Furniture vet writes book on High Point Market’s formative years

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By Richard Craver/The Winston-Salem Journal

High Point and the home-furnishings industry have a rare symbiotic relationship, foremost coming from a willingness of the city to dedicate its downtown to major showroom buildings that hustle and bustle just six weeks a year.

Yet, the annual economic impact of the High Point Market is about $5.39 billion, according to a 2013 Duke University study.

For Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, the main spillover effect is from hotel-room bookings and restaurants. Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem, has said the city averages about 5,600 hotel room nights from market-goers.

Although the market celebrated its 105th birthday in April, there’s little public awareness about how it began and ultimately became the world’s largest trade show for residential home furnishings.

An industry veteran, Ken Carpenter, has written a 142-page book on High Point’s deep furniture roots and the early leaders who helped the community become North Carolina’s top international business ambassador.

The book, titled “The people who built High Point and its furniture,” is available from Heimdall Communications of High Point.

Carpenter took time recently to discuss why he felt it was important to write about the formative years of the community and its market. An edited version follows:

Q: Most people who pay attention to the Triad economy understand the importance of the market in terms of spending and international status.Why did you decide to focus on the formative years?

Answer: The market began as a regional market for the southern United States, primarily showcasing goods made in High Point and surrounding states. At the time, there were larger markets being held in Grand Rapids, Mich., Chicago, and Jamestown, N.Y., (also near major furniture manufacturers), among others.

When the Main Street building was built in High Point, it was essentially funded by High Point furniture manufacturers. Some of those had been showing in the other U.S. markets and wanted something closer to home.

They created a first-class exhibition hall that addressed their needs and concerns at the time. The owners made sure they developed what they wanted and what they needed. There were no real-estate moguls dictating what they wanted in an exhibit building.

That early vision, over decades of time, won out over all of the other markets.

I also wanted to illustrate how High Point has always been a city of entrepreneurial spirit, and how we would love to see that take shape and happen again.

Q: Do you think residents new to the Triad and High Point will be surprised by how much furniture manufacturing permeated their economies for decades?

Answer: I think even hometown residents are astonished that the industry grew to the magnitude it did in High Point.

You had residential furniture being produced in all categories from very inexpensive to high end; you had office and institutional furnishings being produced. You had numerous smaller support industries spring up.

New residents no doubt have heard that you could find a really nice retail variety in High Point, but I do not think they had a clue that each building in town produced something of useful and long-lasting value.

That was the key to the town’s prosperity at the time.

Q: A quote on the cover of the book deals with the importance of adding the Commerce wing to the International Home Furnishings Center. How close do you think High Point came to losing the support of the major exhibitors to a Dallas or Atlanta?

Answer: Large cities contain large buildings. Those owners are always looking for ways to maximize their investment.

I think Dallas and Atlanta were both amazed that High Point could lure such a large number of furniture and accessory buyers two, three or four times a year. They felt their own cities offered more outside activities and amenities, and that no one as sophisticated as a furniture store owner or buyer would possibly want to visit a town such as High Point.

Dallas did have its own furniture market exhibit building during that time. But High Point knew that to remain the leader, the existing downtown real estate had to accommodate the growing number of eager exhibitors.

This goes back to what I said earlier about furniture industry people creating what worked for them. Obviously, a buyer is going to do a tremendous amount of walking in the course of their day. Showroom after showroom, building after building. Utilizing fewer buildings does not ease that job.

I think that at the end of the day, most people want to have a nice dinner, chat about the events of the day and then just go to sleep.

Exhibitors are going to go where the buyers want to go, and over the years, those buyers and exhibitors have remained loyal to High Point. Extended stays in any city must be as comfortable as possible to attract the buyer and the exhibitor alike in order to keep that synergy alive and growing.

Q: You spend several chapters discussing the flexibility of furniture manufacturers to technological change in society, such as accommodating televisions at home or computer equipment at the office. What led you to put that kind of focus?

Answer: The entrepreneurs in High Point were quick to spot emerging trends in anything that could be made in wood.

Television sets, when they became so popular, began to be housed in furniture-grade wooden cabinets. That trend obviously changed, and so did the office furnishings market.

Computers began to become commonplace in even the smallest of businesses, and they needed comfortable furnishings to make that transition. Both of these niche markets were huge for High Point at one time.

Q: You conclude the book by raising a question about the future of the market, which seems pretty secure for now given the rivalry with Las Vegas has been resolved with shared ownership. But you cite the need for continuing reinvention to stay relevant to exhibitors and buyers. How much are those issues top of mind with the top officials, or is there a concern about becoming complacent again?

Answer: I hope there is always a concern about complacency.

I believe that is exactly why the (High Point) Market Authority was formed, so that those individuals could keep their fingers on the pulse of new developments and cutting-edge technology. And to determine exactly what market-goers want and need.

Exhibitors and buyers alike all want to be able to do the very best job possible, resulting in the most sales possible. And these developments, as they become available, will enable the market industry to make the best use of their time in High Point.

I believe the best, most important thing we can all do, throughout the Triad, is to continue to show extraordinary hospitality to this industry, and the people who attend this market, that so many people before us have fostered.