Community service that makes sense and supports Gorin's core business and core values.
Lester Gorin believes in his grandmother’s vision of the American dream. That’s probably because his family has been able to prove many times over that the dream is alive and well. He was raised in a third floor tenement in Norwich. “My father finally bought a two family house, but I didn’t live in a single family home until after I got married.”
Back in 1936, his parents, Martha and Samuel, “cracker-jack upholsterers”, opened a shop on Franklin Street in downtown Norwich, Connecticut. The Colonial Upholstery Shop grew and grew until the couple took over all four floors of the building.
When Lester returned to Norwich after his service in the Marines, he joined the business. “Soon we branched out into appliances and furniture, and by 1971 we realized the building was just too small for us, and we made the then new and radical decision to move out of the city to the more suburban Norwichtown area, on the New London Turnpike.” The pioneer venture became the Colonial Upholstery and Furniture Company. Since 1971, there have been five major expansions. There’s another presently underway, part of which involves adding a second floor to the structure.
With the help of two of his four children, son Glen and daughter Wendy Gorin Ladd, Lester is firmly in charge of the burgeoning enterprise, “a medium to medium-high price point store”. But his horizons are as broad as his active imagination carries him. With his wife, Johnatha, Lester has been involved in Connecticut Social Services, Child and Family, that assists people in abusive situations or who are in need of dental and medical services. They also “ship mattresses to Haiti when a container’s going”, under the auspices of The Haitian Foundation. “Jeremiah Lowney, an orthodontist, heads it up and he’s destined for sainthood,” Lester told us.
“It breaks your heart that 55 percent of the population of the United States has no access to the dream, stuck in crazy circumstances with no way out. You would be shocked at how many families, especially elderly people and single parents, actually have to choose between buying food and medicine, never mind furniture.
“There are a lot of stores that are doing things in their communities. Furniture retailers in general are a wonderful group of people and most want to give back to their communities.”
Jane Cieslak, who runs the bookkeeping department at Gorin’s said, “From the get go, Lester as a community leader wanted to find ways, and provide the means, to give back to people. He has been taking care of the public arena for as long as I can remember, and he’s always done this pretty much anonymously.”
How To Start A FURNITURE BANK
“Through the years,” Lester continued, “we’ve had furniture that came back from customers that we donated to churches or tried to find homes for.” But he felt that the effort could be better coordinated. “This is something I always wanted to do, and we have been doing it for years but on the QT; the public didn’t know about it.
“We also got to the point where we’d built a large warehouse facility, something else I’d always wanted for a long time.” Serendipity! The warehouse has been described as “about the size of a Home Depot-type retailer”. Lester has marked off a section for a special use, to hold “gently used” furniture. He said once, “It’s furniture to furnish hope, and put a smile on someone’s face,” his motivation to establish a Furniture Bank. He envisions that single parent or a family in need of a couch, a bed, chairs, a dining table, the necessities of creating a home.
“I found out about the National Furniture Bank Association (NFBA), and talked with Tom Polk. (Vice President of Charitable Services and Chairman of the Board of Directors). He provided me with an enormous amount of information from the Association’s operating manuals. I did a lot of follow-up research and then I contacted the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut. They have partnerships with so many different agencies. They were thrilled with the idea of partnering with us.”
United Way officials say that those who could benefit from the Furniture Bank are “women and children fleeing from domestic violence, families struggling to pay bills or those who have been homeless but are transitioning to permanent-type housing”.
The National Furniture Bank Association is the non-profit association of furniture banks in America. It works to increase the service capacity of existing furniture banks and to open others in areas without one. It was in 1999 that 20 furniture bank operators from across the country created the NFBA. There are now 50 banks affiliated with the NFBA and another 20 in the development phase.
The Association defines a furniture bank as a non-profit organization which collects new or gently used home furnishings from the general public and corporations, then provides it to individuals and families in need. They currently serve over 100,000 people a year and have assisted over one million since the inception of the programme.
Gorin’s Furniture supports the NFBA as a member with the $1,000 annual fee. And, as Jane told us, the NFBA provides its members with a great deal of assistance in networking, consulting, training, and communication vehicles as well as centralized group insurance and accounting, legal and public relations.
But as Jane said, Lester “chose to do it on his own. The whole cost of the operation is totally absorbed by Gorin’s. We didn’t go out looking for funding and we needed to tweak the concept a bit without the necessity of coping with the paperwork and government regulations you need to start a non-profit organization. From what we understand, we’re the first company to partner with United Way.
