Some enter High Point retail sector as others prepare to leave

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Martha Ann Harris credit Jordan Green
Martha Ann Harris and her husband own Vintage Thrift and Antiques.

by Jordan Green

Eclectic collections of furniture-related businesses that operate throughout the year and welcome the public present a mixed picture in efforts to improve retail commerce in High Point.

The central business district in High Point converts into a massive international trade show for the home-furnishing industry for a week in the spring and then again in the fall every year. Between those two spikes, the showrooms more or less shut down and the streets become eerily devoid of foot traffic. Restaurants and retail commerce are virtually nonexistent.

The dynamic has been highlighted by urban designer Andrés Duany during visits to the city over the past two years. Building on citizen interest surrounding Duany’s visits, former mayoral candidate Marcus Brandon called for diversification of the downtown economy. And Gov. Pat McCrory expressed interest in expanding the furniture market to 365 days a year.

Yet beyond a general interest in bringing more vibrancy to downtown, many of the showrooms remain closed to the public, while a cohort of retail stores filling niche markets soldiers on with mixed prospects.

The opening of Madcap Cottage, a retail storefront and home base to the design team of Jason Oliver Nixon and John Loecke, during the recent fall market drew media coverage from a number of outlets. Nixon touted the cost and sourcing advantages of the city for designers, compared to Madcap Cottage’s former base in Brooklyn, during a panel discussion with other designers during the market.

Martha Ann Harris and her husband, Chip, are among those who have seen opportunities for year-round trade in furniture-related goods in High Point. They opened Vintage Thrift and Antiques behind the Alex’s House restaurant on North Main Street in October 2011, and two years ago moved across the street into their current location, a two-story frame house built in 1902. The spacious rooms are filled with tasteful displays of armchairs, dinnerware, knickknacks, vintage magazines, posters, the odd table-and-chair set and even some original art. The Harrises quickly found 60 vendors to lease space.

“Everybody’s selling great stuff,” Martha Ann Harris said. “They have great prices. Nothing’s too high. Because it’s High Point; they’re not what they used to be in the ’90s and ’80s.”

Another store on the block, the Gilded Lily, closed about a year ago. Harris said she and her husband would like to see more retail businesses come join them to create a critical mass of consumer demand.

“With Calico Collection down the street we pass people back and forth between walkable stores like ours,” Harris said. “If you go to downtown Asheboro, there’s several antique stores you can walk back and forth between. If we don’t have something we send them to Calico Collection.”

Although they are scattered around the city, several notable stores buck the paradigm of closed wholesale trade limited to the spring and fall market, by doing business year round and selling directly to members of the public.

John Aspley credit Jordan Green
John Aspley is threatening to relocate his business, Antiques & Interiors.

• Bless Your Nest, located cattycorner to Krispy Kreme on North Main Street, sells sofas, chairs, sectionals and ottomans manufactured in nearby Thomasville by Younger Furniture.

• Zaki Oriental Rugs has a 100,000-square foot showroom on South Main Street with a selection of handmade rugs imported from Pakistan, India, Turkey and Iran.

• Alan Ferguson & Associates, located on North Main Street, focuses on home decorating, with garden accessories, wedding décor, floral designs and gifts.

• Baker Furniture has a showroom on North Hamilton Street. Showroom Manager Debra Sommerville characterizes Baker as one of the city’s “anchor showrooms,” adding that the American-made furniture company is “sought after by both celebrity and international clients.”

• Capa, on North Main Street, has a 60,000-square feet showroom with 50,000 feet open to the general public. The store offers a full line of furniture accessories, outdoor teak, pottery and other goods at wholesale prices. Capa is a rare outlet for bronze from Thailand.

• With a massive showroom of more than a million square feet on Business 85, Furnitureland South advertises itself as the single largest furniture store in the world, selling brands like Lane, Lexington, Hooker and Kincaid at discounted prices.

Other High Point showrooms do business year round, but are only open to people who work in the trade. The High Point Design Center provides a directory of more than 40 showrooms located in and around downtown on its website. President Ron Bristow said he fields phone calls daily and has to explain that most of the showrooms are not open to members of the general public. Open all year, the High Point Design Center — disbursed among the scattered showrooms — calls itself “the premier destination for interior designers, architects, specifiers and builders working in residential and contract design.” With a few exceptions, the showrooms require buyers to present documentation to prove their business.

opium den credit Jordan Green
A 19th-century opium den is among Astley’s possessions.

While the Harrises and others are venturing into the High Point retail market, others like Antiques & Interiors owner John Aspley are thinking about bailing out. Located in a former warehouse on West Green Drive, Aspley has installed wood flooring to cover the concrete base. Labyrinthine corridors in the 12,000-square foot facility display hand-blown glass, driftwood sculpture, petrified wood bookends and specialty items like a 60-foot racing boat and a giant replica of the London Tower Bridge. Aspley built a wooden pub-style bar, and next to it he installed a vintage Chinese opium den that he purchased for $25,000 in England 20 years ago.

Aspley has been battling the city over a wholesale home-furnishings showroom tax that was raised from 6 cents to 15 cents per square foot in 2006. Aspley tried without success to get the city to amend the ordinance so that his business, which is open to the public and does significant retail trade, would not be covered. As an example of his typical business, he said a retail store in Florida placed an order for a handful of items last week. He doesn’t do any bulk sales.

Aspley, who has been in business for 19 years, said he told Duany last year: “You’re going to walk in with trumpets blaring and walk out with knives in your back.”

After speaking with numerous city council members and city managers past and present, Aspley has become frustrated.

“I’d like to leave, but the problem is I’m too deeply entrenched,” he said. “What really pissed me off is when Ryan Saunders got kicked to the curb. He’s a local lad and he wanted to help the town, and they threw him to the wolves. He was trying to hold events at the Pit. They told him he needed 12 police officers and to take out an insurance policy.”

Martha Ann Harris, the co-owner of Vintage Thrift and Antiques, said she sees little evidence of growth in year-round retail in High Point.

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Antiques & Interiors has a large selection of driftwood sculptures.

“The other retailers need to see progression,” she said. “If it’s not going on, they’re not going to put their business here.”

Aspley said the city’s cold reception from city council to the revitalization ideas put forward by Duany has soured him on the city.

“High Point’s over for retail,” he said. “The last straw is this downtown revitalization that Duany is trying to promote. They’ve thrown it to the curb.”

He said Antiques & Interiors has had great success at trade shows in Atlanta and Round Top, Texas. He’s been particularly pleased by offers of assistance from his hosts in Round Top, and said he is tempted to move his business there.

“I hope with this new mix on council the lights will be turned back on and they’ll endeavor quickly to change the tide and make some sensible decisions,” Aspley said. “In 12 months if nothing changes, I’ll be gone.”