New address—same appeal
After 91 years in the same location, Boone’s Furniture & Gifts finally moved in 2006. Looking back, Joel and Julie Isley wonder what took them so long.
Out-of-towners passing through Gibsonville, N.C. (pop. 6,921) see a downtown packed with enough quaint shops and tree-lined streets to fill a chamber of commerce calendar. Joel Isley sees something different entirely. Isley and his wife run family-owned Boone’s Furniture & Gifts. From a retailer’s perspective, Joel Isley sees a less flattering side to downtown: Parallel parking, dwindling foot traffic, and a store with a detached warehouse and no loading dock. “Let’s just say it wasn’t very retail friendly,” says Isley. “There was a time and place for us in that location, but honestly that time and place was a long time ago.”
When Isley’s wife, Julie, inherited some land just outside downtown, the couple had a decision to make: Stay or go. For Joel, there was no decision, really. Staying downtown was tantamount to a death sentence for the third-generation store Joel and Julie were hoping to pass on to their daughters.
Julie knew her husband was right, but the heart has a way of clouding such matters. The store had been a fixture in downtown Gibsonville for 91 years. The other merchants downtown were like family. “Everyone looked out for each other,” she says. “We were like family.” Yet in the same breath she added, “But I guess there are times family members have to go their own way.”
So the Isleys went their own way. In 2006, they built a red-brick strip mall two miles and a world away from downtown in an open field alongside a country road. Boone’s served as the anchor store. The Isleys leased the spaces on either side—one to a pizza restaurant the other to a newspaper. Then the recession hit. The pizza restaurant changed ownership and the newspaper moved out. That was 2008.
“We went from being part of a close-knit family to being on an island,” Julie says. “We were in the middle of nowhere.”
But here’s the thing: Looking back, Joel and Julie Isley are convinced the move saved Boone’s. The family weathered the recession and lost some loyal customers with the move, but last year offered a glimmer of hope. Sales increased with each new month. “It was a very good year for us,” Joel says. “We might look back in a few years and say that 2016 was the turning point for us.”
It gets better. Last year developers announced a new sub-division will be built across the street from the store, some 50 new single-family houses priced in the mid-300s. More subdivisions are coming nearby.
For home furnishing retailers, new homes are like Indiana Jones finding a treasure map. Joel Isley’s eyes widen and a smile stretches across his face talking about the new homeowners who will soon be passing the family store on their daily commutes in the coming year. “It’s going to be hard for them to miss us!” he says.
The new Boone’s might be only two miles away from its old location downtown, but in many ways it’s a world away. The original store was poorly lit. The L-shaped building made it hard to display furniture in vignettes that a shopper could take in all at once. The 9,000-square-foot new store (nearly 3,000 more square feet than downtown) has a wide-open, modern feel to it. Sunlight pours through the floor to-ceiling front windows.
Julie handles a lot of the store’s merchandising and behind-the-scenes office work. Joel is on the floor, meeting, greeting and selling throughout the day. On a slow morning in the store, it’s easy to see they are each other’s biggest fan.
Joel on Julie: “People who knew us from our old store come in and are a little surprised,” Joel says. “We’re still the same store with the same lines—maybe we’ve added a few—but here we have so many options in terms of display and setup. (The new building) has given Julie so much more to work with. I saw the miracles she did with an L-shaped building. I wanted the new store to give her the opportunity to showcase what she can do. She doesn’t like the spotlight and all the accolades, but one look around the store and you can see she knows what she’s doing.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is Joel’s ability to help walk a customer through a sale. Gibsonville is a speck of a town along Interstate 40 between Raleigh and the Greensboro and Winston-Salem metropolitan area. In recent years, big box stores have sprouted up in the area, creeping closer to Gibsonville. But the chain furniture and home improvement stores are not a threat to Boone’s.
Julie on Joel: “Those big boxes just can’t compete with him,” she says. “Even though we’re in the furniture business, we’re still in the service business and Joel has the right personality and ability to listen and help people. It can be a little intimidating coming into a furniture store with all the styles, colors and options. I’ve seen Joel in action. He has a way with helping people clearly identify their needs.”
Joel reluctantly agrees. “When younger folks come in for the first time they don’t come in asking for an eight-way hand-tied line or a solid-wood line,” he says. “They don’t ask because they don’t know. That’s up to us to show them, to educate them on what’s available. Hopefully if we can get them into the store and teach them about the difference in quality from what we have and what the big boxes have, they’ll make the right decision. I’m not saying it’s easy and happens all the time. It’s still hard to do, but when we educate the consumer, especially the consumer who’s not on a tight budget, we have a pretty good (closing) rate.”
Says Julie, “The big stores can never offer the same service, the special touch we offer. We’ll always have that edge over them in that way.”
One of those touches comes with delivery. Living in a small town where everyone knows everyone has its advantages. “Joel doesn’t need you to be home to make a delivery,” says Julie. “He knows where everyone keeps their key. Some keep it under the grapevines, another keeps it under the pot on the porch. He knows all their secret places and they don’t have to worry about delivery. They come home and the furniture is there waiting for them.”
That trust, says Joel, is not given easily. “It’s all those years of trust (Julie’s) family has built up over the years running the store.”
Someday soon the Isleys will pass over that trust to a fourth generation—daughters Katie and Jodie. Both women work at the store on weekends. Katie Isley is a special education teacher in town and helps her parents out on weekends. She builds and maintains the store’s website, buys accessories for the store and promotes the store on social media, mainly through Facebook. Jodie works at a bank, but still finds time to come into the store Saturday mornings to help with office work. She also helps her sister in buying accessories.
Both sisters have pressed the importance of technology on their parents, something the parents are accepting, albeit begrudgingly. “We need to embrace technology a little more, but until we do, Katie’s the one doing that for us,” says Joel.
Katie brings another valuable asset to the company—potential fifth-generation owners Kaison, 2, and Kinley, 6, who report to work every Saturday as Boone’s special greeters. Kinley likes to decorate the store, her grandfather says. Kaison would rather play with the toys stashed behind the sales counter.
When a customer shows up, both grandchildren race to the front of the store to meet them. “Ninety-eight percent of the folks who come in accept and enjoy a little girl following them around,” Joel says. “It’s the 2 percent we have to be sensitive to.”
In truth, the Isleys and the family members who came before them, have been sensitive to their customers’needs for a long time. That might be one reason they’ve been around for 106 years regardless of where they call home. “It’s all about the next person who comes in that front door,” says Joel. “That’s the only way we know how to do things.”
What HFA Means to Me
“I’m a firm believer that if there’s a professional association in your industry you should be involved in it because you’ll have an organization that’s involved in helping your business. The bank card processing has helped us a lot over the years and we’re going to start taking advantage of the education available to us. I can’t remember when I wasn’t a member. Being part of the HFA is kind of like a piece of insurance. It’s nice to know that when we need their help, they’re going to be there for us.”
Boone’s Furniture & Gifts, Gibsonville, N.C.