By Ben Williams
The Green Furniture Hospital turned 100-years-old this year, making it older than much of the antique furniture they repair. Mike McCourt, the co-owner of the small but bustling shop at 916 SE 20th (Phone 503.234.9378), credits the longevity to their insistence on quality.
“We care about our name so much. We’re not willing to rush. We’ve put a lot of effort into making the piece what a customer wants. We provide a really quality service that not too many people provide. So we manage to stay pretty busy that way.”
Along with the repairs and refinishing they do, they are equally clear about what they don’t do. “We insist on doing it right. Sometimes customers ask us to use staples or metal plates, but those aren’t repairs that are going to work and we don’t do them,” said co-owner, James Tolen. “We finish things correctly. Ideally, after something is repaired, it’s hard to figure out when and where it was repaired.”
The workshop is packed with furniture, but its organized and compartmentalized; the work divvied up between its four craftsmen, each having a specialty. It’s not a noisy shop as much of the work is done by hand. While they don’t construct new furniture, sometimes they have to replace features of the furniture.
Marvin Peterson, who does the shop’s woodworking, showed a pencil drawer, built from the same wood as the original. Next, the color guy, Joe Donkers, will figure out what finish to use so that it won’t be noticeable that a repair has been done. “The great thing is, we keep a lot of furniture from going to the dump. That sentimental aspect is hard to put a value on,” Peterson said.
Even low-end furniture made with past standards holds up better than a lot of newer furniture. “The level of joinery is the most important part, even more than the quality of the wood. Even veneered wood, which is thinly sliced, will hold up well,” said Tolen, pointing out an 1820s cabinet that still looks gorgeous. “It’s about keeping things at a relatively-even humidity. Wood shrinks and expands based on season, and this shifting breaks down glue.”
Repairing furniture can be tricky. “Whatever broke it the first time will likely break it again,” said James pointing out an expensive, newer chair with a broken arm. “The arms have no real support structurally. The guy who broke it probably felt pretty bad, but it’s not his fault – it’s the chair.”
The Green Furniture Hospital has endured and thrived even as the business of furniture repair has faded. “Furniture hospitals used to be quite common, there was one in every town, now there are few of us,” said McCourt. “There’s no category for furniture repair on Yelp. That says a lot.”
As a niche business, it relies on word of mouth and repeat customers, and that model has succeeded, leaving them with a queue of repairs that can sometimes be backed up 8-10 weeks. That’s just fine for them.
“We don’t really want to expand, we want to keep it small and keep the quality level high,” said McCourt. “More and more people are realizing today that you can’t go to Ikea and buy furniture that’s going to last. If you buy a used piece of furniture and pay big money to get it restored it will last for the next 30 years.”
The Green family originally started the business in 1914. It’s passed through several families until McCourt and Tolen took over the business in 2007, each of them having already worked there for over a decade. The long life of the business is in turn a testament to how things that are well-made can last for a long time.
“Most furniture made now, unfortunately, is junk. You can spend thousands of dollars for a furniture set that’s not going to last very long because it’s made with garbage. If a particleboard table gets wet, then it’s ruined, it will swell and you have to throw it away. It’s a disposable society,” said McCourt.