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Brown Squirrel Furniture: "King Of The Wild Frontier"

Furniture World Magazine


It was in 1971 when the legend officially met the ledger! President Doug Matthews Sr. presided at the landmark meeting with his ad agency. Doug had dreamed up a new idea for his Knoxville, Tennessee furniture store and they were trying to arrive at a name for the enterprise. A big conference table, a list of about 250 possible names. Someone somehow mentioned the Brown Squirrel, and everyone looked around at each other. “My Dad, knowing the story, thought this was brilliant,” said Preston Matthews, now President, “Because it was a name that had easy recall and could be symbolized. The squirrel lives in harmony with nature, it had history with the story.” I guess you could say the Squirrel became part of the family with a seat on the corporate board!

“Dad opened Brown Squirrel in an area that was so far west on Interstate 40 that a lot of people thought it wouldn’t work. It was right in the middle of the Sherrill farm and we had horses and cows on each side of our property. Now 44 years later, the town grew right past us but the visibility of our store is unmatched as you drive on I-40. I guess Dad’s long term vision of this location was either very incredible or we’re just lucky. Now instead of a farm on both sides of us, we are surrounded by HGTV’s corporate headquarters (Scripps Networks).

“Our sign facing I-40 is 35 feet high, we are grandfathered on this sign, it’s the highest billboard on Interstate 40 and it’s also exactly on the city/county line. People know they are in the city when they see our sign!”

But it was two decades before that auspicious occasion when Doug opened his first furniture store “after his WWII service as a B-17 navigator/instructor. When the War was over, he went back to University of Tennessee and received his degree in Engineering. He also taught math at the University to returning veterans. He met Mom at University and they were married in 1947. He worked for Sterchi’s Furniture in downtown Knoxville in the late forties and he thought he could do this himself. So he opened Modern Day Furniture on Kingston Pike in Knoxville in 1951. I have the original sign displayed in our new addition. In 1959, he moved his store further west and changed the concept to a more high-end interior design model, and changed the name to Wellington Galleries. It was a very successful store with a lot of great designers and it furnished many of the better homes here in Knoxville.

“He traveled around the country looking for ideas and he saw that Levitz had developed the warehouse/showroom concept. No one in this market had seen anything like it in 1971, and they did really well.”

Previous generations had laid a sturdy and eclectic foundation for the Matthews, creating legends of their own. Preston provided some insights. “My grandfather on my Dad’s side was born in Rochester, New York. He was a traveling salesman when my Dad was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1922. He told me he’d lived in 12 different cities by the time he was in the eighth grade. I heard stories about him growing up during the Depression in 1933 and how they got by.

“I personally can go back as far as my great grandmother on my dad’s side. Her brother was Frank Pulver. He invented chewing gum and he sold his company to Wrigley’s back in the early 1900s. He also invented the first vending machine which dispensed gum for a penny. My aunt Beverly (dad’s 90 year old sister) and the Smithsonian Institution actually have the original machines.

“I know a little more about my Mom’s side. My great grandfather, Alex Hickman, was a doctor in the mountains around here back in the late 1800s, specifically around the community of Kodak, part of the Severville/Gatlinburg area. My grandfather always traveled with him by horse and carriage to deliver babies up in the mountains, and by the time he became an adult he’d decided he didn’t want to be a doctor! His dad gave him $100 and he walked to Knoxville, about 40 miles away, started his new life and became very successful. He founded Knoxville Paperbox Company in the early 1900s which manufactured corrugated paper boxes. They became a pretty big company and he did very well until they sold in the mid to late 1950s. The building still stands off the Interstate by downtown Knoxville with the original name on it. My Mom and Dad married in 1948, and my grandfather gave them the property as a wedding gift which adjoins his old farm and house, built around 1911. I live next door to my Dad to this day.”

