Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

W.F. Booth and Son, Inc. - It's a Family Affair


When Wayland F. Booth signed a five year lease on a vacant lot in the village of Kilmarnock on October 14, 1920, he had no way of knowing he was establishing a family legacy that would sustain four generations of Booths yet to come. Wandering off the family’s Eagle Point Farm at Wicomico Church, he was a young man with an itch to do something other than tending the soil.

The Northern Neck was home to mostly farmers and fishermen at the time, but Wayland was determined to do other things. With no experience as a mercantile man, he and his wife Chloe built the first furniture store on leased land, a structure W.F. Booth still occupies today, more than ninety years later.

Wayland would travel to Baltimore and purchase second hand furniture he shipped by steamboat to Kilmarnock Wharf at the end of Waverly Avenue. Later he bought a Ford model T truck with wooden rims to which he nailed tire casings, in order to drive to Baltimore and bring back merchandise.

The enterprise survived good times and bad—the Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression, multiple town fires,
a world war, recessions, and social upheavals that gradually transformed the Northern Neck from a sleepy backwater to one of the most sought after spots in Virginia to retire or for folks looking for a second home in which to unwind. Through it all W.F. Booth has changed with the times, surviving on hard work, diversification, and the family’s desire to please their customers.

Although the used furniture made the store a success, as the seventies soul song would later croon, “Papa was a rollin’ stone” and for a time Wayland, ever restless, opened a pawn shop across the street, leaving Chloe to manage the furniture store. Although unusual for a woman to run a business in those days, perhaps it took a feminine touch because the business thrived. And then in 1929 the stock market crashed. The Booths lost their home but the business survived.

By the time Wayland Somerville Booth was ready to join the business and add ‘& Son’ to their marquee in 1934, the country was in the depths of a deep depression; tough times for furniture sales. The Booths worked hard keeping customers coming in the door with credit, barter, and trade; sofas for hams, or chairs for eggs. They sold caskets, guns, and woodstoves. They cut holly boughs in the woods and carted them to the mountains to sell for holiday decorations, then bought apples and hauled them home to sell at the store; whatever it took to keep the business alive.

Grandson Robert Booth remembers growing up surrounded by furniture. “I learned to walk in this store,” he fondly recalls, he and his daughter Cindy remembering the bartered hams that hung from the rafters in their garage. Bob spent summers and holidays learning the business and by the time he took over the reins in 1960, he and his late wife Connie shifted the focus of the store from used to new furniture.

As the seventies and eighties saw the decline of the area’s seafood industry and family farms gave way to development, a burgeoning middle class, military retirees, and well heeled urbanites came looking for second homes and discovered the beauty of the Northern Neck’s bay, river, and creek communities.

The Booths were busy not only selling furniture to newcomers looking for that laid back “rivah” look, they also provided full service decorating and, for many clients, also stocked refrigerators with fresh food for the weekends, turned on heat or air conditioning, and set out fresh towels and linens. The area continued to grow and today, during warm weather, the local population of 12,000 swells to 36,000 as weekend guests and homeowners head to the water. 

Step inside the 25,000 square foot store today and the wide plank floorboards are the same floors shoppers have trod for decades, but the inventory has changed from traditional and Queen Anne to today’s urban organic—relaxed, colorful, contemporary, and trendy. Rich leather, tasteful upholstery, slip-covered cottons, wicker and rattan, and a bounty of nautical and beach themes.

Bob, along with his sons Tim and Todd and daughter Cindy, wear many hats—selling, buying, and staging a broad inventory of indoor and outdoor furniture, rugs, lamps, bedding, and decorating accessories. They also offer custom design and decorating services including window treatments, flooring, shades and shutters, and wallpaper for clients as far north as Connecticut and as far south as Florida. They’ve even shipped to the Bahamas and as far away as Saudi Arabia.

One of their most challenging assignments was the Medical Center on Tangier Island. “It was wintertime,” Bob recalls, “and it was too rough to cross the Bay in boats so we had to hire airplanes to take everything to Tangier—carpet layers, wallpaper hangers, furniture, everything.” “We even had to take the seats out of the plane to get the carpet rolls to fit”, Cindy adds.

Twice a year Tim and Todd head off to the furniture markets in Highpoint NC, followed by the accessories markets in Atlanta looking for the latest in furniture styles and decorating trends and colors. “It’s a big revolving circle,” says Bob. “What was popular once, came and gone, comes around again. Years ago trends started in California, took three years to get to New York, and five years to get down here. Now, with the electronic world, it’s almost overnight.”
“Furniture colors follow very closely that of ladies’ apparel,” Bob points outs. “Look around at the fabrics on the walls,” says Todd. “Last year it was the neutrals, blues, grey, chocolate brown, and beige, but you’ll have to wait until next week when we get to the furniture markets to see what’s hot this year!” If form follows fashion, look for bright, bold colors in their showroom in the coming months.

“Everything in here is the wrong color,” Tim quips. “More than 60% of our sales are custom orders. We’ll put a sofa out on the floor and it will sell three or four times but not in that color.” It’s the nature of the business.

For the past four years, renovations have made up the bulk of their business as the real estate market has suffered through the downturn. “Demographics are changing too,” says Tim. “As folks buy homes in which they plan to retire, some never live to see retirement or plans change. We decorated one house three times for three different owners. The first two couples never moved in to enjoy it.”

The recession has presented a new set of challenges. A few years ago the store had plenty of inventory and few buyers. Now customers are returning in droves and the inventory pipeline between offshore suppliers and store owners is slow to fill. Fortunately, the Booths have maintained a healthy inventory through it all as Bob remembers being told time and again, “You cannot sell from an empty wagon.” That’s a philosophy that has served the business well through both good and lean times.

“We pride ourselves on the products we sell and the service we provide,” says Cindy. “We offer full service decorating along with our furnishings that customers appreciate. Returning customers love to just drop in to look, see what’s new, browse, and trade a few fishing stories.”

It was never assumed that ‘& Son’ would include successive generations and yet here they are, trading stories, past and present. “I tried to escape several times,” Tim laughs, “We all did, but it’s a family business so when Dad needed help he’d call.” Cindy nods in agreement. “I left for sixteen months to attend Thomas Nelson Community College because I wanted to work in the medical profession. Then blood-transmitted diseases went on the increase in the news and I asked myself why I was putting myself at risk and said ‘I’m done’ and I came home.” Todd went to California twice before joining the business and each agrees it was never forced on them, but a choice they consciously made. Ultimately the love of family and for the Northern Neck lured them home.

With a fifth generation waiting in the wings, some have already shown an interest in the business. The Booths have learned to appreciate the legacy that Wayland F. Booth left with his signature on that first lease ninety-three years ago. Despite long hours and hard work, it’s a family affair and those are the ties that bind them and the generations yet to come.