A cosmetics store operating in Columbus for about a half century has closed its location in the Fair Oaks Mall.

Merle Norman Cosmetics closed shortly after Christmas after the retirement of proprietor Maria Becker, mall general manager Kim Eckrote said.

Since Becker had been openly discussing retirement in recent years, the closing was not a surprise, Eckrote said.

Efforts to find a buyer for the store over the past two years were unsuccessful, said Becker’s husband, Cummins Inc. retiree Phillip E. Becker.

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Mall stores closing in 2017 were Kirlin’s Hallmark, J Nicole clothing, and anchor store JCPenney, which closed July 31.

The mall, which has 24 remaining businesses, continues to search for another anchor store to replace JCPenney, Eckrote said.

The latest closing leaves the Greenwood Park Mall in northern Johnson County as the nearest Merle Norman location for Bartholomew County customers.

Rockcreek Township native Mary Wilson Hockersmith opened Columbus’ first Merle Norman Cosmetic Studios at 630 Washington St. in 1965.

Hockersmith, who died in 2001, also owned two similar franchises in Johnson County.

In 1983, Shelbyville native Barbara Marsh — who had worked for Merle Norman in Indiana and Iowa since the mid 1960s — purchased the Columbus franchise from Hockersmith.

Three years later, Barbara’s Merle Norman was moved a few blocks south to 423 Washington St. Besides cosmetics, the downtown store also sold casual clothing, jewelry, purses and accessories.

However, Marsh’s store closed about two years before the Beckers opened their outlet at the mall in late 1999, Phillip Becker said.

With residences in Columbus and Bedford, the Beckers plan to remain in Indiana, which will allow them to spend more time with their grandchildren in Bloomington, Phillip Becker said.

Who was Merle Norman?

In the late 1920’s, a Santa Monica, California, woman named Merle Nethercutt Norman (1887-1972) began creating skin care products in her kitchen.

But it was her Indiana-born chemist nephew, Jack “J.B.” Nethercutt, who was instrumental in opening the first Merle Norman Cosmetics studio in 1931.

His aunt had raised J.B. after his mother, Florence, died and his father sent him and two siblings to live with Norman, who had no children of her own.

Under Nethercutt’s management, Merle Norman Cosmetics originated the “Try Before You Buy” sales approach, as well as “Before and After” makeovers, according to news accounts.

Nethercutt (1913-2004) eventually bought out his aunt and all other shareholders before creating a company with $100 million in sales and about 2,000 franchises nationwide before his death.

Sources: Merle Norman website, People Magazine and obituary accounts.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.