Friday, May 18, 2012

Kalamazoo's furniture Emporium (Revised)

For the few hours that Emporium—an antique furniture store in downtown Kalamazoo—opens each day, a colorful flag on the back of a Ford pickup waves passersby into the large parking lot. Between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on weeknights, and 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on weekends, customers squeeze themselves through narrow aisles to scope out furniture and other trinkets. 

“It’s haphazard,” says Amanda, a woman in her 20s who recently moved to the area. She stops by to look around and to see what kinds of furnishings the store holds. “I’m afraid I’m gonna, like, tip something over! I don’t know how they get it all in here.”

The furniture at Emporium fills three old farm buildings. Chairs rest on sideboards and tables balance on top of one another. “There’s a whole lot of people that wouldn’t set foot in this place,” says its owner, Bob Medema. “People who are wantin’ modern things. They don’t come here. They don’t understand this.”

Bob opened Emporium 44 years ago. Dave Cretsinger, the only other employee, joined him four years later. Bob says he initially organized his small collection of furniture into room arrangements. As he and Dave accumulated products over the years, however, they gave up on keeping things orderly. “Wherever we find a place to set [a piece] down,” Dave says, is where it goes.

A red barn serves as Emporium’s main structure, separated from a small building in the back by a pile of furniture that has not yet been pulled inside. Across a wide driveway, a long, cinderblock building runs along the length of the other two. Bob says the property used to serve various farm functions, from providing an area to hatch chickens, to storing feed.

No obvious characteristics differentiate the furniture in each space. Each building smells damp and slightly musty. Bob and Dave, however, have a methodology to choosing a building for each piece. They keep furnishings made of lighter wood and ones with flaws in the finish in the small back building. The concrete floor and ceiling produce significant moisture, they explain, especially during the spring, which leads to more furniture damage.

The hum of fans provides soothing white noise in each of the three buildings, but most notably in the largest. Bob and Dave use them to deal with the humidity problem. “A cheap fan is wonderful. You need air circulating,” Bob says. The main red barn seems airiest and houses the widest variety of objects, from a Victorian-looking doll carriage to a disconnected water fountain. 

Customers react differently to the chaos and sprawl that characterizes Emporium. Chris Latiolais, a fan of 17th and 18th century European antiques, finds the arrangement off-putting. “It tends to be dirty and it quite often is cold there…it’s certainly not the type of shop where you just enjoy the actual ambiance,” he says. He also questions the quality of Emporium’s products, noting that people may not go there to find fine antiques.

Bob and Dave hold their products in high opinion, but recognize that not all are of top-notch caliber. Part of this comes from their decision to help out neighbors looking for some quick cash. One Thursday evening, two men come in with a couple of benches they hope to sell. Dave pulls Bob out of the barn to negotiate price, warning him in advance that the benches appear to have come from a kitchen set. “I don’t want none of that stuff,” Bob says, but wanders outside anyway.

One of the men greets him with a friendly “Hey Bob.” He explains that the benches came from a friend’s church.

“These ain’t outta no church.  Don’t tell me these are out of a church, ‘cuz they’re not.” Bob responds. 

After some inspection, Dave clarifies: “They came with a kitchen table.” Bob repeats the sentiment.

The men insist that they got the benches because their friend planned to buy new ones for her center of worship.

“Well it musta been an awful poor church,” Bob eventually says.

“Yeah, it was,” says the vendor.

Eventually Bob buys the benches for $12, despite the sellers’ insistence that he give them at least $15. Although Bob and Dave consider the benches low quality and doubt they will sell, they buy them to help out the men who brought them in. The sellers are what Bob and Dave call street people: “people who are down on their luck…need some money, so it’s kind of like a donation,” says Dave. He and Bob find it important to help people out a bit when they need it. “If I lose money just giving it away I don’t feel bad, ‘cuz once in a while they’re bringing something good, and you gotta learn to give stuff away,” Bob says.

The bright side of the bench purchase: the sellers brought a pair. “I’m a nut for pairs,” Bob says, “Oh, I can’t tell you how much I like two.” The upstairs area of the barn—accessed by a staircase lined with customer thank-you notes, testaments to Bob and Dave’s popularity—houses endless chairs. Bob has them set out in surprisingly organized, even-numbered clusters, as if waiting for an audience to fill them. An odd chair confuses people, says Bob. “They can’t figure out money when it comes to five chairs.”

Pairs crop up in other areas of the store. Two glass panels hang from the ceiling of the biggest building, their symmetry offset by a large parrot hanging nearby and holding a Corona. In the back of the building, two advertising posters from a teen clothing store brighten up the walls. Bob says he hung them up so that young people will know they are welcome.

The young people that visit Emporium do not seem to be the type to buy colorful, branded outfits. All the same, they do come to the store in fairly large numbers. Several couples and groups of friends in their mid- to late-twenties pass through over the course of two nights. “Old stuff. I like old stuff,” says one woman, dressed in a dark clothing, in an aloof tone. “They have a lot of everything,” her shopping companion says, affirming their interest. “A lot of stuff from everywhere.”

At the end of a Tuesday night, a pickup truck pulls into the driveway. Bob and Dave walk over to greet a frequent seller. They have known the man, Scott, for years, having first met him at shows in Ann Arbor. Scott comes by a couple of times a month to sell furniture he has bought at estate and other sales.

Scott, Bob and Dave discuss the pieces he has brought—a full furniture set, including a narrow set of drawers called a lingerie chest—while conversing like old friends. No haggling happens this time. Scott’s wife, Denise, says Scott writes down the amount he paid for the furniture and Bob gives him a reasonable profit.

It takes a while to unload the pieces. The sun begins to set as Emporium nears closing time, while Bob and Dave enjoy a last trade for the evening. A neon sign takes over for the now less-vibrant flag, reminding potential customers that the store’s window of business will stay open for just a few more minutes.

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