I was born into the furniture business– third generation on my father’s side, fourth generation on my mother’s. I grew up thinking that I was like a member of some kind of medieval guild destined to marry someone in the furniture business (I didn’t). I sold my first bedroom set at twelve, the only sale my father was upset I made. Though I grew up in this business, I wasn’t fated to be in it. However, I do think that running @Bograds is a culmination of the varied work experiences I have had.
Straight out of college, I managed a small gourmet shop and catering operation in Washington, DC. I had applied to be a baker, but they thought I’d make a better manager. They never tried my Coffee Toffee Pie. It remains the best interview meal I ever had (Restaurant Nora). I walked the corridors of power in Washington with sandwiches for K Street law firms and hors d’oeuvres for political fundraisers. It was my first taste of retail. It showed me the value of service and honed my interest in quality and fine food.
I left to go work at the Smithsonian Institution, working in the bowels of the National Museum of Natural History as a research intern on Near Eastern archaeological materials. I eventually left to pursue graduate studies in Anthropology and Historical Archaeology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Happily, there I met my non-furniture wife, Jean.
Archaeology is about a lot of things, but its primary source material is objects. A friend of mine commented that she thought my interest in objects grew from growing up in a business with them. I knew what a Chippendale chair looked like from a young age. It also imparted in me a sense of the power of things- the strong emotional connection we can make with a grandfather’s chair, a first car, etc. I still remember coveting a Don Wright highboy that was in the basement of the Paterson store and a wing chair that was ahead of its time in the 1970’s with a leather interior and houndstooth fabric on the back. It was Ralph Lauren long before Ralph Lauren and it sadly took a long time to sell.
Jean and I left Amherst with newly minted Master’s degrees and went back to the Smithsonian. She worked on exhibits and I went back to research. I worked for Theresa Singleton, a curator who specialized in African-American archaeology. I developed a side interest in museums themselves, with the ways museums present information or the past to the public. Theresa and I worked on a small exhibit at Natural History about colonoware, a kind of ceramic pot often found at plantation archaeological sites. Colonoware, simple earthenware cooking pots, shows the cultural interactions of whites, African-Americans and Native Americans in southern plantation society. The exhibit brochure included a recipe for okra soup, one that was passed from generation to generation in Theresa’s family. Here we go, the power of objects again.
Jean and I left the Smithsonian for Massachusetts; she to go work for the Children’s Museum in Boston and me to be the Curator of Lowell National Historical Park, an urban park in the National Park Service system. This too, had roots in my youth– spending time at the store in Paterson, learning the story of the first industrial city in America, working the soda booth at the Great Falls Festival. Paterson has a storied industrial and labor history, one that was mirrored in many ways by Lowell.
I learned something else in Lowell curating collections and developing exhibits. I learned about the importance of production, not just consumption. Lowell had a working weave room, where visitors could see cotton toweling being made on power looms. All too often, we buy products without thinking or caring about how they are made. This is unfortunate. There is a dignity and value in labor that is often not appreciated. There are stories and faces behind the things we buy, whether simple cotton cloth, a sofa, or a dining table. I like dealing with family businesses where I can for this reason. There is an integrity to the products they make that is often and sadly not replicated in larger factories.
While in Lowell, our first son, Evan, was born. I had always been interested in the furniture business, but I guess I needed to explore my dilettante side first. I’m glad I did. Jean and I decided that this was a good time for me to go into the family business and resettle in New Jersey. Shortly thereafter, our second son, Ben, was born.
Since I’ve been back, the store has had its ups and downs. Thankfully, we are on an upswing now. My experiences all coalesce here @Bograds. Fine food and fine living go together; we sell furniture we hope will be meaningful to people’s lives. Exhibit and design are similar, trying to create impact and communicate who we are through the furniture we buy… the way we decorate. We tend to intellectualize furniture here @Bograds. We do it because we love the things we sell and long to tell the stories of the objects and makers we carry.