No Time Like the Present for Furniture Business Icon
By Rick Hiduk
After more than 54 years as a fixture in the furniture and carpeting business, Budd Clark, Sr. insists that the biggest changes to occur at Clark Furniture on Route 6 in Wysox Township are happening right now. Since the start of the gas drilling boom, the volume of furniture moving through Clark’s furniture and carpet showroom has nearly doubled.
At 95, he has seen furniture styles change, come full circle, and change again, and he insists that he has never regretted literally switching gears in 1957 to open a new furniture store after he had determined that selling Plymouths and DeSotos about a half mile west on Route 6 wasn’t his calling.
“I wasn’t particularly good at evaluating used cars for the trade-ins,” Budd recalled with a wry smile. He was considering purchasing a hardware store in Towanda and was discussing it with his barber, Tracy Phillips, one day. “He thought that a furniture store along this highway would do a good business,” Budd said of Phillips’ suggestion that Budd build a retail store on land that the Clarks already owned along Route 6 and next to a house that Budd had constructed in 1947.
Clark struck up conversation with Ray VanNoy, a furniture retailer in Mansfield, where most of Budd’s family had settled from the New England area. VanNoy invited Budd to travel to a furniture wholesale market in New York City with him. “I bought all of the same things that he did,” said Clark, who related that he spent the last $17,000 he had to his name to build the original store, which is at the core of the much larger operation that has grown around it.
In its first year of operation, Clark Furniture cleared about $3,000. “That was barely enough to live on at that time,” Budd explained, noting that, if not for some rental properties he and his wife, Almeda, owned in the Mansfield area, the family would not have been able to pay all of their bills.
Budd had no intention of failing, however, so he approached local banker Bernie Wolfe and asked to borrow $10,000. Wolfe not only approved the loan but encouraged Clark to borrow an additional $5,000 and to pay only the interest on the loan until he was in a position to repay the principal. Budd took Wolfe’s advice and was able to start paying on the principal within a few years.
“I got out of debt as fast as I could,” said Clark. As the business began to turn a steady profit, Budd also brought his sons, Budd, Jr. and Tim Clark, on board, in addition to numerous other family members throughout the store’s long history. Budd, Jr., the elder Clark noted, had hauled furniture around from the time the store had opened, but Tim was a bit younger. Nonetheless, all of the Clark children and grandchildren have grown up surrounded by furniture and flooring.
Clark Furniture had carried several lines of room-sized rugs since the ’50s but, with the help of former employer-turned-subcontractor Gary Baldwin of Spring Hill, the company began selling and installing wall-to-wall carpeting in the 1970s. Clark also credited former employee Jerry Manchester as being instrumental to Clark Furniture expanding its role in the flooring retail market.
The Clarks have weathered several economic downturns, but their biggest nemesis has been flooding. Budd recalled at least two significant flooding events prior to this year, when Laning Creek would back up behind Masonite Road and seep into parts of the retail center from behind. In September, however, Laning Creek, Wysox Creek, and the outflow from Lake Wesauking hit Wysox simultaneously, and the water could not drain into the Susquehanna River fast enough.
“This was the worst flood we ever had,” Clark said of the results of Tropical Storm Lee’s passage through the Endless Mountains. Despite Budd, Jr.’s efforts in the predawn darkness to move as much of the store’s stock to higher levels as possible, the waters rose so swiftly on Sept. 7 that Clark’s grandsons, David and Adam Clark, were relegated to using canoes to get from one building to the other to save what they could. In addition to the carpet showroom being inundated three to four feet deep, several of the lower showrooms in the building along Route 6 were flooded to the ceilings and a significant amount of merchandise was destroyed.
Budd, Sr. credits a dedicated staff for pitching in to have some parts of the store open within two weeks. “We’re still working on it,” he said, as the smell of fresh paint was evident in the air.
Clark chalks up his long life mostly to “a matter of luck,” but he did jog and power walk six days per week from the age of 40 to about a month ago. He continues to exercise with machines, used the riding mower to cut the grass around the property all summer, and eagerly dresses up for another workday each morning.
“I like being here and seeing things happen,” he related, adding that he doesn’t wait on as many customers as he used to. He enjoys, however, seeing children and grandchildren of longtime customers coming into the store as new patrons.
In addition to the aforementioned, family members who currently work at the store include Cindy Clark and Ron Burlingame. Tim Clark left the company at the turn of the century to pursue a new career as a magisterial district judge for Bradford County. Budd Clark, Jr. is now president of Clark Furniture, and Budd, Sr. noted that his son has added several lines of furniture over the past few years that have proven both profitable and durable. “The best lines of furniture survived the flood. Anything made out of fiberboard or pressed wood fell apart,” the elder Clark remarked.
(Budd, Jr. noted several weeks ago that the majority of the flood-damaged furniture was donated to The Bridge, an agency that distributes commodities to Bradford County families in need. Some slightly-affected pieces were sold at significant discounts to customers who were fully aware of the status of the merchandise.)
Budd, Sr. and Almeda, who recently survived a bout of cancer, celebrated their 61st anniversary in June.