For Merrill Gattis, Oct. 31 is shaping up to be a difficult day.
After 65 years in business, he will close Colony Furniture for the final time and stroll somewhat reluctantly into retirement – a late casualty of the 2008 recession and the ever-changing whims of the American consumer.
Standing in the Providence Road store for an interview recently, Gattis, a pioneer in the retail furniture business, paused with his wife, Gail Maynard, to reflect on those final hours.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” said Gattis, 90, when asked. “It won’t be a happy day; let me tell you that.”
To understand the life trajectory of Colony Furniture is to journey back in time -- back to an era when, for some Charlotte families, a simple trip to a furniture store was not so simple at all, a time when ordinary items like chairs and tables and beds played a far more important role in transforming a house into a place for living.
Gattis, a student at Davidson College in 1941, found his place in that uniquely American trend almost by sheer luck.
Showcasing Dutch furniture makers
After spending three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, returned to a nation greatly changed.
“It was the building boom,” he recalled. “All the servicemen who had been gone wanted to come back, get married, and have a house to live in. And, of course, with building, they had to furnish their houses.”
Rather than return to school, Gattis, at the urging of his father in-law, chose furniture retailing, instead. He started the store with two friends on Colony Road. He eventually bought out his partners and later moved the store to Providence Road, where it has been since 1964.
As with most start-ups, success was not immediate.
“We’ve always paid our bills,” he said. “But it took, I guess, three or four years before I knew it was going to fly.”
It won’t be a happy day; let me tell you that.
Merrill Gattis, Colony Furniture owner, on closing the doors Oct. 31.
What set Colony Furniture apart, Gattis said, was his early employment of interior designers, a move later copied by some of his high-end competitors.
Also unlike his competitors, Gattis traveled to Grand Rapids, Mich., and later to Europe, to stock his store, bypassing the N.C. furniture industry.
In those days, he said, Grand Rapids was famous for Dutch furniture makers who brought their skills to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were especially skillful at woodworking, he said.
Maynard joined the company in 1970, about a year after she finished her training to be an interior designer. The couple married much later.
Gattis credits Maynard for much of the company’s success.
“She has been our guiding light, really,” he said.
Maynard demurred but agreed that she and Gattis worked well as a team.
“We always sort of had the same vision,” she said.
‘We did good’
For decades, Colony Furniture thrived as a Charlotte institution, especially among high-end families who wanted something different.
“For a long time after the war, people seemed to want to buy quality things, good things, nice things,” he said. “In the last few years, it seems they’ve gone the other way and tend to buy more disposable furniture, things they use for a few years then put out on the curb and exchange. That’s how the business has changed.”
It wasn’t until 2008, however, when the severe recession hit, that Colony Furniture suffered its mortal blow. Maynard recalled bankers coming in concerned that they would even have a job.
The furniture store never fully recovered.
Gattis said he wanted to sell the business but couldn’t find the right buyer.
“If they had enough money to buy it, they could start their own,” he said, “and if they didn’t have enough money to buy it, we didn’t want to sell it to them.”
So on Oct. 31 – Halloween – Gattis and Maynard will walk away from the business they spent the better part of their lives building.
“It’s a sad thing really, that we won’t be seeing the people everyday that we have dealt with other the years,” he said. “And it’s a sad thing to lose people that work for you that will have their lives disrupted because you are closing. That was one of the hardest things for us to come to grips with.”
Overall, however, Gattis said he has few regrets.
“We’ve had a very successful business, until these last years, of course,” he said. “I’ve been very pleased. I’ve enjoyed the work…. We did good.”