by Sandi Butler Hughes
Photography by Alex Ginsburg
When shopping for a “happy” to celebrate a friend, choosing the ideal gift for a special occasion, or finding a unique keepsake to welcome a newborn, locals know More Than Words is the place to find just the right thing. This month marks 20 years of providing unique gifts; and for shop owner Lee Ann McGhee, it is a passion as much as it is a career.
When Lee Ann was a young girl, she began collecting meaningful quotes and scriptures being struck by the intense power of written words. While attending college in California, Lee Ann was the first candidate to choose calligraphy as her artistic concentration. She was fascinated by the art of calligraphy and its intricate use in historical manuscripts. Focusing on lettering and embellishments would allow her to embrace her passion and express motivational words in artistic form.
Lee Ann studied under a nationally-acclaimed artist, Frank Zamora. With an eye for detail, Zamora demanded perfection. Initially this expectation was extremely trying; however, this encouraged Lee Ann to develop an artistic skill that is uniquely hers. Today, she masterfully combines precise lettering with creative designs yielding powerful pieces of art. Words in this form have the innate ability to evoke emotion, often providing inspiration and hope. Lee Ann uses her artistic gift to bring joy to others.
At the tender age of 18, she began selling her work. She took custom orders on commission, sold wholesale to boutiques, and participated in art shows and festivals. “I had a dream… a passion to offer framed words of encouragement…pieces that people could keep close and read daily,” Lee Ann said. Her fun pieces range from witty pet sayings to the humorous definition of a “Southerner.”
Upon graduation, newlywed Lee Ann continued to use her calligraphy as a source of extra income. After she had her children, she kept creating her art while the kids were at mother’s day out, and she hosted home shows and participated in art festivals. On a whim Lee Ann decided to put an ad in Southern Living magazine noting “Wholesale inquiries invited.” She was flooded with orders and began selling wholesale to over 600 retail boutiques all over the country, even one in Japan! She hired helpers to frame and used her home as a workshop, complete with UPS daily pick ups to accommodate all the shipments.
After moving to California and then Birmingham, Alabama, Lee Ann gave up her business to be a full-time mom and be involved in ministry and community organizations. Then life happened. She found herself divorced, with no money, no job, and two small children. “At a challenging crossroads, I moved in with my parents so I could get my feet back on the ground.” Lee Ann went on several job interviews, but she wanted something that would allow her to be with her children as they were only six and eight years old.
Again, inspiration struck. “It dawned on me that I could take a stab at selling my calligraphy again. My parents and friends told me I was out of my mind – that I would never be able to support two children doing calligraphy. I’m the stubborn type; when people tell me that I can’t do something, I roll up my sleeves and say ‘Oh really? Watch me!’ So I bet on myself, trusted God, and went for it.”
Upon this new start, she meticulously designed 96 original pieces. These included quotes and scriptures individually enhanced with artwork that complemented the written words. “I invited my friends and family, and their friends and family, to attend a home art show. I was nervous but sold all 96 pieces in one day, and I knew then that God was creating a way for me to support my family in a most unusual fashion,” she recalled.
Lee Ann decided to open a retail store in 1998 because the business had overtaken her home. Most rooms were full of displays, the upstairs playroom was a workshop, the garage was the stockroom, and the kitchen was the check out station. ”Believe it or not, my kitchen appliances included a cash register,” Lee Ann laughed. “It hit me that it was time to make a change when my daughter Mallory asked, ‘Mom, can’t we just have a normal home like everybody else?’” So with God’s grace and connections through dear friends, she secured a charming 1,400 square foot space in a converted home next to the Germantown Commissary in the Historic District of Germantown.
She named her store More Than Words. “Words” referring to her calligraphy and “More Than” being all the unique gifts she offered. She created over 600 special quotes for family members, wedding gifts, baby, pets, and bereavement. The small cottage business was very successful, and Lee Ann knew she would soon need more room to continue to grow.
She became interested in renting a large 5,000 square foot space prominently located on West Street in Market Square, but it was way out of her budget. So she waited and watched as the space sat empty for 18 months. “I got my nerve up to ask for a personal face-to-face meeting with the owner. I was told that that was not ‘protocol’ and would not happen. I prayed about IT and was persistent in my plea. Finally they broke down and hesitantly met with me.”
Lee Ann knew that her best-selling feature for acquiring the new space was her current shop in the historic district. “I introduced myself and asked that they follow me over to my existing shop one street over, and they obliged. I gave them the grand tour and introduced them to all of my enthusiastic sales people. Impressed with the successful business and unique environment I had created as a single mom, they decided to take a chance on me! I was trembling in my boots. The monthly rent was six times what I was currently paying. I knew that I would either hit it big or go bankrupt!” Lee Ann said. Again she was faced with the decision to play it safe or take a risk. She bet on herself and strongly relied on God to make this work!
The new location was – and still is – a hit, and Lee Ann was thankful she took that huge leap of faith. She never thought she could fill up the 5,000 square foot space, but over the years she has, and it’s overflowing with treasures. She designed the sections of the store around her calligraphy topics including wedding, baby, family, home, entertaining, friendship, pets, motivational, recovery, encouragement, and scripture.
She also continues to search for unique, handcrafted jewelry and keepsakes that are especially personal and meaningful, and she takes pride in representing the works of over 30 local artists.
After 10 years in business, she was in a severe accident in the Ozarks. She was thrown 64 feet off a motorcycle, with no helmet, across the highway and landed a mere 12 inches from a huge drop off. She suffered from multiple, life-threatening injuries including a severe traumatic brain injury, several skull and facial fractures, a collapsed lung, and more. She spent 21 days in an intensive care unit at a trauma hospital in Springfield, Missouri. Unconscious for days, doctors were not sure she was going to survive. “My brain injury and nerve damage was so severe that I lost all my small motor skills. I was essentially like a toddler. I was not capable of doing anything by myself. I went to recover at my sister’s home in Miami for five months. She and a close friend assisted and encouraged me daily. They took me to world-renowned physicians. In and out of four hospitals, and after five surgeries, I never thought I would hold a pen in my hand again, much less be able to do calligraphy,” she said. Despite her injuries, she worked hard for almost two years to recover. “I learned that the brain is a marvelous organ, and it can definitely be re-trained.” Physical therapists helped her regain her memory, talk coherently, use her hands, walk again, drive, read, and write again.
“It was a humbling, terrifying, and uncertain time. Nevertheless, God gave me the determination to get up every day and choose to persevere. I am truly a walking miracle! All of the doctors told me they had not seen a CAT Scan so bad except on a cadaver. I held onto God’s powerful promise from Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future.’ This is one of my favorite verses to do in calligraphy, knowing it encourages others as well. The experience of the accident and having to rebuild my entire life taught me to put all things into perspective and never to take anything for granted,” she shared.
Lee Ann did indeed “hit it big” – More Than Words is celebrating 20 successful years. She continues to celebrate her faith, her health, and her many adoring customers and friends. Lee Ann smiles, “It’s a beautiful thing when a passion and career come together!”