After 90 years, Peoples Furniture closes in downtown Chester

dworthington@heraldonline.comFebruary 28, 2014 

— For 90 years, the Peoples Furniture Co. has served the needs of Chester’s residents.

The store earned a reputation for quality. The furniture was made of solid cherry, oak, maple and mahogany, no particle board covered with a thin plastic veneer.

The store also offered quality service, standing behind what it sold. If there was a problem, owner Walker Bridges would arrive at a customer’s doorstep, tools in hand, ready to fix a balky appliance or repair furniture. When he finished, customers asked the cost. He always responded, “nothing.”

At 2 p.m. Friday, Bridges locked the doors on the Main Street store for the last time to customers.

It was a bittersweet day for Bridges, who has been coming to the family business since he was 12. He started working there full time in 1958, making $50 a week, barely enough to support himself, much less his wife and child. He took ownership in 1970. He turns 80 in May.

He has done every job possible. He assembled furniture when he was a child, hand-drilling the holes for screws – six to a chair. There were no electric drills in those days, he said. He sold furniture, collected the money from patrons a week at a time, serviced what he sold, and then closed the store each night at 9 p.m.

At its heyday, Peoples Furniture Co. employed about 26 people, had six delivery trucks and three outside salespeople. In 1970, it had $1 million in sales.

Sitting behind his desk in a sparse showroom, Bridges said, “We once made money. But business isn’t there anymore. It went to the (J.A. Cochran) bypass. I decided to close. It’s about time.”

Waking up Friday morning, he knew it would be a melancholy day. He has invested so much of his life in the store.

“It’s been a good life,” he said.

As he started telling the history of the store, how his father, George, borrowed the money from his siblings to buy a one-third share in the business, how his four children grew up in the store, emotions took their toll.

He paused, wiping a tear from his eye. Crying, said his daughter Kay Morrow, is something her father seldom does.

“I didn’t know this would be that hard,” he said.

‘Man of his word’

The last customer through the door Friday was Diane Rawlinson. She came to pay her bill.

Bridges, Rawlinson said, “was a man of his word.” She said she learned about the value of quality from him and that “he was a person who respected you.”

Paying on time was a standard practice at Peoples. It’s how most of Chester’s mill workers afforded furniture.

When Chester had three operating mills – Gayle, Springs and Eureka – Bridges would get up hours before sunrise on Fridays and get $1,000 in cash from his bookkeeper. He would go the various mills, helping his employees cash mill workers’ checks and collecting the weekly furniture payment.

For the last 46 years, the bookkeeping has been done by Sandra Snipes. George Bridges hired her right out of high school. She stayed when Walker took over. “I could not find a better person to work for,” Snipes said shortly before leaving a final time Friday.

Snipes’ desk was at the back of the showroom. Nearby are ledgers filled with sale entries. Every transaction at Peoples was recorded by hand. Walker Bridges didn’t believe in using computers.

Going over the hand-kept books recently convinced Bridges it was time to close. He had just invested $136,000 into the business. Snipes told him the checkbook balance was near zero.

He wrote another check for $10,000 but decided “we’re going out of business, we have to.”

One-of-a-kind elevator

On Friday, Bridges’ wife Sandra, their daughter, Kay Morrow, and Snipes were there to help. There wasn’t much business, but there was time to swap memories, some as recent as Thursday when Walker Bridges climbed to the top of his four-story building to fix a leaky roof.

That night, after everyone had left, Kay got in the elevator – the only one of its kind in Chester. She soon was stuck. She had her cellphone, but managed to figure out how to get it running. The elevator, she said, is one of her favorite memories of the store. She and her siblings would ride it up and down endlessly when they were children, ignoring the handwritten signs that the elevator was for freight only and not to be used after business hours.

Another fond memory was the store at Christmastime. The Bridges paid their child about $1 an hour to help. Kay said the only help they contributed was making bows on a “contraption.” Usually, they spent their time riding bikes through the showroom.

The Bridges will return to the store this morning, meeting with an auctioneer to plan a sale. In addition to the remaining inventory there are some items people put in storage at the store and never came back for. In the basement there is a player piano and one piano with several askew keys.

After the sale and a decision on what to do with the downtown buildings, Walker and Sandra Bridges plan to spend more time with their nine grandchildren. High on Walker’s list is heading to the beach to catch flounder.

Surveying the store one last time, Walker said, “Whatever it took, I did it ... and I sold the best furniture you could buy.”

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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