â€˜Furniture rowâ€™ dwindling
For the last couple decades, little dots of Romeâ€™s business history have been quietly disappearing from Broad Street.
The latest on the list, Adams Furniture, is set to close by the end of July, leaving the street with fewer than five furniture retailers. Twenty years ago, there were 10 furniture stores on the street, plus several more on other downtown roads.
â€œThere was a time when this was furniture row down here, and there were a lot of family-owned operations,â€ Adams said, noting that large chain stores now make it harder for the small stores to compete. â€œWeâ€™ve been able to stay a little longer than some of the folks, and thatâ€™s just because of the loyalty of the customer base.â€
His reason for closing now, he said, has more to do with turning 65 than the competition.
â€œThis has provided a good living for all of us,â€ Adams said about the store, which he ran with help from his wife and their son and daughter. Adams has run the store for 22 years, after buying it from his employer of 25 years â€” Maxwell Brothers Furniture, based in Augusta.
Through their history, downtownâ€™s furniture stores have been family operations in more ways than one. During the 1970s and â€™80s, seven stores were run by relatives of the Robbins family, said Lee Hampton of Leeâ€™s Furniture. He owns the store along with his wife, SueEllen Hampton, whose mother was a Robbins.
The family and those who married into it have run stores under the names Jack Robbins, Joe Robbins, Chester Robbins, Duncan, Quarles, Leeâ€™s and Jack Shaw.
All of those stores are gone now except Jack Robbins and Leeâ€™s.
Stores outside the family, like Wyattâ€™s, have also closed â€” among them McBrayer Brothers, which closed last year after almost 60 years in business.
â€œIâ€™ve been on Broad Street for 29 years,â€ Lee Hampton said about he and his wifeâ€™s business, which started off in a building where the Cotton Block Park is now. â€œIâ€™ve seen a lot (of stores) go, I guess. Basically the biggest reason is people just get ready to retire.â€
Hampton disagrees with the assumption that chain stores beat the small guys with lower prices, saying the big stores have such high overhead costs that stores such as his can often sell furniture for less. The bigger problem he sees for homegrown stores is that few people want to work the long hours and weekends that are required to be successful.
â€œA small retail place, itâ€™s time consuming. You donâ€™t get a lot of free time,â€ he said. â€œThe business is there as long youâ€™re willing to be there. You can make a living. Itâ€™s just a matter of how long you want to do it.â€
Greg Fricks, former owner of the now-closed Fricks Furniture on Broad Street, agrees that the tough work schedule has played a role in the dwindling of locally owned stores.
â€œI never had a Saturday off in my life,â€ he says about his life before closing the store in June 2003. â€œThere are so many other ways for our children to make a living without working six days a week in a retail setting.â€
Since then, however, his wife, Ramona, has found a way to run a similar business, still selling much of the same furniture but with a focus on interior design for referral customers â€” and shorter store hours.
The reopened R.J. Fricks gallery is an offshoot of the old Bill Fricks Furniture Co., founded by Greg Fricksâ€™ father in 1967.
The bottom line also played a role in the familyâ€™s decision, Greg added.
â€œWe had stores in Rome and Carrollton, and we were doing almost $4 million a year in sales,â€ Fricks said. â€œBut we were kind of beating our heads against the wall, because we were doing a lot of business but we werenâ€™t making much money.â€
Part of the problem, he said, is the widespread switch to imported furniture, made overseas at a much lower cost but still of high quality.
The lower prices are good for the customers but put a pinch on the retailersâ€™ profit margins, Fricks said. â€œIt still costs the retailer the same amount of money to display, deliver and set it up in a customerâ€™s home.â€
Beth and Dale Swann, owners of Jack Robbins Furniture â€” which was founded by and bears the name of Bethâ€™s father â€” say the market has been tough lately, but it has also made them more efficient and selective with their inventory.
â€œNowadays you make sure that what you order is almost certainly going to sell,â€ Dale said.
The store, like others still on Broad Street, has a long history in downtown Rome.
Jack Robbins was in business for 50 years before the Swanns took over the store in the late 1990s. At 110 Broad St., the building that now houses it has been home to several stores through the years, including Harper-Nichols, Joe Robbins, Impact Furniture and McBrayer Brothers Furniture.
Whatever the causes, the Swanns say they hate to watch so many of their fellow furniture dealers close their doors.
â€œItâ€™s sad to see the old business go out,â€ Beth Swann said. â€œItâ€™s a part of Rome.â€
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