The 1971 venture proved to be a positive move, and “We thrived in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I took over the company in 1988 when I was 27. I became president and my oldest brother Doug Matthews, Jr., vice president when he joined the company in 1994. I didn’t change the store back then, but I would guess we’ve been talking to Connie (Post) for close to 20 years. We bought the store from Dad about three years ago, and that’s when I started seriously thinking about what I wanted to do with Connie’s help.
“Dad has been resistant to change and, looking back, he was probably right. I don’t think we would have made it through 2008-2009 if we’d had any long term debt to pay. We had none and we made it through and I learned a lot about making our business more efficient. If I only knew back then what I know now! That being said, I knew we had to change. Connie knew, too, so we just climbed out on the limb together and made it happen.”

Retail strategist Connie Post had a challenge on her hands, a happy challenge. Chief executive of Connie Post International, Connie has spent nearly 30 years advising the home furnishing industry. She’s become the design and marketing doyen of a formidable “more than 18 million square feet of retail and wholesale space around the globe”. Connie is the author of “A Beautiful Room Will Change Your Life: Your Personal Guide to Color”. *

“She’s the best,” said Preston. “I told her my vision and she knew what to do and executed it to a ‘T’, an image that is in tune with our community and our local region.”

The new design, the first renovation in 44 years, was a complete turn-around. Said Connie, “We moved the showroom entrance out to the front of the building. Prior to this, the entrance had been behind the warehouse racks that customers walked through. It was patterned, of course, after the old Levitz design of the late ‘60s early ‘70s that was so new and exciting in the industry and highly successful. This move gave Preston and Brown Squirrel the opportunity to show a new face and rebrand as the new ON TREND retailer in the market.

“It was extremely exciting for me to do this for him. We have been friends for a very long time and I really wanted to help his business grow. Next we will attack other areas for updates after he has time to recover from this monumental shift!”

The public got a strong hint of great things to come when teaser ads featuring a small furry brown animal warning “Get ready Knoxville” began to appear on television and Brown Squirrel’s website. And there were other tantalizing announcements including icon John Bassett III’s scheduled appearance at the Grand Opening. President of Vaughn Bassett Furniture, he’d promised to sign his vastly popular book, “Factory Man”* at the Opening, all proceeds to be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.

Customers were told on the website, “Whatever you’re thinking, think bigger!” Every hour from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. prizes would be presented, $2,500 in furniture given away, free memory foam pillows to the first 50 people through the door.

It was the month of February and winter is not always kind in the Smokies. “I was praying to God for three weeks prior to the Opening that we wouldn’t have a major snowstorm. The day came and it ended up at 60 degrees with a perfectly clear blue sky! Everything just came together and the traffic was overwhelming. Annually, our heaviest traffic day is probably Labor Day. At the Opening we had three times that number. I’ve got the best advertising agency in the world for furniture, these guys just get it, so the quality of the ads looked like something out of New York, really good stuff.”

A neat touch, consumers were given a web overlook of the project with progress photos of the renovation as it moved through its various stages.

Response? “Our sales were out of the park starting Opening Day! But 10 days later the winter weather hit and we couldn’t deliver for about eight days. The positive side was that March and April were great delivery months!

“When you look at percentages, each month since has been up over 50 per cent from last year. Last year wasn’t the best year for us, but we still made a profit.”

A walk through Brown Squirrel is an adventure. “Connie not only modernized us, but she produced an atmosphere that was in tune with our community and our local region to give customers the sense when they first walk through the door that this is their hometown retailer.”

Historic connections through dynamite Knoxville photographs from the 1800s to the present day take pride of place opposite Simmons Beautyrest Gallery, one of the largest in the U.S. Then one is confronted with a monumental reminder of Brown Squirrel’s fabled Smoky Mountains, 30 feet tall, a gorgeous, enveloping photographic mural. Connie positioned it as a stunning backdrop for National Elements, an area that features unique reclaimed wood furniture and architectural lumber from old buildings.

The friendly updated image of the resident squirrel with its acorn reward is to be found everywhere in the new interior, Connie pointed out, on “huge signs and price tags”. The acorn is also to be seen in television and web exposure.