“On the 13th of June we had our first structured formal meeting with United Way, and in July they developed special sophisticated software for us, a database that matches furniture on inventory to those in need. In August, we started collecting furniture and, also in August, Lester had a kickoff in the store with a live disk jockey! We provided cards to our customers, and refrigerator magnets to take home. It was like Christmas morning!
“We worked out a cooperative system with United Way. They have a coordinator between the agency and the furniture we bring in. Each time we receive a donation, we go out and inspect it. We pick it up, record it as inventory and put in the donor’s name and address. Some prefer to be anonymous. United Way sends an acknowledgement/thank you letter. The donor fills out the enclosed form, and sends it in when she/he files income tax.
“Once a match is made by United Way, based on the inventory we have, we assign and touch base with the ‘client’ and then make the delivery in one of our brand new Gorin’s trucks, something to be proud of! Actually, we call the people who are receiving the furniture, ‘customers’. One day they probably will be!”
We asked Lester for his thoughts on how a retailer might “get started”. He said, “You can start any way you want, maybe through your local church or synagogue. They all have needy families.” Warehouse space? “Whatever scale you want to go or can go. Designate an area in your warehouse and rack your donations. If you help even five families a year, it’s five families that wouldn’t receive help otherwise.
“Why do it? Because it’s fun, it’s fun to help these people. Just look around! How can you pass by Santa out there banging a bell? You don’t have to go to the scale we have if you are a smaller store.
“Every furniture store gets requests to take away old furniture when new purchases are delivered. You must screen it as to whether the furniture coming back has any life left in it. Glen has empowered our delivery people to make decisions; if they wouldn’t want to have it in their home, they wouldn’t want to see it in a needy person’s home. The furniture must be ‘gently used’, something you or they could be proud of. We’re helping the ecology, too, keeping furniture out of the landfill!
“We use the same trucks, the same men and so could you. Do NOT do repairs. That’s what you don’t want to do. You’re not looking for junk, that’s so important. The furniture you pick up must be in condition for delivery, not brand new but serviceable and attractive. If it isn’t in good condition, our delivery people say ‘thank you for thinking of us, but we don’t need this’. We don’t worry about liability. United Way takes out an insurance policy to protect us and the person receiving the furniture signs a waiver of liability.”
Brochures describing the system are made available to Gorin’s customers. And informational literature is posted around the store. Lester plans to run trade-in sales in 2007. “We use United Way logos in our print advertising and ask customers to call us if they have merchandise to donate. Our local radio stations run Furniture Bank commercials at no cost because it is a community effort. They are more than happy to work with us.
“We use our preferred customer list for promotions and events. And we have customer appreciation nights. Every customer who buys from us gets a handwritten note, detailing the furniture they purchased.
“In today’s world, as independent retailers, we have to separate ourselves from the big box stores and you’ll see that people want to do business with stores that are active in the community. As I’ve said, this is something I’ve always wanted to do, but there is some selfishness, too. The time has come when I want Gorin’s Furniture to have recognition that we care. We pay for our own drivers, our own warehouse space and have no outside funding. You can’t write off your extra expenses, can’t take them twice. We’d be running the trucks anyway, we are using the space.
furniture bank benefits
“One of our sales persons gave a couple the literature about the Furniture Bank just after they’d bought a leather sofa. The man read it, turned to his wife and said, ‘Honey, I told you we were in the right store to do business.’ That’s great public relations! And wouldn’t you feel good?”
Jane told us, “We’ve been so well received in the community that it is a simple delight! One of the challenges is getting the furniture. Lester goes to trade in sales and does many of the things Tom Polk shared with us. We discovered that we never seem to get enough bedding or casegoods, but upholstered furniture is more plentiful. But everyone needs bedding! Once 19 sets of bedding were needed at one time!
“Five years down the road, I would like to see us serving all this section of the State, and serving it well. We believe it will also give our business a unique niche, unlike the big box stores. Wendy and I work together and do a lot of the networking in our area. Wendy has done a marvelous job of coordination; she is the point person in the overall operation of the Furniture Bank.
“Lester’s commitment is motivating. He has so much enthusiasm and energy and we all have so much fun!”
Said Lester, “I hope we can serve as a role model, and this could take place in every community in America.”
The giveaway refrigerator magnets carry both Gorin’s and United Way logos. The text reads, “FURNISHING HOPE! Donate your gently used furniture to a person or family in need in our community through the Gorin’s Cooperative Furniture Bank in partnership with United Way. For more information and furniture pickup, 860-887-2579.”
And Lester invites you to call either Jane or Wendy at that same number. Don Lawrence, Vice President of Communications, National Furniture Bank Association, can be reached at 800-576-0774. And their websites are:
Gorin’s Furniture, www.gorinsfurniture.com.
National Furniture Bank Association. www.Help1Up.org.