GARDNER – When Jim, Buddy and Joe Rome went into the furniture sales business in 1945, they could pick and choose from many high-end furniture manufacturers operating in the city and surrounding communities.
Even when the family started the Factory Coop on Logan Street in 1983, many local businesses were still making chairs, tables, hutches and many other furniture products.
It is a different world for Arthur and Bruce Rome, the current members of the Rome family in the furniture business. Today there is only one major furniture maker in the city, and only a handful of furniture outlets in Greater Gardner. The high-end furniture the family sells through the Factory Coop, and their flagship outlet store, Rome Furniture, is now mostly sourced nationally and internationally.
In two months there will also be one less furniture outlet in the city. The Romes have announced that they will be closing the Factory Coop, consolidating their business into the Rome Furniture store nearby on Main Street. The decision was made to better position the company for the future, ending an experiment that became a 33-year success story for the company.
In November, the store will close and the family expects to sell the building, but Arthur Rome, president of Rome Furniture, said the family’s tradition started 71 years ago will continue in the four-story Rome Furniture store at 562 Main St. The store, which like the Factory Coop has 50,000 square feet of floor space in what was once the C.H. Hartshorn Co. furniture factory, has been operated by the family along with the Factory Coop since 1998. During the transition, the Factory Coop will hold a closeout sale, offering its floor models at heavily discounted prices.
Bruce Rome said already some of the more popular furniture lines sold in the Factory Coop, including Amish furniture made in the Midwest, are being offered for sale at Rome Furniture.
The Factory Coop started off as an experiment. In 1983, Rome Furniture was in a small store downtown, catering mainly to local customers. The company, which started as an appliance business, gradually went also into furniture sales. Learning that the Kelly Bros. factory building at 45 Logan St. was up for sale, Joseph Rome, Bruce Rome’s father, purchased the building. After a trial run in the fall of 1982 proved successful, the family completed renovations and opened the store the following year. The 127-year-old building, where Reed baby carriages and later living room furniture were once made, is still solid. The large beams you can see as you walk through the showroom show no sag and add charm to what is now a modern sales business.
The company hoped that the new store would attract customers from outside Greater Gardner looking for good-quality furniture. The plan proved successful and the location helped Gardner become a destination for furniture buyers from throughout Massachusetts and other New England states.
“We used to sell a tremendous amount of local furniture here,” Arthur Rome said.
Mr. Rome said companies like Nichols & Stone Co. used to sell many of their seconds in the basement of the store. Upstairs, many different first-quality local and national brands were for sale. At one time the company had 15 to 20 local businesses they could draw on. Those businesses are now gone. The last major furniture company in Gardner is Standard Chair of Gardner. The factory on South Main Street makes hardwood chairs, rockers and other furniture, including college chairs that bear the seal of colleges and other organizations. The company still employs more that 100 people, according to Trevor Beauregard, the city’s director of economic development and planning.
“But there is little left of the furniture makers,” Mr. Beauregard said. “There are some individuals who still make furniture.”
Mr. Beauregard said the largest industry in the city now is paper making, with several businesses employing a total of more than 600 people. The companies include Seaman Paper Co., Garlock Printing and Dennecrepe Corp.
“That’s probably our staple industry in the city now,” he said.
The city has become more diversified in its business community, according to Mayor Mark P. Hawke. Along with paper companies, biotechnology, plastics and biomedical businesses have opened up in the last 20 years.
Mr. Hawke grew up on Pearl Street, in a house where the first furniture making took place in the city. In 1805, James M. Comee made wood and flag-seated chairs at his home at 162 Pearl St. By 1967, the city was the furniture capital of the world, with 6,800 people employed in the industry at some level. Mr. Hawke said he appreciates what the furniture industry did for the city, but he said the future of Gardner is a diverse business economy.
“We will mourn the loss of Gem Industries, Nichols and Stone Co. and others, but we now have companies like American Biomedical, New England Peptide and Advanced Cable Ties. We’re incredibly diverse,” he said.
Bruce Rome said that even the numbers of outlets stores in the city are fewer. R. Smith Furniture is no longer in business; the old factory it was in has been torn down and replaced by a health club.
“There used to be a Gardner Furniture Outlet Association,” Mr. Rome added. “It is no more.”
The association is now gone, but Rome Furniture still draws customers from across the state. The city also has Lachance Interiors at 25 Kraft St. and 501 West Broadway, and Gardner Discount Furniture at 380 Main St. There are also several furniture stores in neighboring towns, including Templeton Furniture on Baldwinville Road in Templeton.
The Rome family still faces challenges from low-quality furniture makers overseas that sell in bulk through big-box stores, and from a dwindling number of American manufacturers, but Arthur Rome said Rome Furniture will continue to do what it does best, serving generations of customers with first-quality furniture wherever it can be found.
“Our business is really built on decades of return customers,” he said. “People still drive great distances to visit us.”