When Jacki Keenan, BS-HSS, owner and operator of Sonotone Hearing Center in Bridgeport, began looking for a Barnesville office location, she had no idea it would be the former location of one of her patient’s family business.
Opened in August, Sontone West is located at 115 E. Main St. in the beautifully renovated building that was home to the Walter Thomas Men’s Clothing Store for over 70 years. A grand opening event at Sonotone was held Aug. 11-13, and a ribbon cutting by the Barnesville Area Chamber of Commerce is planned for September 15.
Margie Watson, daughter of store founder Walter Thomas, has been a customer of the Bridgeport Sontone location for 10 years.  Watson said she was “thrilled” when she learned Keenan would be opening an office in the former location of her family’s business.
Walter Thomas founded the store in 1930 in the early years of the Great Depression, leasing space to sell shoes in the Harrison Store at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets. He moved the business across the street to 115 E. Main St. in 1934.
After Thomas’s retirement, the store was managed by his son-in-law Errol Brill who began his career there in 1957. The store specialized in men’s clothing, but also carried shoes for the family and women’s purses, as well as providing tuxedo rentals and alterations.
After Errol’s retirement, his son Tom was the third generation of the family to manage the store. Tom began working at the store when he was in the eighth grade, but didn’t become a full-time associate until after his graduation from Moorehead State University in Kentucky in 1974.
Tom recalled standing in front of the store and watching the 1960 Christmas Eve fire that destroyed the J.C. Penney store across the street. He said it was so cold that they opened the Walter Thomas store so the firemen could come in to get warm and drink coffee before heading back out to fight the blaze. Tom said they gave the firefighters gloves from the store.
 He said that when the business was thriving, much of the large building was used for inventory and storage, including the basement where the store’s rural customers would come to purchase rubber boots.
Tom, a former Chamber president, said there were many longtime employees of the store over the years.
Margie, who was a teacher for over 30 years in Barnesville and Chicago, also worked in the store while a student in high school and college.
She recalled as a child in the 1940s, getting caught trying to put her feet in the shoe-fitting fluoroscopes in the woman’s shoe section of the store. The x-ray machine was used in shoe stores between 1920 and 1970 to take a picture of the customer’s feet, but wasn’t intended to be used repeatedly. Margie also remembered that as a child, with the store being open on Christmas Eve, the family had to wait until that night to put up the tree.
While working there as a teenager and young adult on holiday breaks and in-between college semesters, Margie recalled that she could show men the clothing offered, but was not permitted to fit them, having to  get her father or Errol to do it.
Until its closure in 2006, Walter Thomas was Barnesville’ oldest, continuously owned family business and one of Ohio’s oldest independent men’s clothing stores.
“My father managed to build quite a business despite having only completed the eighth grade,” Watson said.
Sonotone also has a long history in the area having provided professional hearing services for over 50 years. Since 1992,  Keenan has pursued her desire to help people hear as the owner and operator.  The Ohio Valley native  said she had dreamed of expanding the business and opening a second location since acquiring Sonotone. She had always planned to make Barnesville the location for her second office, seeing a need for hearing services in the area. She was not intending to choose a downtown location, but after unsuccessfully looking at other locations, she was shown the Walter Thomas building anwd despite the dust from the then ongoing renovation, saw the potential the first time she walked into the building. “It is an awesome space,” Keenan said. “What makes it more awesome is its history and the impact it has had on the village.”
A self-described “old soul” and lover of antiques, Keenan has scoured local antique stores to find original pieces from the Walter Thomas store and has worked with a Wheeling-based decorator to develop a decorating theme based on hearing. Throughout the waiting area, hallway, offices and restroom are bells, musical instruments, a vintage telephone, horns and other sound-related objects.
Tom shared that he had placed a note behind the paneling of the store front when Walter Thomas closed and was happy to see that  the paneling had not been replaced during the extensive remodeling done by the building’s owner, and  the contractor John Debrowski of Barnesville. Keenan credited the building owner’s dedication to renovating the structure, while maintaining its character, as helping make her dream a reality.
Sonotone offers free hearing evaluations, state of the art hearing aids, servicing of most brands of hearing aids and cleaning and checking of current equipment. In addition they provide a wide variety of hearing aid and ear care products including batteries, sanitizers, dehydrators (electric and nonelectric), anit-itch creams, lubricants, etc.
Walk-ins are welcome and most insurances are accepted. Financing is also available for qualified buyers. Sonotone West is open Monday - Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday and evenings by appointment. For more information about Sonotone West call (740) 619-0331 or 888-300-0817. You can also visit their website: sontotonehearing.net