Gordon Hecht chats with a 2,000 year-old man about his experiences in the furniture industry over the past 150 years.
Congratulations to Furniture World on its 150th year of bringing news and insights about the wonderful world of home furnishings. The publication has outlasted many other publications including Newsweek, The Sporting News, Gourmet, Look, and (ironically) Success.
I was recently contacted by a man who claims to be 2,000 years old. He says that he spent the last 150 years in the home furnishings business and was the first subscriber to Furniture World. We chatted about our furniture experiences and here is part of that conversation.
Gordon Hecht: You claim to be over 2,000 years old. That’s quite remarkable! Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner used to do a skit about a 2,000-year-old man.
2000-Year-Old Man: No, I’m not 2,000 years old. Not yet anyway. I’ll be 2,000 next Wednesday. I am not looking forward to the cake! Dial 911 if you know what I mean. And that other 2,000-year-old man, that’s my older cousin Sol. He was in the needle trades and made the suit that Napoleon wore. But do you think he could sew up a sofa cushion for me? No way… always too busy to help a family member.
Gordon Hecht: Were you always in the furniture business?
2000-Year-Old Man: No, I was a baker until 1870. I hired Marie Antoinette as my spokesmodel. I came up with the tag line “Let them eat cake.“ After that I opened a contemporary furniture store that only sold Early American merchandise.
Gordon Hecht: Tell me about some of the technology that was available back then.
2000-Year-Old Man: Sure—we had a pencil. That was it. I liked the Ticonderoga brand. It was state of the-freakin’-art at the time. People were always losing their pencils, so it was my idea to paint them yellow. We delivered on an ox cart. Once we missed a delivery and I told the customer that our ox broke down. So, the customer brought his family down to the store expecting a barbecue.
Gordon Hecht: Where were the factories in those days?
2000-Year-Old Man: In 1870 we were cabinetmakers. The shop was originally next to the kitchen. Mama made the furniture at night after cooking dinner. She could cook a brisket and carve a broken pediment all in the same day. Soon we started buying from real factories in Jamestown, New York, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Later when someone noticed that there was a bunch of wood in North Carolina, everything shifted down there.
Gordon Hecht: How did you place orders back then?
2000-Year-Old Man: We were known as the quick delivery store. I used the Pony Express to send in my orders. Our slogan was “Buy it today, get it next decade!“ I hear that lots of consumers are complaining about slow delivery times now during the pandemic, so if there are any Furniture World readers out there who would like to license my slogan, have them give me a call!
All the good stuff came from North Carolina. We made good money until customers learned about the 800 number stores in 1912.
Gordon Hecht: Could people call an 800 number and order direct in 1912?
2000-Year-Old Man: What do you mean call? There were only 27 telephones in the whole country. I’m talking about three discount stores located at 800 Riverdale Drive in High Point. People drove their Model Ts there. It could take weeks. You should know my store had one of the first telephones. We would advertise our phone number. “For the best furniture in town, dial 6.” That was our number—just 6. Since we had the only phone in town, we didn’t get a call until 1918.
Gordon Hecht: Did you sell mattresses in your store?
2000-Year-Old Man: Yes, we carried only the best brands and models.
Gordon Hecht: So, you sold the Big “S” brands back then?
2000-Year-Old Man: No, back then we stuck to the “H“ brands—Hay, Husks, or Horsehair.
Gordon Hecht: What do you think of the new Bed-in-a-Box concept?
2000-Year-Old Man: Not so new! We had a Bed-in-a-Box Gallery in 1921. It was run by Hiram the Undertaker. He advertised a Pine Bed in a Box!
Gordon Hecht: What do you think have been the major influences on the furniture business in the last 150 years?
2000-Year-Old Man: It’s technology. I am not talking about all these fancy computers and tablets. Even Moses had a couple of tablets! I’m talking about how things move forward. Styles change, and in our business, you must stay ahead of the trends. If you see a sofa or dining room that looks like it’s “way out there” then you probably should bring it into your store. Stay ahead of the curve. You gotta take a few risks and expect a few failures. But don’t miss out! Back in 1928, my cousins Knabush and Shoemaker showed me a chair that leaned back. I threw them out of the showroom telling them “this will never sell.” They started the La-Z-Boy Company.
Gordon Hecht: Tell me about how you have advertised your store.
2000-Year-Old Man: When I started, I paid this little short French guy to paint the store name on my delivery ox. I think his name was Toulouse-Lautrec; his first name was Hank or something like that. He did good work and it wasn’t cheap!
I've learned never go cheap on advertising. First, we advertised in the newspaper. I always paid for page three-upper right corner, just where your thumb goes. On radio I sponsored Life of Riley, Fred Allen, and Fibber McGee. Those were shows people didn’t miss. When television came around, I canceled my radio contract and paid extra to be on Milton Berle, Your Show of Shows, and Ed Sullivan. The price was twice as much as other shows, but three times as many people watched them!
It’s no different today. Even with the internet, spend the money to bring the people in! You can’t have a be-back without having a “be.”
Gordon Hecht: What advice would you give to people in our business during these unprecedented changing times.
2000-Year-Old Man: In the last 150 years I’ve seen a lot. Two World Wars, multiple economic depressions and recessions, dust bowls, great presidents, and some lousy presidents, and even Polio, the Spanish Flu, and AIDS.
I didn’t get to be 2,000 years old by running scared at every bump in the road. Sure, things may seem crummy right now, but people in our business are survivors. It’s time to get creative and plan for the future. Never stop reading (especially Furniture World) and never stop learning.