Area Modern Furniture weathers Elm Street transitions

by Rich Lewis

It takes a special kind of merchant to make it in downtown Greensboro, a place that can be wonderful, quirky and cantankerous all at the same time. Retail can be tough in the best of places and circumstances, and Area Modern Furniture’s Mark Hewett has captained his ship well for a decade and a half now.

It could have been a great sitcom – an Englishman selling mid-century modern designs in the heart of traditional furniture making country while trying to fit into an ever-changing downtown area – but luckily it has worked out as a great local story instead.

Hewett, a native of Birmingham, England came to North Carolina by way of New York City where he had worked as a designer. Working with regional furniture manufacturers eventually led him south and presented him with an opportunity to jump into the local furniture retail scene.

“We started out two doors down at 515 S. Elm and moved here a year and a half ago,” Hewett said. “We’d gotten to the point where we needed to expand, so we bought this building. It gave us security and permanence, we wanted to stay on this street.”

That long-haul commitment speaks a lot to Hewett’s patience and understanding of business for downtown merchants.

“We’ve always been growing, but you can tell there has been a changing of the old guard down here,” he continued. “There’s definitely been a shift in recent years as people have retired and stores have come and gone. The foot traffic has been slowing and we’re in a definite transitional period. During the day it is quiet and on the weekends, we see the most people come in.”

It hasn’t always been like this, but Hewett has patience and faith that it will come back around to busier levels throughout the week. A sister store to this one in Durham helps keep everything going well for him overall, but he’s built up a strong business methodology that keeps Area not just up and running, but quietly thriving.

A big part of that is the merchandise itself. Hewett obviously has an eye for design and the furnishings and appointments in the store stand out as being markedly different from the usual fare in this area. Mid-century modern furnishings are characterized by minimalist designs that became popular between 1933 and 1963. Characterized by the works of Eames and Herman Miller, and influenced heavily by Danish Modern designs, you’ve probably seen it featured prominently in TV shows like AMC’s Mad Men and just about any production from the 1950s or ’60s. It never really went out of style and has seen a resurgence in recent years.

“People like the simplicity and functionality of this style,” Hewett said. “And some of the items have such incredible character that people just fall in love with them. We’ve had people come in here as students and they tell us, ‘I’ll be back someday,’ and they do, years later when they are ready to furnish their own homes.”

That customer loyalty is something Hewett and his staff work hard to cultivate, and it has more to do with concentrating on the people rather than marketing efforts. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into someone at a restaurant or someplace and they ask if I remember them. I have to say, I might not remember your name, but I do remember that couch you bought.”

Pricing is also important, especially in this day and age of online research and purchasing. “People do their research before they ever come into your store,” he continued. “Being an independent store gives us a better perspective of that and our customers are often surprised they can get the same pieces here for considerably less than they could online.”

Many of their furnishings and décor products are North Carolina-produced as well as much of the upholstery textiles. Being close to the source and having long relationships with the companies helps.

He explained that because they were a small location with less overhead, they could work with a smaller mark-up. “We work as efficiently as possible here. I’m delivering our furniture in our own truck, we don’t do sales commissions, it all helps.”

And then there’s Downtown Greensboro to contend with. Hewett said that while the merchant community in the area is like a big family, with folks helping each other out on a daily basis, sometimes the environment works against them.

Shopping centers are everywhere across the sprawling Greensboro city limits, so attracting business back to downtown is a constant effort. One of the biggest hassles, parking, has gotten worse in recent years as the City became more aggressive in its parking enforcement activities. While it was a big money-maker for the City, it only took a parking ticket or two for a casual shopper to write off the downtown area. City-run pay parking lots have been a nightmare as well with spotty service of automated systems leading to frustrations and violations.

“They (the City) are easing up on ticketing now,” Hewett said. “And the City is trying something new with the lot next to me and the one next to M’Coul’s Public House being free parking at all times now. I think this will help.”

“We’ve got more bars and restaurants coming in all the time,” he continued, “but if they (the City) want to maintain daytime retail downtown, they’ve got to get parking right.”

However it shakes out, Hewett will still be there. He’s proven that Area is a survivor and that it has been built to last. Just like the products it sells, if you stick with classics that can adapt, you can make it for the long run.

If you’d like to stop by, swing down to Area Modern Furniture at 515 S. Elm Street in Greensboro. The store is open Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can also grab a quick look by checking out their website at !

RICH LEWIS is a father, husband, writer and cook who makes his home in Greensboro, NC.