Handcrafted 18th Century American Furniture

Expanding Osterville

During our Pembroke years, the Osterville store matured into our main direct contact with our customer base. After the store’s first year, we moved its location to the lower level of a former church. I’m not sure of the church’s original denomination, but its architecture was classically New England: white exterior with long arched windows and a perfectly formed spire. It was located on Main Street in the center of town, which made us feel a part of the village. More importantly, the location gave us access to the summer foot traffic we lacked in our previous location on the edge of town. The only disadvantage of our new site was the placement of the entrance, which was a few steps below street level. To compensate for our hidden entrance, we obtained permission to install a 3-by-4-foot sign adjacent to the sidewalk. The town’s only condition was that our sign be “refined and in good taste.” Walter finally had his chance to carve Eldred Wheeler a sign.

The new space was more than twice the size of our previous location, so we were able to display all of our offerings. However, it needed a fair amount of remodeling to make it presentable. We went to work making raised panel walls, installing wide pine floors, plastering over cinderblocks, and painting woodwork in colonial colors. In no time, the remodeling was complete, and we enthusiastically filled the space with several truckloads of newly finished furniture. We celebrated the store’s opening with a wine and cheese reception, attended not only by former and potential customers but also by the majority of our employees. By this time Jesse was considered family, so he and his wife, Margaret, attended as well.

Shortly after the opening, it became apparent that we needed more help. Bill’s wife, Lee, had managed and staffed the shop pretty much single-handedly up to that point. The larger new store was often too much for one person, especially on weekends. Also, Lee had never signed on to be Eldred Wheeler’s long-term shopkeeper; her willingness to lend a hand at our first store had simply snowballed into her managing it.

Her daily treks from Duxbury to the Cape during the summer season testified to her commitment to our success. Lee was remarkable at juggling her other activities and responsibilities with overseeing the shop, but we all knew that the new shop was more than any one person could handle.

We collectively decided to hire someone whom Lee could train to eventually take over as full-time store manager. Lee began screening candidates, and one of her first interviewees was a fellow named John Colona. John, who was originally from Virginia, had found himself teaching in Vermont. He had recently married, and, as he explained to Lee, “the Vermont winters were too much for a Virginia boy, so I packed up my new bride and moved to the Cape.” Lee, Bill, and I chatted with several other candidates, but John’s Southern charm and gentle manner ultimately won us over.

John was a natural. He was very personable, sincerely cared for each customer, and went to great lengths to make sure they understood the product and were happy with their Eldred Wheeler experience. This could be a challenge at times, since many of his customers were very demanding. But as good as John was at finding ways to satisfy his clientele, there was one problem that plagued him season after season: People were reluctant to order pieces early in the summer, because their furniture usually wouldn’t be delivered until late summer or early fall. By that time, they were preparing to head back to their winter homes, and if they wanted something for their winter quarters they would wait until fall to order it.

Early in the summer, people wanted immediate delivery so they could use the pieces in their summer homes right away. The easy solution was for John to sell his floor samples, but we couldn’t replace them until we made more, which might take months. Therefore, we strongly encouraged him to hang on to his floor samples by somehow convincing people to place orders. A born salesman, John ultimately mastered the art of selling delayed gratification; of convincing customers to place an order, make do for the summer, and give themselves something to look forward to the following summer, when their new pieces would be waiting for them. Occasionally, however, John was motivated by considerations of his own. One particular example comes to mind.

It was the last week of June in 1980, and John was close to achieving his personal sales goal for the month. In fact, he only needed a few more orders to chalk up a record month. Since it was still early in the season, he had a pretty fully stocked shop. Meanwhile, in Pembroke, we had just finished the prototype of a new dining table and wanted to set it up in Osterville to greet the weekend foot traffic. It being a Friday, Bill and I decided to deliver it personally, so we loaded it in the back of Bill’s Wagoneer and headed for the Cape. When we arrived, John seemed to be in a great mood, and we figured it must be due to his strong sales for the month. We lugged the table down the stairs and began setting it up in the front of the shop, where we displayed most of our dining room pieces. John was excited, because it was a more formal piece than most of our other offerings, and he had already invited a couple of customers to come and view it over the weekend. We finished setting up the table, while John positioned a set of balloon-seat chairs around it. Bill and I had to meet someone back in Pembroke so we were in a bit of a hurry, but we paused to admire the shop before leaving.

As John saw us scanning the room opposite the dining area, where he normally displayed our line of small tables, he became uncharacteristically quiet and adopted a rather sheepish expression. We were puzzled at his change in demeanor, but before we could ask what was wrong, he blurted out, “I couldn’t help it!” “Help what?” I asked. “The breakfast table,” he replied, pointing to an empty spot where the small drop-leaf breakfast table usually stood. “It’s gone. Gone this morning.” Bill and I looked at each other with matching “what’s he up to?” expressions. We were both thinking the same thought: He knows we won’t be making those tables for another three weeks, so why did he give up his floor sample? The answer seemed obvious: he was determined to break his monthly sales record. At that point, John started to turn on the charm. With a twinkle in his eye, he launched into his defense. “Us Southern boys are no match for fast-talking Northern women.” He paused for a moment. “I stood my ground! I said she couldn’t take it; it’s the only one I have. But she kept talking; something about an empty wall and weekend guests. I was still telling her she couldn’t have it as I loaded it in the back of her wagon.” With that, he lowered his head in mock contrition. Bill and I had to laugh. We knew the sale had given John his record-breaking month.