Tear yourself away from Natural Elements if you can and move on to a space where the heart of America’s home furnishings industry resides, a reminder of the strong tradition of local artisans. The England Gallery represents memories but then projects to forward thinking. Brown Squirrel was at the head of the line many years ago at the Hickory Furniture Market when England presented its one sofa at the show and the Matthews “took it home”! The England plant is just 40 miles away from Brown Squirrel’s showroom/warehouse three acres, “the next county over”, and Preston stressed the importance of “doing business with local companies” like England and Jackson/Catnapper, only 70 miles from Knoxville. “I want to reward the people, our good neighbors, the one’s we’ve worked with for a long time.”

Just to the right is the very special Brown Squirrel Lodge, an eye-catching log cabin representation, “reflective of the area”, with yet another stunning natural backdrop, a photo mural of foothill forests in autumn colors through the cabin’s “windows”. Preston confesses that the Lodge is one of his favorites, “I like the atmosphere and other people love it, too.” Furnishings have been chosen with great care and customers are responding with enthusiasm, eager to create their own “Lodge”.

Then the Made in America Gallery that features Vaughan-Bassett Furniture, where John Bassett took the scene with his book that February day. There are compelling vintage photos, some virtually life-sized, of the Bassett family and men and women at work in the Virginia factories lining the walls. “It makes a real equating- to-jobs connection with people who are actually building our furniture, a timely wake up call to consumers.”

The population of the city of Knoxville is highly diverse demographically. Not far from Brown Squirrel Lodge there is a space called Urban Lifestyle, “our own twist on loft living, more sophisticated, more modern with a really cool background, a huge picture of the Knoxville skyline”. Architecture in the region runs the gamut from log cabin to Art Deco, Gothic, Victorian and Craftsman, an unusual mix.

And the mix of people ranges from retirees who are attracted to the area because of its natural beauty, to the thousands of professionals employed by nearby Oak Ridge, the science and technology national laboratory managed for the United States Department of Energy, “and everyone in between,” said Preston.

Another important space at Brown Squirrel is devoted to leather, Preston’s own “specialty” and his area of expertise when holding staff training workshops. “Only genuine leather, not any leather match, really great stuff from Simon Li and Futura”.

Talented Renee Matthews has the title of “Store Decorator” and, says Preston of his wife, “She is phenomenal!” Her reach extends beyond design and color to a broad knowledge of music and, in sync with Brown Squirrel’s new spirit, she has created three zones for the store with special emphasis on pervading demographics. The zones begin at the parking lot where speakers have been installed delivering “up-to-date, cheerful music that gets you in a happy mood so you’re dancing when you come into the store!” said Preston. Inside Squirrel, music is programmed to the age of shoppers. Observation has revealed that people tend to shop at different times at different ages. Between 12 and 1:30-2 p.m. “aging baby boomers” appear after they’ve had lunch; big band music is their ticket! Later in the afternoon younger women, out to pick up their children from school, are treated to the Nora Jones genre. At night Renee and Preston schedule more upbeat, urban music. “In the bedding area we have this real soft soothing type music; it makes a huge difference to the atmosphere of the store.”
With the renovation earthquake, fermenting, then arriving at its blockbuster conclusion, the need for staff adjustment and guidance was ever present. Said Preston, “A lot of training with the different manufacturers occurs all the time. And I am very blessed to have a general manager with a lot of passion for our business... he coaches our sales staff. His name is Steve Hanschen and he was my GM in 1989-1993. I stole Steve from Haverty’s! He was so successful for us that another company out of the Market hired him away from me by doubling his salary (it’s a long story!) and to this day he says it was a mistake to leave. But a plus, he did meet his wife in the town he moved to and they are still happily married today! Fast forward 20 years, I brought him back last August to launch our new format. He’s like my brother and I couldn’t have picked anyone better!”

