) built a fishing vessel and entertained thoughts of a life at sea. His wife, however, was opposed to the idea.
As fate had it, a boat arrived from Nicaragua with a consignment of lumber, which the captain bartered for the fishing vessel. The lumber was moved to the Thompsons’ homestead and the couple began selling it from their yard. Before long, they added other building supplies to their inventory.
“From the homestead, my mother was actually the one running the business,” said Berna. “Most of the people that bought from us were the men that went to sea. They would send their money home to my mother and she would extend them credit. When they came home, they would always pay her, so we were really part of the development of the islands.”
Within a dozen years, the business was flourishing and had outgrown the homestead yard space, so the Thompsons relocated to a rented building in George Town from which to sell their wares.
Then, in 1967, they moved into the custom-built Thompson Building, which had been designed and engineered by Lawrence. That building still stands today across the road from the Post Office.
When Cayman’s economy boomed with the expansion of the tourism industry and the arrival of the financial services sector, so, too, did the building supplies company.
By 1978, Alfred Lawrence Jnr. (Al) and sister Berna had taken over the business, at a time when traffic and increased development had started to congest George Town.
In 1988, the siblings made the bold and brave decision to relocate to current location of the main store, which, in those days, was considered to be on the outskirts of town – much to the consternation of some critics. The idea was to have a large, one-stop shop with plenty of parking.
“I was young, Berna was young, they didn’t really have a lot of confidence in us – I was not yet 30,” recalled Al. “We proved them wrong.”
The move paid off, as within four months, the renamed A. L. Thompson’s Home Depot had tripled its sales figures.
Throughout the following years, the store became a fixture on the island, but the fateful month of September 2004 proved to be the defining time for the business and the family that runs it.
Hurricane Ivan struck with its full force, slamming into the A. L. Thompson’s building and all but destroying it.
“We had winds that were clocked at over 200 miles an hour,” said Al. “The whole property was devasted. There were boats that had floated over from the sea. We had three feet of water in the store. I thought the business was over.”
To Al’s surprise nearly the entire staff reported for work the following day.
“Some of them had lost their homes and had no place to go, but they still came to work,” he said. “Well, I said, ‘We are going to take care of you. We are going to rebuild bigger and better and stronger than we’ve ever been before.’ I had no idea that was true.”
The owners and employees came together to get the business up and running again, erecting the new, larger structure over the top of the storm-hit premises.
“Our business never closed (for even) one day after Ivan and our main purpose was to provide for the needs of so many,” said Berna.
Since then, the company has continued to expand. The 7,500-square-foot Countryside store opened in 2006 and the following year the first phase of the new store in George Town was completed.
The second phase opened in 2009, when the family took the opportunity to rebrand as A. L Thompson’s – Your Home Store. This included the Home Fashions Gallery and the Bath & Kitchen Gallery.
Another expansion in 2013 saw the addition of restaurant supplies equipment and, in 2015, they opened the Outdoors yard and garden equipment section, which has its own entranceway and parking spaces to the rear of the store.
The family involvement has also grown throughout the years, with Al’s wife Melissa running the home galleries, and Berna’s three children, Katharine, Larry and Daniel, joining the company and progressing into managerial roles.
Larry’s wife Noraine and Daniel’s wife Caron have senior positions, while their cousin George is part of the business, too.
True to its roots
After seven decades, A. L Thompson’s remains true to its roots and founding principles.
“My kids will be third generation (working with the family company),” said Berna. “It is very important that we carry out what we were taught, the true Caymanian way of doing business.”
Her brother Al is equally adamant about the responsibility of running the business according to their parents’ ethos.
“Do what is right, be grateful, and put back into the community,” he said.