Bill Hightower is a man of few words, unassuming in manner with a dry, quiet sense of humor.

That didn’t stop his employees and customers from getting emotional when they learned he had sold Hightower Grocery in Rudy.

Hightower Grocery has built a close-knit group of customers who remain loyal to the little convenience store, which opened under its current name in 1949.

Myron Maxwell, a local man in his 70s, said Hightower Grocery has acted as a community center for Rudy.

"You come here if you want to hear and cuss about politics, or if a neighbor is in distress, you come here to get the charity started, or if you want to know what’s wrong with your tomato plants," Maxwell said.

Maxwell bought his first soda at the store from the owner’s mother when he was a child, he said.

"I been coming here from diapers to a walking stick," Maxwell said.

That apparently is true of many of the store’s customers.

"Basically everyone you see coming in here has been coming in since they’ve been able to walk," said Wayne Hightower, Bill Hightower’s son.

That may be a symptom of being the only store in a small rural city like Rudy, but family and friends think it’s because of the Hightower family.

Bill Hightower’s father Wayne Hightower, for which his grandson was named, died in 1950 at the age of 29, a year after opening the store, said Bill Hightower’s sister Pauline Bramlett.

The senior Wayne Hightower left it to his wife Lorene Hightower - later Lorene Hightower-Hensley - to operate the store and raise their five children. She remarried about nine years later, Bill Hightower said.

Hightower-Hensley worked the store until 1994, when Bill Hightower took over, he said. She continued to work in the store another six to seven years, he said.

"We’ve always done what we could to help the community around here; my grandma was probably one of the most respected people in the community," Wayne Hightower said. "If someone needed help, she gave it to him."

After all these years running the store as a family business, Bill Hightower decided to sell the grocery because he’s "getting too old" to run the shop and decided to retire, he said.

For him, it was "just a job," he said.

Denise Brasher, a store employee, rebuked that statement.

"No, he doesn’t feel that way," Brasher said as she gave Bill Hightower a reproving look. "Bill is a fixture in this community and it’s breaking everyone’s heart that he’s not going to be here anymore."

Brasher was nearly in tears as she finished her shift and left the store.

"He’s enjoyed watching families grow up here," Wayne Hightower said. "He gives every kid in the county a sucker and makes their parents mad."

Other customers shopping in the store Thursday said Bill made the store environment like a second home, which is the reason they keep coming back.

Outside of a few employees, Wayne Hightower said the store has been almost solely a family-run business.

"Grandma taught every one of us kids how to work in here, how to count out change, how to treat people - she taught every one of us our work ethic," Wayne Hightower said.

Tonia Dray of A to Z bought the grocery, Wayne Hightower said. Dray has promised to keep the store as close to its current state as possible, he said.

"Her and her family grew up coming in here," Wayne Hightower said.

Friday was the last day the store was open under the Hightower ownership. The family held customer appreciation day and a surprise retirement party for Bill.