Furniture sales speeding along in Motor Row
Windy City Furniture going strong, not worried about entertainment district
05/30/2012 10:00 PM
It would be wrong to call Windy City Furniture disorganized.
The Motor Row furniture store definitely has a system. Rows and rows of chairs stand along the store’s southern wall, mattresses are clustered near the back and paintings and TVs have their own sections, as do lamps, cabinets and mirrors.
But, at the same time, the store seems determined to get as much out of the space as possible. Silk screens and trays are stacked atop cabinets, and chairs are stacked atop of each other like puzzle pieces.
“Look at all this stuff!” said Vella Jones, a first-time customer. “It’s unbelievable.”
Windy City Furniture is not just any furniture store. For the past four generations, it has been selling used hotel furniture to other hotels, motels and individual customers. For the past 20 years, the shop has made its home in Motor Row, just south of the intersection of Cermak Road and Michigan Avenue.
According to the owner Michael Cooper, the store has moved locations several times, but they have always been somewhere in the South Loop or Near West Side. And he has every intention to stay in the area in the future.
Windy City Furniture got its start at the Maxwell Street Market. Like many immigrants, Cooper’s great-grandfather used this open-air market to make a living.
“My great-grandfather got odds and ends from hotels,” Cooper said. “Just stuff the hotels wanted to get rid of. “
Originally, Cooper’s great-grandfather got belongings guests left behind when they checked out. But, over time, the hotels started to sell him used furniture, and Windy City Furniture was born.
The store has survived several economic boom and bust cycles, and they kept the prices relatively low.
“The prices are based on what I’m paying for them, plus the moving costs,” Cooper explained. “We try to keep the prices as cheap as possible, and we do try to make a slim profit.”
According to Cooper, what he pays for the furniture is based on the prices hotels set. This explains why, for example, some chairs are cheaper than others, even if they don’t look much different from each other.
The condition of the furniture is important for Cooper. He put it in pragmatic terms – if the furniture is too damaged or too worn out, nobody would buy it. The shipping costs are also a major concern.
“Even if the hotels give the furniture away for free, between the labor and trucking, moving costs money,” he said. “If the hotels have one or two damaged chairs, I’d be happy to take them off their hands, but if they’ve got a whole room of damaged furniture, it’s not worth it.”
Cooper said that, generally speaking, hotels go through a five-to-seven year cycle where they try to sell off the furniture, mostly to keep up with the changing tastes. If the hotel comes under new management, the new owners may want to change the furniture sooner.
Cooper said that the current recession has affected Windy City Furniture.
“When a country goes into a recession, the hotels don’t have money to remodel, so we get less clients,” he said.
But while business may be tougher than before, Windy City Furniture is not exactly hurting for customers. The store gets considerable walk-in traffic during the weekends, to the point where cars sometimes have to park in columns along the sidewalk. Even on weekdays when traffic’s slower, it’s common to see customers loading furniture into their cars in front of the store.
Kimberly Cox has been working for Windy City Furniture for the past three months. During an average day, she is usually the one who answers the customers’ questions and helps them find what they’re looking for.
“It’s an easy job,” she said with a smile. “The furniture practically sells itself.”
Windy City Furniture also benefits from repeat customers. Jimmy Smith has been coming to the store for over 20 years, and he’s been visiting fairly regularly.
“I usually come every three months,” said Smith, “just to see if something catches my eye.”
On this particular day, he bought something, but by his own admission, that doesn’t always happen.
“Sometimes, I just like to look.”
Even as Windy City Furniture continues to attract customers, plans are afoot to rezone the surrounding stretches of Michigan Avenue to support a new entertainment district. The store wouldn’t be affected by zoning changes, but, surrounded by restaurants and entertainment venues, it would look distinctly out of place.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) told Chicago Journal that he isn’t aware of any issues with Windy City Furniture remaining at its current location, but that if the issues do emerge, he would be happy to discuss them with the owner.
For now, Cooper isn’t particularly concerned.
“It’s all very vague at this point,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect us. And we could always use more business on Michigan Avenue.”