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Retail Profile: James Reid Limited

Furniture World Magazine


James Reid Limited has big plans to celebrate their 300th anniversary in 2154!

We’re looking to celebrate our three hundredth anniversary in 2154,” said Jim Reid, fourth generation and most recent namesake of the founder. And he said it with the conviction you would expect of the original James Reid and his remarkable wife, Christianna Conklin Reid, who together conceptualized and established their successful and respected family business.

A feisty Irish immigrant from Killeyleigh, County Down, James The First made a good decision when he settled in prosperous Kingston, Ontario, where earlier in the century, other family members had made their home. In 1854, the population hovered around 15,000 souls. From 1841 to 1844, Kingston was the capital of the new nation of Canada before politics moved the centre of government to Ottawa. The attractive port city, perched on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, was safe harbour daily to as many as 30 to 40 lake and ocean going vessels. The city bustled with shipbuilding, and grain and whiskey were key industries.

The energetic young man opened the James Reid Funeral Home and Furniture Store before the first train arrived in Kingston, before electric lights, even before the streets were paved and 13 years before Canada’s official Confederation. “We’re older than Canada itself!” said Jim.

His great-grandfather had his eye on 252 Princess Street, one of the city’s 200 taverns and, when James was “wavering over the decision, it was Christianna’s resolve that ensured the deal was made”, surmises Sarah Reid, Jim’s daughter, one of the up and coming fifth generation. Either James took over his father-in-law’s successful upholstering business or Christianna strongly suggested they enter into the field of fine furniture and casket manufacturing and retailing.

Wherever the truth lies, Jim told us his great-grandparents occupied the second storey of the building as the family home, and it was here that their twelve children were raised. Christianna must have been exceedingly well organized since she and other female family members also contributed their considerable upholstering talents to the business.

Furniture was constructed on the premises in those days and building caskets was a natural evolution. Jim said that historically visitations were held in the home, services at the church, so families only needed someone to build a casket and provide transportation to the cemetery. “Their building skills and a pair of fine black horses were all that was required to become a funeral director in the 1850s.”

James eventually passed both his knowledge and the business itself to his son Fred who continued to expand the funeral component. He was succeeded by his son, James W. Reid, (the present owners’ father), who was well known and respected in the city as both a businessman and a race car aficionado. James, working with his sons Jim and Dave, added yet another furniture store and a funeral home, both located on Counter Street before he passed away in1997.

Over the years, the downtown store on Princess Street, the former tavern, was expanded, but the renovation was done with great care to preserve many original wall and trim details. The outside façade still reflects the ornate architecture of both 1854 and 1910.

The huge, resplendent showroom, now called “1854 House”, was once the Orpheum Theatre, and it still has soaring, pressed tin ceilings. The former stage is now the setting for fine furniture collections. In 1970, a mezzanine was added to hold La-Z-Boy chairs, wing and armchairs.

The following year, the second storey showroom, up the stairs to the left as you enter the store, materialized somewhat magically from what had been Kingston’s Bowl-O-Drome. Vestiges remain in the marble countertop and leaded glass mirror from the bowling alley’s lunch counter, opposite an alcove where bowlers sat to change their shoes. Said Jim, “I still remember Saturday mornings when someone got a strike upstairs. It sure shook the building!” Much quieter now, the showroom houses bedroom suites, sofas and casual dining sets.

But there’s more history to come. Downstairs, behind the original store but still connected to the main building, is a limestone structure that used to be the stables for the princely black horses. On the beamed main floor you’ll find leather furniture and, upstairs in the former hayloft, more bedroom furniture.

Reid’s has a well-deserved reputation for quality. “We specialize in North America’s finest furniture companies,” Dave Reid told us. “We buy the best from the best; we like to be on the leading edge of style and quality.” The stores carry whole-home needs, elegant down-filled sofas to functional sofa beds with a full range of casegoods and accessories, lighting, carpets and framed art prints.

Suppliers include Barrymore, Bradington-Young, Brunette Fine Furniture, Durham Bedroom Furniture, Gibbard Furniture Shops, Hancock & Moore, Harden, Hickory Chair, La-Z-Boy, Leda Furniture, Simmons, West and many more. “Whatever we don’t already carry,” assures Dave, “we can order.”

