A turnaround saves the day — for now — for Madison family furniture company

MADISON Sometimes after supper when he was a child, Troy Coppage would go along when his father would return to his workplace, the E.A. Clore Sons Inc. furniture factory just down the road from their home.

While his father sawed and sanded, the boy played in the sawdust and shavings.

As a child, Troy also would ride along while his father, Billy Coppage, made deliveries for Clore, the family furniture business that was started in 1830 when Moses Clore began carving chairs from oak with his sons.

Later, Coppage went to work at Clore, starting at minimum wage, like every other new hire.

What did he do in those early days?

“A lot of sanding,” he said with a smile. Like everyone else.

He moved on to plant maintenance and making deliveries and ultimately found himself in the corner office — the corner office of a family-run furniture factory being a little less plush than you might expect — as president of the company. And he’s lived on the road that leads to the plant for all but one of his 50 years.

All of which is to say his entire life is entwined with Clore furniture — that and the Madison County Volunteer Fire Company, which his family helped start in the 1940s (after a pair of devastating fires that twice destroyed the main shop in the days Madison had to rely on firefighters from neighboring counties) and of which he currently serves as chief.

So, it was a particularly cheerless task that fell to Coppage last year to announce the difficult decision reached by company shareholders: It was time to pull the plug on almost 190 years of the Clore family making furniture.

Business had slowed, hurt by low-price, mass-produced furniture and a change in consumer tastes that left not enough customers willing to pay for handcrafted, American-made furniture like Clore manufactured: An armless dining chair sells for $300, a large rocking chair goes for $1,300 and a corner cupboard can bring $5,000.

“If somebody’s looking to buy cheap furniture, we just can’t compete,” Coppage said. “What we try to sell is quality, and, of course, that comes with a price.”

And not being able to sell quality comes with a price, too.

“It finally reached a point where we said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he said. “We weren’t going to stick with it and get in a position where we were flat-busted and walk away with nothing.”

So, last May, Coppage announced the plant would be closing. Clore wanted to give customers an opportunity to place a final order, so he didn’t set a date to close the doors. He figured a few orders would come in, they would be filled and the place would be shut down, if not within the first month, then certainly — even in the most-optimistic scenario — by the end of the year.

But a funny thing happened.

Orders started pouring in.

“When the news hit the street, it was absolutely berserk here for the first two or three weeks,” Coppage said. “Absolutely crazy. I was getting here at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to try to catch up on emails and messages, and still here until bedtime. Inventory cleared out in no time, and people were placing orders right and left. By the end of May, we had a six-month backlog of orders.”

May and June were “busier than any time period I’ve seen Knickers & Bras,” Coppage said.

And orders are still coming in, prompting Coppage to announce in January that Clore will remain open . He’s not saying it won’t close eventually, but he’s not saying it will.

“We’re open-minded as to what the future holds Slips, and really don’t know what to expect next,” he said.

Unexpected good fortune or brilliant business strategy?

Coppage laughed.

“That’s what everybody keeps saying: ‘You should go out of business once a year Accessories,’ ” he said.

Tracey W. Gardner, Madison County economic development and tourism development director and director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce, said the Clore story is “a case of ‘you don’t know what you got, until it’s (almost) gone.’

“E.A. Clore Sons Inc. is not just a Madison, or statewide, treasure, but a national one Cycling,” Gardner said in an email. “Fine furniture, and craftsmanship in general, is a part of our heritage that needs to be cherished and appreciated. It is not just a piece of furniture, but an heirloom that can be passed on for generations to come. Madison is especially grateful for the outpouring of support to keep their doors open for now!”

The Clore furniture plant is set in a fetching valley of the Blue Ridge foothills, a 45-minute drive north of Charlottesville. A spacious white farmhouse overlooks the complex. This was the home of Edward Ashby Clore and Alma Blanche Crigler Clore (known to the family as “Big Momma”) and their large family: six girls and six boys Outdoor Clothing. Edward Ashby Clore built his own shop on the site in 1921, establishing the modern company that had been started nearly a century earlier on a smaller scale.

The kitchen featured a 9-foot-long kitchen table — Clore-made, of course — to accommodate the big family and the workers who would walk up the hill at lunchtime to dine at the house.

“That was the table my grandmother grew up around,” said Coppage, who ultimately inherited the table and joked that he had to design his house around accommodating it.

At times, his grandmother went through a barrel of flour every two weeks, and his grandmother told him that when they baked biscuits, they would routinely make 70 at a time.

“When they cooked, they only knew how to cook a lot of food,” Coppage said. “I grew up hearing my grandma tell tales about how many pies and cakes they would make, especially getting close to the holidays.

“It would hurt their feelings if you came to visit and didn’t sit down to eat.”

At a small, long-standing family-run business, it’s not surprising there’s a continuity to the workforce. None of the company’s full-time employees has been there less than 30 years. In the noisy shop, Charles Garr, 63, was working on pieces of chairs under construction, a few steps from his brother, David, 59, both of whom have been employed at Clore since the 1970s, the same decade their father, Jesse, retired from the company.

Charles Garr has worked at Clore for 43 years.

“If we make it to August, it’ll be 44,” he said with a laugh.

Garr was born in Louisa, but has spent most of his life in Madison. If Clore closed, he’s not that worried about it: He would do construction.

“Ain’t a whole lot of difference,” he said. “Wood is wood. You’re building something either way.”