Furniture with a purpose - Catering to two markets

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Owner of:
Wilkerson Row
Gallery/showrooms: New Orleans and Houston
Shop location: New Orleans
Shop size: 3,000 sq. ft.
Employees: 4
Primary product: Reclaimed furniture
Katrina's effect on business: "Katrina was good for my business on many accounts. Everybody who lost their homes lost their furniture and then got insurance money to buy new furniture. It hasn't increased dramatically from pre-Katrina levels but at the same time it hasn't hurt it. I'm getting a lot of customers that are stating, 'I've wanted one of these beds for 10 years. I lost my bed in the storm so now I'm buying this bed from you.' "

"Almost invariably, my reclaimed lumber comes from demolition contractors. Years ago, when I first came into business, I would have to tear it down myself: find demolition sites, make the deal and get the wood. Now I buy so much of it, I have demolition contractors who call me, almost like lumber dealers.

"Someone will call and say they have 5,000 bf of heart pine. I'll inquire about how thick is it, what are the widths, things like that. And last but not least, how much do you want for it?"

Wilkerson also salvages "barge boards," which are basically twice-reclaimed wood. In the 19th century, wooden barges floated down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, carrying some cargo but mostly people. Once the barges reached their destination, wood was off-loaded and sold to builders who used it to skin houses.

"Instead of stud walls they would basically build a 4x4 frame using 4x4s on the vertical and the horizontal," Wilkerson explained. "Then they would skin that with the barge board on an upright basis. This would never pass any sort of inspection in a million years, but then again these houses are 120 years old, so they did just fine."

Barge boards are mostly white pine, fir and poplar; northern woods that were floated down the river. Wilkerson has recovered barge boards from houses built as far back as 1849, including two in Pointe a la Hache, La. They were demolished after Hurricane Katrina, when they fell off of their foundations.

Catering to two markets
Wilkerson's New Orleans' gallery is on Magazine St., and the shop is at a second location within the city. The Houston showroom is in a large strip mall a bit southwest of the central city, not far from the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium. Wilkerson has a gallery director in Houston and gets to both cities at least once every two weeks, which are about 325 miles apart as the crow flies.

"My biggest sellers in New Orleans and Houston are tables. And when I say tables I mean it runs the gamut. Sometimes I'll sell a lot of [tables made with] rustic barge board or heart pine; all different sizes with different bases. Sometimes trestle bases, tapered leg, cabriole leg; that's what I've seen. There is a demand for custom tables in both locations.

"People in Houston have a lot of money and they are willing to spend it. But they want something different. They want people to walk into their house and slam their hand down and say, 'Where did you get that?' This is why I have come up with a new contemporary line."

Wilkerson said he's often asked about Wilkerson Row's longevity, especially since so many other local shops have gone out of business.

"I answer that there are two reasons. First, I'm a woodworker and a lot of other failed shops weren't run by woodworkers. The second reason is that I am a businessman. Running two different locations — actually three locations [including the shop] — requires administrative skills."