Heart of the West
Jarrell and Brenda McDonald staked their claim in the Stockyards’ no- man’s-land. Jeff Prince
A stuffed coyote greets customers at Cross-Eyed Moose. Jeff Prince
A Bum Steer, a dead moose, a redhead, and a handyman have transformed a moribund stretch of the Stockyards.
By JEFF PRINCE
Local businessmen Holt Hickman, Tim Love, and Steve Murrin get most of the attention for their large footprints in the Stockyards, but nipping at their heels are two unlikely underdogs, Brenda and Jarrell McDonald, who during the past 14 years have stumbled into business, love, marriage, and a mini-empire.
They started out with a struggling antique shop in what was then a no-man’s-land on North Main Street a block south of the Stockyards, where beer bottles and the people who drained them littered the sidewalk each morning and where police and code enforcement officers generally looked the other way.
“This was a real dive,” Brenda said. “I had to kick drunks out of my front doorstep every morning. Just to get people to come around the Exchange [Avenue] corner and come up Main was a feat.”
Now the couple operates five businesses that, combined with Love’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, have transformed that portion of the Stockyards into a bustling hub. Not bad considering the McDonalds never drew up a business plan, relying instead on hard work, good karma, and happenstance.
Brenda was living in Dallas, unemployed, and visiting the Stockyards during the Christmas holidays in 1994 when she stepped into Cowtown Antiques at 2400 N. Main St. She met the harried owner, a woman who had just opened the business but was already having second thoughts. The place was mostly empty — only four vendors had rented booths. Brenda began talking to the stressed-out owner, felt sorry for her, and offered to help her in the shop during the holidays.
“She tossed me the keys and said, ‘Be here at 10 tomorrow morning,’ ” Brenda remembered.
Brenda, a Boston native, didn’t know anything about antiques or the Old West, but she was naturally curious. She threw herself into researching old items and relied on her knack for interacting with strangers. Within a week, the shop’s owner began hinting that maybe Brenda should buy the business. Another week passed, and Brenda took the bait, maxing out her credit card to pay $5,000 for little more than a cash register, a few glass cases, some peg-board, and the business’ name, which she would later change to The Bum Steer.
After the sale, Brenda approached property owner Jack Walters about getting the lease put in her name. He wasn’t exactly encouraging.
“Why waste the paper?” he said. “You won’t make it anyway.”
So they made a verbal agreement; 14 years later they still operate on a handshake deal.
“I just told them to do what they wanted to do,” Walters said recently. “They’re good tenants.”
Walters neglects to mention how much he helped in the early days, chipping in on electric bills during a hot summer and working with Brenda on lease payments during a two-year street construction project that wreaked pain on Stockyards businesses. Brenda, however, doesn’t forget. “He’s as much a part of my success as I am,” she said.
After buying the business, Brenda was searching for new vendors. A good ol’ boy named Jarrell who worked for the railroad walked into the shop one day with an idea: He collected mounted animal heads as a hobby and wondered if he could rent a booth, hang his mounts, and sell them.
Brenda’s citified Boston roots reared up; she was aghast. “I’m totally anti-hunting,” she said.
She didn’t think the mounts would sell, but she needed vendors. “I’m not from Texas; I didn’t think anybody would put a dead animal’s head in their home,” she said. “I thought I’d better get the guy’s money because he’d be gone in a few months.”
She not only got his rent money, she got a life partner — and more carcasses than she can count.
“Now I’m married to him and surrounded by dead animal heads,” she said, romantically.
Jarrell turned out to be not only a dandy wheeler-dealer and good husband material but a talented handyman as well. He renovated the shop and jumped at the chance to lease an adjacent building in 1998. He’d recently purchased a huge taxidermied moose head, so he sprayed it down with sealant against the weather and perched it atop the building.
“It was an ugly thing, and I was damn proud of it,” Brenda said with a laugh. “By that point he’d converted me a little bit.”
The couple christened the business the Cross-Eyed Moose and filled the new store with mounted heads and unusual Western items, then transformed The Bum Steer into a Western furniture outlet.
In 1999, another one of Walters’ buildings in the same block became available after longtime Fort Worth dentist Robert Maberry retired. The McDonalds didn’t really need the building, but they desperately wanted the accompanying parking lot. So they leased it all and then tried to sublet the building to another dentist. When no dentists showed interest in an outdated building, the couple figured it would make a good warehouse.
Meanwhile, Western prints were becoming a big seller at The Bum Steer, but Brenda was chafing at how much she had to pay for custom framing. She figured she could save money by framing her own pictures, and she asked Jarrell to track down the appropriate equipment and materials. A local frame shop was going out of business; Jarrell approached the owner with an offer to buy the equipment.
The owner instead offered him the entire business — equipment, supplies, customer list, mailing list, ready-made frames. Jarrell refused, saying he didn’t have time to run another business. But the owner countered with a solution. She could introduce him to a first-class framer who was also smart enough to manage a shop alone.
“She said, ‘I got just the guy for you — Joel Lively. He’s a little arrogant, but he’s a good guy,’ ” Jarrell recalled.
Brenda and Jarrell decided to make the gamble. They bought the business and hired Lively, who gutted out the old dentist’s office and transformed part of the building into Adobe Picture Framing. Then a funny thing happened: Lively would frame pictures for The Bum Steer, but before he could carry them down the street to that store, customers in the frame shop were snapping up the pictures while they were still haphazardly stacked against the wall. So in 2005 the McDonalds took an unused portion of the former dentist’s office and created their fourth business, the Adobe Western Art Gallery.
Yet another one of Walters’ adjacent buildings became available in late 2008, and the McDonalds leased it, refurbished it, and opened Texas Rose, a jewelry store. The couple’s five tidy businesses now add class and foot traffic to the block-long stretch of North Main that used to look decrepit and forlorn.
“We have a little empire here,” Brenda said.
Creating a mini-empire might sound easy on paper, but in reality it’s been a chore that has come close to swallowing the couple. One of their moving trucks filled with antique furniture — all uninsured — was stolen in those early years. That $30,000 hit was compounded some years later after the couple went on a buying spree in New Mexico, filled another moving truck up with valuables, then stopped at a restaurant for lunch and came back out to find the truck and everything in it stolen. That was a $50,000 hit. There have been occasional break-ins and vandals to contend with, but the couple has cleared each hurdle and kept running. Along the way they’ve seen online sales increase, developed a strong list of repeat customers, and have sold goods to visiting celebrities such as Bette Midler, Kid Rock, and Brooks & Dunn. Country singer Tanya Tucker has become a steady customer for their Western furniture.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve done a lot of right things.” Jarrell said.
It seems like yesterday he was walking into the little antique shop, hoping to sell a few mounts, and introducing himself to a woman he now describes as the “hardheaded redhead” who changed his life.
“I always go with my instincts,” Brenda said. “I never think about anything too long or I’ll talk myself out of it.”
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