After nearly four decades, the Learning Center is closing its doors later this week, allowing its proprietors to go to the head of the class and retire.

"Thanks for the memories -- It's been fun" reads the banner outside the business. It is a poignant sendoff for the faithful patrons who have kept them in business through thick and thin.

"We opened July 23, 1979," said Donna Alford. "The first place we opened was down near Lantern Inn, in one of those little stores."

They stayed there only a few years, until they outgrew it, moving to the store's current location at Oak Square -- between Ash Street and Spence Avenue -- in May 1982. The store expanded once again when it merged with the business next door in 2002, when Alford retired from her teaching job.

"I was a teacher for about 30 years, counting the time I tutored," she explained. "I taught basically fifth and sixth grade, mostly sixth grade, and finished my last 10 years teaching at Eastern Wayne Middle, math and science."

She enjoyed being an educator, she said. But not always.

There was a point where she was disenchanted, she admits, and questioned her purpose.

"I will tell you my story. It's a testimony," she began.

It was around the time her younger daughter, Jennifer (Jones, now a nurse at Wayne UNC) was 2 years old -- she also has an older daughter, Beth Edmonds, a teacher in Wake County, and four grandchildren. Being a mother, staying up with her children when they were sick, juggling responsibilities of being a teacher, Alford began to "wear down," she said.

"I stood in my den and I thought, Lord, what am I gonna do? I didn't like me. I didn't like my family. I didn't like my kids at school," she said. "It's bad to say, I didn't like anybody and I said, what am I gonna do? And a little voice, all it said was, 'school supply store.'

"I had never been in one. I didn't know what it was all about. But we opened in July and I just think, God put me here and I think now he's taking me out."

She and her husband, Wayne, who had a business background, opened it "from scratch," having no clue where to begin or what to buy to stock the shelves.

As a teacher, though, she had plenty of items in her classroom, so she looked around and jotted down where some of her supplies came from, she said. She called information, made a few calls and the next thing she knew, she had two representatives at her house.

"That got us started," she said. "And then we just kind of picked up. I think now we work with over 100 different manufacturers."

The Alfords opened up with a very small amount of money, keeping their day jobs. For the first few years, she worked for free, she says now.

"We didn't have a lot to go out and get fancy racks or anything," she said. "All those yellow racks you see, the shelving (Wayne) built it. And all those pegboards over there, everything's yellow because yellow makes you happy."

The couple did its own marketing, in the early days sending out letters to schools in the surrounding counties, advertising their business for teachers.

Donna's passion for the business is obvious, as she described the connections made with patrons of the store over the years.

"I enjoyed getting in my materials and sharing them," she said. "Like when we got a catalog for the new things coming out and we'd go over and 'ooh' and 'ahh,' sharing it with our folks."

Another perk has been the experience of working with her younger sister, Carol Brock, who has been part of the business for 17 years.

"It's been fun. Donna and I weren't the best of friends growing up," Brock said with a laugh, reflecting on growing up in the same household. "She was bossy. She was controlling. She had to tell me what to do. She was in charge when Mama was working but it was good bonding.

"One of my main jobs was to make sure I nag Wayne to give Donna some time off. She did it at home, and I did it here. I think that's only fair.

Just like she knew when it was time to retire from teaching, Alford said she "just instinctively knew" this is the right time to close up shop. And because of the challenge of brick and mortar stores in this day of online businesses, she and her husband opted to sell out their stock and close the business.

A lot of emotion comes with that, she admits. As the news began filtering out that Dec. 22 will be their last day, closing at 6 p.m., there has been an outpouring of support and messages from their patrons, both on Facebook and at the store.

"Customers still walk in the door -- they have got little tears, we have got tears, but it's OK," Donna said. "Some of these people who have been in here, mostly ladies, they started in here when we opened or just a few years after we opened.

"After 38 years, many of them have retired. But they used to bring in their little girls and now they're (their children are) teaching, but they used to come in with their mommies."

Valerie Blokland, media coordinator at Mount Olive Middle School, was a sixth-grade student of Alford's in 1989-90 at Eastern Wayne Elementary School.

"She was my favorite teacher, ever!" she said, calling Alford "very caring."

Blokland has been a faithful customer at the store, she said, and will miss being able to shop there.

Valerie Wallace, assistant executive director of Partnership for Children, said the non-profit agency is also very sad to mark the end of an era.

"There are no educational stores in Wayne County for teachers, so it's a loss," she said. "Our lending library, we have things that benefit families and children.

"We have been building a great relationship with Donna and Wayne and Carol. They're always so helpful. They'll call us when they get new stuff in. They have always been very supportive of anything we have going on. I'm sad that we are losing them, but I wish them well."

Donna Alford said this holiday will be bittersweet, coupled with a lot of gratitude for all who have supported them over the years.

"It's just a loving community, and I have seen people who truly want to help their children, and I know teachers want to help their children," she said. "We wanted to be there with as much as we could to guide them with whatever we had to help."