By Jesse Wood
In 1984, Art Barber loaded up his 1978 pickup truck in Boone with five pieces of furniture to take to High Point, which hosts the largest furnishings industry tradeshow in the world.
Deep in debt at the time, Barber couldn’t afford a showroom at the High Point Market that brings 75,000 people to the Piedmont each six months to wheel-and-deal furniture.
“I literally put my stuff out in the hall like a vagrant,” Barber said.
Eventually, a buyer saw Art and purchased a baker’s rack, and within several months, a piece of Barber’s furniture was featured in a distinguished retailer’s catalogue. While this was the beginning of Charleston Forge, a handcrafted metal and wooden furniture manufacturer that operates out of the industrial park in Boone, its history essentially goes back a decade earlier.
Art and Susan Barber, the owners of Charleston Forge, met while attending high school in Winston-Salem, and both attended Appalachian State University. In 1972, one year before Art graduated from college, he did an internship at Farmers Hardware in downtown Boone. He started out working in the downstairs paint department at the time the new Farmers Ski Shop was built.
“The owner Cecil Greene asked if knew how to ski – at the time I had only taking one lesson at Appalachian Ski Mtn. – but I said, ‘Yes.’ And he made me the manager of the new ski shop,” Barber said.
While he worked in the ski shop in the wintertime, Barber worked in the fireplace shop in the Farmers Hardware, selling fire places and accessories to the second-home community. This was during the huge building boom as Linville Ridge, Land Harbor and other resort communities were coming on line.
Barber noticed that he was selling low-quality products and that people were coming back to the shop with broken equipment after only two or three times use. So in 1974, he opened a fireplace retail outlet with Susan on N.C. 105 Extension, selling the highest-quality, most-expensive fireplace products and installing them across the High Country.
“The fireplace shop took off like a rocket,” Barber said. “It was phenomenal.”
Soon, Barber bought equipment to add a patio shop. Instead of buying patio furniture from retailers, he learned how to cut, bend and weld metal from a neighbor in order to make his own patio furniture.
“It didn’t work out. It was a big, expensive undertaking and we weren’t financed to do that. We lost a lot of money and owed banks a lot of money,” Barber said.
But Barber had an idea to modify a baker’s rack, which he was already selling a customer to put her plants on, and turn it into a piece of indoor furniture. This is what he sold at the High Point Market in 1984 and was the impetus for Charleston Forge.
The company was the first business to operate out of the industrial park in Boone. In fact, Barber essentially provided the seed money for the land for the business park as he pursued a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant for the county. Another county had invited Charleston Forge to move its operations, but Barber said he wanted to stay in Boone.
The state awarded the grant to the county, and the county bought the land and built a 15,000-square-foot building for which the Barbers leased. The business was so good that first year that the Barbers bought the building from the county in order to expand its operations. After a few more expansions, the building today sits at 100,000 square feet.
(Here’s what Watauga’s Economic Development Commissioner Joe Furman said about Charleston Forge and the opening of the industrial park:
“The county bought the land in 1984, and using grant funds, built the original metal Charleston Forge building and leased it to them in 1987. Subsequently, Charleston Forge purchased the land and building from the county and constructed additions and purchased another small parcel of land. That was the opening of the park. After that, we sold off another couple of parcels, extended town water and sewer with grant funds, and got NCDOT to build Industrial Park Drive. Within a few years, the park was complete, all the land was sold and all of the buildings were built. The proceeds from land purchased by Charleston Forge were the beginning of the county’s economic development capital reserve fund.”)
All of Charleston Forge’s furniture is made in Boone – and all of the component parts are made in America today. (Previously, Charleston Forge ordered less than five percent of its products from overseas because it was so much cheaper than what could be made locally. However, Barber credited his employees for taking on the challenge and developing ways of making those products at a competitive price.)
Charleston Forge orders raw steel stock. The steel is forged, welded and/or textured at the factory in the industrial park. If the furniture includes a wooden table, it will outsource the tabletops to North Carolina woodworking shops. The wood comes in shaped and sanded, only needing to be stained, lacquered and installed into the exceptional metal furniture onsite.
Charleston Forge sells directly with dealers and retailers – about 600 of them today. The company has an inventory of barstools, counterstools, dining tables, chairs, benches, occasional tables, baker’s racks, consoles and other pieces. It doesn’t sell to the public, and some of the furniture isn’t sold under the Charleston Forge name.
One of the companies that it makes furniture for is Starbucks, which has a catalogue of furnishings for new stores or those renovating. About two years ago, a representative of Starbucks saw Charleston Forge’s display at the High Point Market. Reps from Starbucks, which wanted to furnish its coffee shops with ethically-sourced and “Made-in-America” furniture, visited the factory in Boone. After an 18-month development process, Starbucks began ordering tables last November.
Before 9/11 and on into the Great Recession, Charleston Forge had grown to 250 employees operating out of 250,000 square feet of space at five locations. Since then, however, the number of employees has dipped to just below 50. As Charleston Forge sells a product that isn’t a necessity or a consumer staple, the bad economic times – and globalization of the furniture market – really hit the company hard as payroll, steel, insurance, energy and everything else went up and the volume of shipments decreased.
“When the [9/11] tragedy hit, business almost stopped. We kept thinking it would come back, but it didn’t come back,” Barber said. “The mistake I made was trying to hold on to too many people for too long thinking the economy would turn around soon. Eventually, we downsized from 250 to just below 50 people right now.”
Charleston Forge is known for having elite artisans and craftsman that have worked for the company since the very beginning, and those workers talk proudly about the company to their friends and neighbors. The workers, Barber said, are treated like family and with respect. It’s something that Barber called the “beauty” of being a family-owned enterprise. Barber said that the people on the shop floor aren’t working for management; he sees it the other way around.
“If not for the good work they are doing [out on the shop floor], we wouldn’t have a job,” Barber said, adding that he never asks anybody to do something he wouldn’t try himself.
“People want to work here, and it’s a nice feeling,” Barber said.
And to finish the story at the beginning, where Barber snuck into High Point Market in unauthorized fashion to try and break into the furniture industry:
When the High Point Market disassembled for the season, Barber heard everyone talking about the next trade show in Dallas. So what did Barber do? Well, since he didn’t have funds to open a showroom at the High Point Market, he definitely didn’t have money for an airplane ticket to Texas. He went to his parent’s house and started making phone calls to contacts around the Winston-Salem area, hoping to hitch a ride on a small, corporate jet. One person returned his phone call. This fellow was on his was to San Francisco and agreed to drop him off in Dallas.
“I was still in my late ‘20s or whatever and was trying to conquer the world. I had to get to Dallas,” Barber said. “There was a time in my business life that I wanted to grow and conquer the world, and now it’s a sweet, efficient, well-run, profitable business that is fun to go to work to everyday and not be under the stress and strain of trying to be a huge monster.”
Barber has always thought of what would happen to his business if he were, in his own words, to be hit by a bus and die suddenly. So he has surrounded himself with people who could take over immediately and continue the legacy of Charleston Forge.
As for now, Art and Susan are content to sit a little farther in the background and spend more time with their grandchildren.
For more information about Charleston Forge, click here.