by Jordan Green
A trolley tour provides access to High Point furniture showrooms for non-insiders.
Like many recent efforts in High Point, the Furniture, Art & Accessory Trolley Tour was a work in progress, subject to trial, error and refinement.
A trolley bus operated by Kannapolis Charters & Tours, much like the ones that convey wholesale buyers from the park-and-ride lots to the furniture market during the biannual event, ferried ordinary customers from the Southern Railway Depot to showrooms scattered around the city on May 1 and 2. The roughly 35 stops included six showrooms that are ordinarily only open to what’s known in the business as “the trade” — that is, designers and wholesale buyers.
“There’s been a lot of interest from participants,” Dorothy Darr, one of the organizers of the tour, told Carol Gregg, owner of Red Egg during a stop at the showroom. “They said, ‘I didn’t know. I wasn’t on the list.’ Well, now you know, and we can get you in to the next one.”
Gregg said she thought that the timing of the tour — less than a week after the end of the spring market — might have deterred some of the showrooms from participating.
“It’s tough when it’s close to market because everyone’s photographing,” she said.
Darr described Red Egg’s style as a combination of Eastern and Western, adding, “It downplays the filigree stuff that the Orientals do and emphasizes the rationality of Western furniture. It’s smaller than the stuff that people were making for McMansions. It’s more for people who are downsizing for urban living.”
Red Egg’s showroom, which faces the railroad tracks, is less than three blocks from the depot. Gregg said when she moved to High Point to start Red Egg 10 years ago she envisioned having a retail presence, but paradoxically the scale of the market priced her out of the prime real estate that would give her the visibility to operate a viable store.
“That was my idea — to open a store,” she said. “But there was no activity downtown and no one would rent to me because they could get so much more money at market time, so they didn’t want their buildings tied up.”
For Darr, who organized the tour with a grant from the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau and help from Monica Peters of We “Heart” High Point and Paul Siceloff of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the initiative offered the opportunity to break down barriers between the furniture industry and local consumers. Gregg, who leases her building from Darr, indicated she was happy to participate.
“It’s a way to introduce us to the public,” she said.
With this first run of the tour, Darr thought there might be room for improvement. As she waited for the trolley to return to Red Egg, she suggested to Gregg that it would be more convenient if the trolley stopped for a couple minutes at each location to allow people time to browse. She added that she wished the trolley’s bell was operating to let riders know when it had arrived.
Gregg in turn suggested that having a guide who was familiar with home furnishings would be helpful. The driver later acknowledged that he was unable to answer riders’ questions about the various showrooms’ offerings.
By the second day, the bell had been repaired. The weather also markedly improved, from overcast to nearly cloudless. The number of visitors rose likewise, from one to five on the trolley at any given time to about a dozen, with riders exchanging tips about the various showrooms.
Red Egg was doing a brisk trade, with about 16 customers on the first day, although many of them were interior designers, who ordinarily make up the core of the company’s clientele. It couldn’t have hurt that the pieces, including a whiskey bar, were marked down from wholesale to what Gregg called “slash and burn prices.”
A small display table that wholesales for $1,360 was available for $300, and rattan chairs could be had for $200.
“They snapped up these pieces because they knew they could pass them on to their clients,” Gregg said.
While a year-round retail presence in High Point is not yet feasible for Red Egg, the production end of its business has been re-shored. All of the company’s wood furniture, with the exception of rattan pieces imported from the Philippines, is manufactured in the United States. Gregg said she sources her wood furniture from “cottage industries” in High Point, Greensboro, Archdale and Thomasville. Outside of North Carolina, her only manufacturing source is an Amish enterprise in Pennsylvania.
Gregg said her decision to move her company’s manufacturing back to North Carolina came about because of competition for contracts with Asian suppliers.
“A lot of the bigger furniture companies were going over there to manufacture, and all these great factories I worked with were getting swallowed up by the Barnhardts and companies like that,” Gregg said. “I said, ‘Let me swim upstream.’”
As part of their effort to combat the typically moribund state of High Point’s central business district, the organizers put together an event at the Depot, with live music by a blues and country group called Peace Train, beer and wine tastings provided by David Armstrong of Brewer’s Kettle and an art exhibit by Brian Davis Studios on the first day of the tour. The two-day event cost $2,700, all of which was covered by the grant from the convention and visitors bureau, Darr said. About two-thirds of the cost went to renting the trolley.
Christie and Brian Schoeppner of High Point were among a handful of riders on the trolley’s southern route on the first day. They were looking for items to furnish their home, including a dining room table and lighting. Christie Schoeppner said she appreciated the tour because, while many of the showrooms are open to the public year round, it can be hard to figure out where they’re located.
“I want to find something to buy,” she said. “We came here with that intention.”