Brown Squirrel’s website is far from ordinary. It blends all the solid, upfront information that consumers hope to find, but there’s a light touch of whimsy sparkling in unexpected corners. There’s the story of the swimming pool cleaner who rescued (guess what?) a squirrel in danger of drowning and resuscitated it. There’s a hellaciously decadent recipe for chocolate pie! A side bar targets Letterman-like April Fool’s Day pranks, 10 of them, one fiendish suggestion, “Replace Oreo filling (or any cookie) with toothpaste!” Really, it’s there, just look if you don’t believe me! In February, opening month, a picture of a smiling polar bear relaxing in his pool at the Knoxville Zoo appeared with the caption, “Nobody else loves the cold weather like this guy!” And a few clicks over, an announcement of Southern Lady Hot Tea Month. What could be more clever?! Fun entices social media-attuned consumers to return again and again to Squirrel’s website. Mixed amongst such diversions are really well executed Tips and Trends, a piece entitled “Choose Your Style”, a well designed Room Planner and good stuff about delivery, clearly stated. And, of course, really beautifully defined design categories of quality home furnishings, expertly presented.

In store there’s more evidence of the company’s playful side. The Squirrel Himself (or Herself?) occasionally makes personal appearances in animated cartoon commercials. And kids are often celebrated with balloons and coloring pages. Says the website: “Our intention is to make furnishing living space fun, efficient and worry free as possible.”

And Squirrel is even taken seriously, well sort of, by Forbes! Mention was made along with a photo of Scrips’ Knoxville headquarters: “The home of cable channels Food Network, HGTV and Travel Channel is tucked between the old Brown Squirrel Furniture Store and the Dead Horse Lake Golf Course at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains in Knoxville, Tennessee. The main building curves around a lake where, on pleasant days, employees take meetings in paddle boats. You know you’ve found the right place when you see the big mural of the squirrel.” Notoriety of the best sort!

The web visitor gets a look at Brown Squirrel’s charitable involvement with Second Harvest, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, Mission of Hope, the Red Cross and other worthy organizations, provided “in the knowledge that we have been blessed that we might be a blessing”. And they offer customers involvement under the heading of “Delivery and Pickup”. The text reads, “If you need to dispose of your old furniture in a way that might allow it to enjoy extended usage”, they suggest using various of their designated groups as links.

Set in “The greenest state in the land of the free”, it’s only natural that the environment plays a large role in the Matthews’ thinking. “We’re re-branding Brown Squirrel as even more eco-friendly, considering all the things we do to reduce the carbon footprint, from our electric car charging stations to L.E.D. lighting, recycling plastics, cardboard and palettes. And that’s why you now see an acorn in the O of Brown Squirrel. We even have acorn door handles when you enter the showroom.

“It will take time but if we are successful I would like to go solar. Our store is positioned perfectly to get sunlight all day long. That’s really my vision,” said Preston, “and if our community sees it too I think we have a real good chance to be successful for the long term, maybe another 44 years. That’s the goal anyway.

“There is a giant consolidation within our industry. A lot of the smaller stores are getting squeezed out from big companies that have a lot of capital from the online guys (Wayfair) and from the companies that are vertically integrated such as Ashley and Rooms to Go. On a larger scale, look what’s happening in Dallas with NFM, a 1.2 million square feet store than runs on low margins. I have friends that have stores there and I’m even nervous for them. When RTG came here in 1996, we lost 20 per cent in volume that year. It has taken almost 20 years, but now I think we have a better chance by just being ourselves, servicing our customer and trying not to beat them on price. But if we do, we have to import it, and that’s where the big chains have a huge advantage from an economy of scale standpoint. Stores like us are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to container shipments. But we do import because we have to compete. The whole landscape is changing and we have to figure out how to carve out our own niche. That’s why I decided on the Made in America approach, the quick shipping upholstery from England (500 fabrics and leather custom order, in your house within 21 days, etc.), that’s something the chain stores can’t do and we can. And this has been a great model of success for our mid-sized family owned business.

“All that being said, I also have the best store designer in my corner, Connie! So, with everything else we do, we have as well been blessed with one of the most beautiful and updated showrooms in our state. The space she did I would put up against anyone in the country!”

