By Jessica Masulli Reyes
reprinted with permission NN Herald, all rights reserved.
Nearly four decades ago, Jim Downing was peeling potatoes onto the New Jersey Herald newspaper when he glanced down to see a real estate advertisement for a barn and house in Sparta.
Downing saw the ad as an opportunity to grow his hobby and home business of crafting furniture in his garage into an established business with a warehouse and store on North Church Road. He purchased the property and spent the next few years laboring over every piece of furniture that was sold in Downings Furniture.
He soon found that he "had to work longer and longer and longer to make money," so he turned to selling furniture rather than making it.
"It all became a big blur from there because it snowballed into a pretty good business," Downing said.
Downings Furniture, the well-known and highly praised Sparta store, will close after 39 years in business. All furniture in the four buildings and two outdoor tents is being sold at marked-down prices in hopes that the store will be liquidated by mid-July.
"The sale has been incredibly successful, but I still have so much," Downing said Friday. "I had no idea how much furniture I had."
While the closing is bittersweet for the 65-year-old, he plans to make the most of his soon-to-be retirement, especially after working almost every day for 39 years. He plans to start retirement by relaxing and continuing to grow his weight-loss business.
"I look forward to doing what I want to do when I want to do it," he said. "I haven't done that since, oh, maybe high school."
Downing said the closing is not just about his retirement; it is also due to the downturn in the economy. As the housing market has slowed, so to has the furniture business, since people are staying put and getting a longer life out of the furniture they have.
"The absence of any kind of real estate transfers has caused a slowdown," he said, adding that this slowdown has been ongoing for six years.
He said in the labor intensive business of furniture selling he has worked hard, but the economy has made it more and more difficult to turn a profit. He has weathered four recessions over the 39 years, but he said each one has hit harder and longer, with this one being the worst.
"I have no idea how I did this for that long, and for six years it has just been going down," he said. "Any small business person tries to weather those storms."
However, Downing has found a passion in something besides furniture that is doing well in this economy. About three years ago he started losing weight and wanted others to do so through Ideal Weight Loss of New Jersey. He and his wife, Laura, started the business, which is now housed in one of the buildings at Downings Furniture.
"It has been incredibly successful and gratifying," he said.
The weight loss program focuses on individuals getting enough protein and losing weight through pre-made meals. He has seen firsthand how the method has helped people to lose weight, learn healthy living techniques and go off medications when the program is followed correctly. He has lost 45 pounds, putting him at his high school weight.
"It's a very different feeling than selling a mattress or recliner," he said about the business, adding that the program sells itself as people see the success he and others have had with it.
"It feels like a labor of love, not a business," he said.
He plans to move the weight loss business into the main house where furniture was sold, but he is not sure what will become of the other side houses and property yet.
Whether selling furniture or aiding in weight loss, Downing said clients should be treated well. He said at the furniture store his motto has been that customers should be treated as he would want his mother treated if she were to walk into a furniture store.
"It's the way a small business should be," he said.
His long-term employees were the ones by his side making Downings Furniture as successful as it was, and Downing said that when he was ready to close about three years ago, his employees kept him going.
"I stayed open for two years for them, hoping that the economy would turn around," he said. "I had many good employees. It wasn't just me."
Because of this motto and the employees, Downing said that when he first sent a letter to his customers to explain that he was closing, they showed up in great numbers to get a final piece of furniture and voice their kind words.
"I will miss the customers we served," he said. "The majority of our customers are not customers, but friends."
Now that the store will be closed, he plans to come full circle and possibly get back to his hobby of making furniture. He once did it for pleasure, but he said when it became his business, the hobby aspect of it was wrecked.
"I am hoping to get back in the shop to do it for fun," he said.
In retirement, he will continue to stay active and run the Ideal Weight Loss of New Jersey business, but he said his time owning Downings Furniture has been well worth it.
"It was fate that those potato peels fell on that ad," he said, but he concluded that it is time to move on.
Profit Management Promotions is one of the nation’s leading sales promotion firms serving the home furnishings industry. Established in 1985, the company is headquartered in Jamison, Pennsylvania, and maintains regional offices in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. Visit their web site at www.pmpsales.com
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