People often ask me how we got started in the furniture restoration business. I like to answer that was part necessity, part love, and part luck.
Let’s start with Gerry, the backbone of the business. As a lad in upstate New York, he was raised by parents who grew up during the depression and never threw anything away. If it was usable, it was re-used, refurbished and given a new life. One of Gerry’s earliest memories is when a hickory tree in their yard was struck by lightning, his dad used the wood of the damaged tree to make lamps and handles for tools.
Gerry’s dad owned several rental homes and furnished them with appliances and furniture he bought new, but damaged and at a discount so he could fix them up. Soon, the kids (all ten of them) joined him in refurbishing the houses and furniture.
In later years, a typical Altman family reunion event consisted of some family members going on what they called “Junkin’ Excursions” to yard sales, thrift stores and old barns – American Pickers style. By this time, Gerry had developed a love of old furniture and his purchases were usually quality pieces that were in need of a little TLC.
Gerry graduated from Penn State University with a teaching degree and got a job with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Anxious to learn how to properly restore the vintage furniture he had purchased, he visited several refinishing shops in the area for advice, subscribed to woodworking magazines and eventually honed his skills. Other teachers were impressed by his craftsmanship and asked him to find and restore pieces for them. He often drove his van home to family reunions and loaded it with good pickins’ for himself and his friends. As his reputation grew, he decided to moonlight as a refinisher and opened Gerry’s Customer Refinishing, offering his services to friends and other teachers.
Now let’s go to me, as Gerry calls me, the lifeblood of the business. Growing up in Oregon, I was also raised by depression era parents who bought used furniture, not to fix it up, but because it was cheaper. We learned early on that we had to have a vivid imagination to turn household objects into toys and games. We used clothes pins for toy soldiers, rocks for marbles, and made musical instruments out of tin cans. We once made an entire village out of appliance boxes we got from the grocery store they were building across the street. We learned to paint and draw and how to be creative.
After studying art in college, I became a banker, crunching numbers instead of painting masterpieces. Throughout my 20-year career I developed skills in marketing, organization, accounting, time management – all the stuff required to run a small business. During a reassignment to the Los Angeles area, I met Gerry in a ski club we both belonged to.
I was homesick for the northwest and Gerry was looking for a way out of LA, so we both moved to Portland in the middle of the school year. While waiting for a teaching position to open up, Gerry thought he’d test the market for refinishing furniture. We made 1000 flyers and walked them door to door, offering a 20% discount to new customers. The phone started ringing off the hook. We found a little building for sale 4 blocks away from our home and snatched it up (from proceeds from the sale of Gerry’s home in L.A.)
Gerry had turned his part-time job and hobby into a full-time business, and he never looked back.
I continued my job at the bank, but worked evenings and weekends doing the books and drumming up new business. Gerry hired a couple of part-time employees from the local trade school. One became full-time after graduation and he remains a dear friend and our best and most loyal employee ever! We added a couple more employees and the business grew.
In 1991 I decided to retire from the bank and work for Gerry’s Custom Refinishing full time as the Operations Manager and Director of Marketing. That basically meant that I answered the phones, paid the bills, ran errands and distributed the 20% discount coupons throughout the neighborhood.
I vividly remember the day I became the refinisher. It was December, almost Christmas and Gerry was home sick in bed with the flu. Our full time refinisher suddenly quit and a customer called, wanting to know if her dining set would be ready for Christmas dinner. Frantic, I carried a chair home to Gerry’s bedside and said “Tell me what I need to do.” He gave me step by step directions on how to properly sand the furniture with the grain (fortunately it had already been stripped) then how apply the stain and finish, carefully sanding and pasting between each coat. I finished the project on time and the customer was happy. We never replaced the refinisher who quit.
Gerry taught me all his secrets in refinishing and I changed my title to Operations and Design. I was the new refinisher. And loving every minute of it!
We are now called the Furniture Doctors and have moved our business to Scottsdale Arizona.
So, out of necessity for a job, for the love of what we do, and a little bit of good luck, we started a business in 1986 which continues today.