One of Preston’s favorite maxims, “Don’t be afraid to be bold or different”. Great advice! Here’s an appropriate quote from that legendary song, “A fightin’ spirit in a thinkin’ mind”!

  • John Bassett III’s “Factory Man”, a New York Times bestseller. “How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town.” 

  • Connie Post, “A Beautiful Room Will Change Your Life: Your Personal Guide to Color”, a selection of the Homestyle Book Club. Affordable Design Solutions.

“My grandfather told a story that was passed down from his father and grandfather about Davy Crockett. And here it is...

“Back in the early 1800s,” says Preston Matthews, “Davy Crockett was the best hunter and shot in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky. One day he and his buddies went hunting for bear up in the mountains and had no luck. While they were walking through the woods, they came upon a squirrel high up in the trees above them. Having no luck hunting for bear, they decided to shoot at squirrels. So he aimed up at the squirrel and shot but missed, and the squirrel just jumped on another branch. He shot again and missed. His buddies were all laughing and poking fun at him because he was the best shooter in the mountains and was legendary . . . but he couldn’t hit this evasive squirrel! It was like the squirrel was taunting him, there was something mystical about it!

“After chasing this squirrel through the forest and using up all his ammo, he gave up finally and they headed back to camp about two miles away. Once they got there, they were all sitting around the campfire drinking, eating and telling stories and they heard a noise above them in the trees. They looked up and it was the same squirrel they’d been shooting at; it had followed them to the camp! So Davy grabbed his gun and put the squirrel in its sites and he wasn’t going to miss this time. The squirrel actually had come much closer down the tree to them and was just sitting on a branch right above him about 10 feet away. He had no fear of the man who’d been shooting at him (or her) all afternoon. So Davy put the squirrel square in his sights again and the squirrel didn’t move at all.

“Davy was getting ready to pull the trigger but just couldn’t do it because this little cute animal, living in harmony with nature, had no fear and didn’t flinch. So he put his gun down and what happened next was incredible! The squirrel jumped down from the tree and climbed on Davy’s shoulder and wanted to be his friend. Maybe it was the first time this animal had seen a human and didn’t know any better. He hand fed this little animal some fruit and nuts.

“So this is the essence of the Legend of Brown Squirrel Furniture, unique, eco-friendly and a part of its environment!”

Taken Prisioner: The other side of the Brown Squirrel Furniture family tree, Renee Matthews.
Preston says his wife Renee Matthews, Store Decorator is “phenomenal”. Her family also has an interesting back story. Renee’s mother, father (Tom and Eleanor Lewis) and two older brothers were taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1941, about two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The family were kept in a horrendous camp, once the campus of Santa Tomas University, for three years. Renee’s parents raised her brothers with an allotment of only one bowl of rice a day for each family.

Tom Lewis had worked for Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals internationally before the War and had been setting up a distributorship in Manila when the Philippines fell. With his contacts, he was able to organize an underground network to get medication and supplies to other prisoners in need from Manila and fortunately was never caught. He kept a detailed manuscript hidden in a bamboo shoot in the roof line of the shack they occupied. It was well known in camp that if contraband was discovered by the Japanese, they would force the prisoner to dig his own grave before shooting them.

Her father weighed 195 pounds when first incarcerated, 90 pounds when rescued by the Regiment of the Texas Rangers, “the greatest rescue story in all of WWII”. Her mother weighed less than 80 pounds. Astonishingly, the rescue party was led by Renee’s uncle, her mother’s brother. There were originally 1400 prisoners at the camp, at the time of rescue, only 160.

Once WWII came to its conclusion and the family made it back to the U.S.A., they were recognized as the first POWs to return. There is a famous picture of their ship navigating under the Golden Gate bridge, flags waving, water hoses spraying, welcoming them home.

The Red Cross found them a room “with beds”, magically to them, the first beds in which they’d slept in more than three years. And that night, the story goes, Renee’s older sister was conceived. Renee was a “late baby”, her mother almost 45. Renee and Preston treasure the original 500 page manuscript. Perhaps there is a movie in the making!

Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.