Swamp Yankee Furniture-- 07/23/04

I suppose first I need to explain just what a Swamp Yankee is.

It's phrase used in this area of New England, sort of an equivalent of "redneck" -- but one used by many locals as a term of pride. There are a number of wetland areas in South County (after all, the bloody local encounter during King Philip's War is called the Great Swamp Massacre) eventually the term Swamp Yankee came to be applied to the fiercely independent locals who lived in this rural location. A Swamp Yankee is proud and stubborn and independent and has had many generations of proud and stubborn and independent ancestors living here.

We have been looking for a futon to put in the den so that the den could then serve a double purpose as a guest bedroom. We've had something of a deadline on this project because Adam and Leah and Sammy are coming for a visit soon, but most futons seem to be really cheaply made pieces of junk meant to be sold to college students. (What about sofa-beds, you may ask? I have yet to ever find one that was not painful to sleep on. Even the thought of those monstrosities makes my back hurt.)

It seemed as if whenever Nancy was out, she would stop in some store and look at their futons. Yesterday morning she came home and said she thought she had found some good ones in a store right on Main Street in town. I was working from home yesterday so when it got to be near lunch time I took a break and we headed into town. I was puzzled because I did not know of any furniture store on Main Street, just antique furniture stores and used-furniture consignment shops. Before we got there she cautioned me that "These people are Swamp Yankees."

And I was somewhat taken aback by the appearance of the store -- it was, indeed, one of the places I had thought was a consignment shop, carrying a collection of cast-off furniture that wanted to be thought of as antique but was frequently just old. I was wrong; this was a store that only carried new furniture. It was just that they didn't bother at all with the usual kinds of displays that you would find in furniture shores. Furniture was just there, just sitting there, one piece next to another. Piles of fabric samples on tables. No carpets on the uneven 19th century wood floor. No air conditioning, just an open front door and some electric fans placed here and there.

She was right. They were Swamp Yankees. He looked like an aging 60's flower child (and perhaps he was), long stringy collar length graying hair, work clothes rather than a salesman's jacket and tie. She was probably of the same vintage, attractive, thin but not at all weak looking, long straight hair a mix of blonde and gray, short-sleeved blouse revealing arms tattooed like a middle-aged biker chick.

I followed Nancy upstairs to look at the futons. Although not as cluttered as the ground floor, the second floor mostly contained bedroom furniture just placed there without any attempt to create imaginary rooms. Just... here it is. Take a look. If you like it, you can buy it. If not, oh well, no problem, have a nice day.

The proprietor wandered upstairs and asked if we had any questions. We had a conversation about the futons -- he showed us how they opened, explained the four models of full-sized futons he carried, the different types of mattress available, and the choices of fabrics ("Hundreds of choices. I've got books of samples downstairs."), and showed us where the prices were marked. He said he'd be downstairs if we had any other questions. And then he went downstairs, leaving us alone to look at the futons. Not exactly high pressure sales technique.

We decided on a model and a mattress and a wood color and a fabric... and went downstairs. We made the purchase and he allowed as how it could be delivered next day. No delivery charge.

I commented to him that my first job had been in a furniture store in Kingston, NY -- in a beautiful 19th century commercial building that was destroyed along with several blocks of structurally sound buildings as part of that government-inspired insanity called Urban Renewal that gutted so many American cities to the delight of federal bureaucrats, urban "planners" and rapacious real estate speculators. He told me that his building was a protected historic building -- and had been in his family since 1852 -- and he pulled out some 19th century pictures of the building -- which had originally been built several blocks away on the other side of the street. He had photographs of it it being jacked up and hauled along the street (high enough for horse-drawn wagons to pass beneath it because Main Street back then was part of the Boston Post Road, the main route between New York and Boston and traffic could not be blocked for the days it took to move the building) and then, when it had reached its current site, had been positioned over a custom-built stone foundation and basement and then jacked up even higher, to a height of twelve feet and a new ground floor build underneath it, converting a three-story building to four. He showed us where the (no-longer functioning) elevator was located -- a water-powered elevator that had drawn upon the Saugatucket River flowing just behind it -- told us how he was thinking of trying to get a grant to fund restoration of the elevator. (Long-time readers may have noted that I am very interested in local history... and I was fascinated to see the energy and passion this quiet man showed when he talked about this building and his family's furniture business dating back to before the Civil War.)

On our way home Nancy and I were discussing this unlikely businessman and his unimpressive store with its total lack of color and salesmanship and advertising and all of the flash and hype that one might expect. Can you imagine the reaction of a new resident seeking to furnish a newly-build home... expecting a furniture showroom and finding something that looks more like a used furniture store... they'd probably make a U-turn before they got more than five feet into the store and head back out the door and off to one of those furniture showroom superstores. And then I realized how he stayed in business. There were families in town who bought furniture there because their parents had always bought their furniture there, as had their grandparents... and their great-grandparents...

Nancy pointed out that this was where she had bought a full-sized bed for Jeremy a few years ago when he was tired of his old bunkbed and she actually hadn't been looking for a futon when she had gone in there earlier in the day, she had been looking for a dresser for him when she happened to spot the futons. And, we had seen a dresser that we thought he might like and would try to get him in there to look at it.... So, we were probably joining that group of locals who would always shop for furniture at Swamp Yankee Furniture. (No, that's not the store's real name; it carries the owner's family name.)

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