If you’ve lived in Modesto for a while, you know exactly what awaits “way out McHenry Avenue.”
The truthful catchphrase has been associated with longtime family business Al’s Furniture, located almost as far north on McHenry as you can go and still be in Modesto, since the 1990s, when the business began a seemingly ubiquitous ad campaign to get customers to visit the store just off Patterson Road.
And, goodness, did it work. Over its 55-year history, the store has won The Bee’s formerly annual Readers Choice awards at least 18 times, dominating the category. And despite its relatively remote retail location, the furniture business has been able to grow and thrive throughout the years, even amid the pandemic.
But now, the store known for its quality home furnishings and personal customer service is closing for good. Owner Kerry Walker, the daughter-in-law of store founders Al and Jan Walker, has decided to retire and close this chapter on the business that has become a local landmark. The store will shut for good April 30.
“We’re not closing the store because we have to,” said Walker, who was 18 and newly married when the store opened in 1968. “Since COVID, we’ve actually done better, and are doing well. But it’s just time to retire.”
Al’s Furniture was opened in the old Stoddard Schoolhouse building by Al Walker as an antique shop. Soon after, it transitioned to selling unfinished furniture. The new focus helped Al’s take off, and then for years the business was known as the premier unfinished furniture retailer in the region.
Then, as home trends changed, the Walkers switched to selling both unfinished and upholstered furniture. Through the years, they added other popular items, including waterbeds when that fad caught hold. Eventually, Al’s transitioned fully to finished and upholstered furnishings and today specializes in many well-known brands, including Flexsteel.
Along the way, the Walker family also renovated the old Stoddard School building, first built in 1904, added an extension to the store and built a storage warehouse in the back for growth to a 22,000-square-foot facility.
Al and Jan Walker retired in 1990, when Rick and Kerry bought the business from them and took over operations. Years earlier, the couple had come up with the idea for the commercials that became their signature, after customers kept coming in saying it was hard to find the store “way out McHenry Avenue.”
“We thought: Why not make something that’s a negative for us into a positive?” Walker said.
Other positives the store always has touted have been its customer service and quality. The store’s general manager, Dan Pedersen, has worked there 43 years. Its longest-serving salesperson, Cesar Gomes, has been with the company 27 years, and a handful of other employees have also worked there for more than two decades. The business currently has about 15 employees.
“It’s always felt like a big family here,” said Gomes, who started when the store still sold unfinished furniture. “And we always give customers a one-on-one experience. So the hardest part is people coming back in now, who’ve been customers of yours for 20-plus years, and saying goodbye to them for the last time.”
Among those longtime customers is Modesto resident Sue Davis, who has been shopping at Al’s for 35 years. She said basically every piece of furniture and many of the accessories in her home were bought at the Modesto store, including her couch, dining room table and a lot of artwork.
“I bought everything there over the last 35 years, I never went anywhere else. If they sold flooring and paint, I would have bought that there, too,” Davis said. “The quality was always excellent. And they always stood behind them, so if something was not right, they’d make it right.”
It was that focus on quality that the store’s founder, Al Walker, always lived by. It even was emblazoned on a plaque on the property with his motto: “I’d rather explain the price once than apologize for the quality forever.”
Kerry Walker has run the business since 2015, when Rick Walker retired. He passed away in 2020 from cancer. Kerry and Rick were married for 44 years but had divorced before his death. They stayed business partners throughout.
Walker’s two adult daughters live in different cities and largely not have been involved in running the family business over the years. So Walker said without a family member to succeed her, she felt the best option was to close. She had considered selling, but the process is often complicated and she wanted to leave with the business’s reputation and quality at its peak.
She owns the buildings and property, as well as a 42,000-square-foot warehouse on Jerusalem Court used for overflow inventory and storage. Walker plans to lease both sites but does not have any deals finalized for either space.
While some longtime local businesses in the region have bowed out recently with owners citing the lingering effects of the pandemic, Walker said Al’s emerged from the COVID-19 outbreak stronger. After initially closing the business for two months at the start of the pandemic, she said customers came back in force, eager for home improvements.
Now, as they wind down the store, they’re selling off all of their remaining inventory. Walker said customers have flooded in to shop and to share memories since the announcement of the closure. And it’s those same customers, she said, who will make leaving the business hardest of all.
“We are seeing the grandchildren of our original customers come in,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’ve been part of something worthwhile being a part of people’s lives like this and furnishing their homes all these years.”
Al’s Furniture, at 6340 McHenry Ave. in Modesto, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. For more information call 209-232-1606 or visit www.alsfurniture.com.
This story was originally published February 13, 2023, 5:30 AM.