Marco Confalone, President, Leda Furniture, recently dropped by to congratulate the Reids. “We’ve been dealing with them for a number of years. I feel a particular kinship with them, another family company like our own. The Reids have built their reputation on quality for the last 150 years and will continue to do so for the next 150 years!”

The Reids’ collective lively imagination, a large part of the family success story, has conjured up a dazzling array of promotions for the 150th celebration. “We’ve developed mugs, pens, lapel pins and truck decals. Barrymore has created a sofa style called the Anniversary Special. There’s a James Reid Special mattress that we’ve sold since 1945, upgraded this year as an Anniversary Special. We have a set of solid cherry tables from Gibbard Furniture Shops to be awarded to some lucky person in a draw later this year. We’re planning an Open House through the original home, too, and that should be very popular.”

Both Dave and Jim were nominated for Citizen of the Year, and the stores for the Chamber of Commerce Presidential Award in October. “Wish us luck!” said Jim. Kingston’s two newspapers have published feature stories and Jim has been profiled on television, talking about the family’s history and community involvement.

The funeral home is also part of the action, donating $150 to a charity of a family’s choice, and sponsoring a daily “History” newspaper column, both in commemoration of the anniversary.

The furniture stores are advertised in all the local magazines, newspapers and on television. A preferred customer list is maintained and will be used increasingly for direct mail and event invitations. The funeral home utilizes newspaper advertising. “Our After Care team of three people keep in touch with clients via follow-up cards and telephone and we give monthly seminars for the public. We use direct mail for our Pre-Arrangement Programme.”

Dave and Jim and their dedicated staff of 20 benefit from continuous training, the partners in management techniques and the staff through factory tours and Dale Carnegie classroom courses. Markets in both High Point and Toronto are attended regularly.

Customer service is, of course, vital and Reid’s Mission Statement reinforces that: “We want you so satisfied that you recommend us to your children, as did your forebears since 1854.” Their caring free delivery all the way to Ottawa or Toronto and towns in between helps enormously!

Reid’s unique, special qualities, as well as creating and maintaining an extraordinary level of excitement, are “family continuity, commitment and involvement”, and they are spelled out in the lengthy list of charities with which they have been and are involved. Jim is “personally, a Rotarian, and corporately, every charity that comes along gets support.”

He feels good about business prospects. “Our local economy is good for our market. There is enough growth in the high end to give us at Reid’s manageable annual growth. There is so much competing for the consumers’ disposable income that I feel our industry needs to promote itself as a fashion source, not just a source of functional furniture.

“Each year we have a major project at one of the stores. Last year it was an all-new front and roof style at one store, the year before a large warehouse expansion. Next year is in limbo,” he said. We’ll be watching, Jim!

Sarah tells delightful stories from the past. “The first one takes place at the downtown location, where the funeral parlours, chapel and office stood beside the furniture store until recently. (The last funeral downtown occurred in 1990.) In an era of rudimentary intercoms with big red buttons on them, some staff worked in both funeral and furniture, as my dad Jim Reid continues to do. On one busy day, someone, we won’t say who, pushed a button on the intercom and bellowed, “Jack! Jack, get up and get in here!” Unfortunately, that button he pushed wasn’t for the office where Jack McNinch was sitting at his desk, but for one of the funeral parlours where a family was paying their respects to their loved one, Jack, lying in a casket before them.

“The second story happened in Cataraqui Cemetery on a very wet day. By this time, hearses pulled by horses had long been replaced by hearses with engines called coaches. As an aside, there had been a stint at ambulance service in between: the same way making furniture led into making caskets, keeping a vehicle for transporting deceased people led into transporting sick people --- but that didn’t last. In any case, this story involves a modern coach, unfortunately left in neutral beside the graveside. At the end of a rainy committal, the staff turned to see the hearse sliding backwards in the mud, precariously close to a slope of headstones. Saved by a sharp driver, it was a close call: much like their opposite, weddings, funerals are made of many small details going well. Danger avoided makes a good tale.”

“Two of Dave’s daughters come into the store to help out once a week,” said Jim. “It seems that the Reid family pride in tradition, style and continuity is solidly intact and will serve us and the community well.” The Reids are celebrating all year long, and Jim and Dave express their profound appreciation of the community that helped to make their sesquicentennial possible.