Tim Newport has made himself at home in Tenney-Lapham
By Aparna Vidyasagar | Thu, 03/05/2015 - 5:29pm
For nearly eight months last year, the main road outside Tim Newport’s furniture store was cordoned off, dug up and completely rebuilt. Contrasted with the surrounding flux and chaos, Newport’s red brick storefront was resolute and unperturbed. In a way, the building mirrors the character of its owner.
In 1979, Newport, his wife, and daughter moved to Madison. That year, he picked a long, end-unit in the brick building to serve as his workshop and store. He liked the large windows at the front of the shop. He could have had a larger, windowless, factory-like space in an industrial neighborhood he said, but that wasn’t what he wanted.
“And so I stayed here,” he said.
In the 35 years that Newport has been crafting furniture, certain things have changed. Tastes in furniture styles, the tones of wood in vogue, or the types of furniture customers wanted, have all varied over time (he alludes to a phase when custom futons were rather popular). Still, he mused, “The consistency is more of a feature than the change.”
Much of the consistency comes from Newport himself. He has almost always conducted business in the same way, working with customers to come up with designs that are best suited to their likes and needs. Then, he builds each piece himself; from start to finish. And he has never mass-produced anything.
“That didn’t appeal to me [to say] 'Alright, we’re going to get an assembly-line going and crank out same stuff over and over again,'” he explained. “And so it kept me small and not making as much money, I guess. But still it’s more interesting to work up individual designs.”
Newport said he enjoys the creative process. Perhaps that’s what drew the English major and former copywriter to woodworking. He taught himself to build things. He read a little, but mostly he learned by visualizing how things fit together.
“Each [furniture] piece is sort of like a puzzle,” Newport said. “But you have to make all your own parts, and you put them together.”
Ultimately, Newport said, “you look at things and then you just do ‘em.”
Which is exactly what he did.
Newport began by building small projects for family members -- a coffee table for his wife; a few pieces for his mother. Each bought him a few more tools to add to his collection -- some clamps; a belt sander.
“You run out of relatives very quickly. You’re not a professional woodworker till you sell something to strangers,” he joked.
His first professional job was to build a cabinet, together with his brother-in-law. They had placed an ad in the Chicago Reader, a local newspaper. The price they quoted only just covered the cost of the materials. Still, over time they were financially successful. A few jobs later, they rented space for a small furniture store in Oak Park, Ill. Two years later, Newport came to Madison.
He wasn’t familiar with the layout of the town then. It was “just luck” he says, that he found the “only spot in town that has both one way streets.” His stores, and the furniture in the windows, are easily visible from both East Johnson and East Gorham streets.
“Over and over again I have had people come in and say, 'I have been driving by this place for all these years, and today I thought I would come in and see what you do,'” Newport said.
This is part of the reason why Newport doesn’t place ads in the paper or on the radio. He prefers to rely on his visibility, the loyalty of his former customers, and referrals; that’s what “keeps him in businesses.” When he advertised in the past, he says “it was like taking my money and throwing it out the door.” It doesn’t really work since he doesn’t have sales or mark down his inventory to entice customers.
“One thing I wish I would have done is to start collecting email addresses,” Newport said. “That would have probably been useful.”
But he never did.
Not everyone who comes in is a potential customer, Newport admits. Running a business in a college-town has its own set of quirks. He talks of students and their parents who come in at the beginning of the school year, completely misjudging the cost of an item; expecting big-box store rates, or even “a yard sale” rate. But Newport never turns anybody away.
“I don’t have any problem talking with people who are not going to buy something from me,” Newport said. “Because, who knows? If you’re nice to them and helpful with them you might see them in a couple years, or you might see their friends, or their parents, or who knows? Plus it’s a lot more pleasant that way,” he added.
On many occasions, Newport has offered to cut wood for students looking to build their own bookcases and show them how things fit together. “It’s not the most profitable thing [to do],” he says, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He knows that they are not at a point in their life where they can buy expensive furniture.
Newport knows that people buy furniture only when they have some extra money to spend; “it’s discretionary.”
“The challenge is to sell the stuff, get enough customers to pay the bills. There’s always a less expensive option available to people,” Newport said. “[But] if you are looking for complete security you don’t open a business,” he added.
Moreover Newport loves what he does. Each morning he comes in, makes himself some coffee, lines up some podcasts and tackles his woodworking. He usually works on multiple projects at a time. He likes working with his hands and being able to “get up and move around.” And he likes working with customers and seeing a finished product.
For a time in the 90s and 2000s, Newport had “seven or eight” employees but he found that they were often crunched for space, tools and time. He had to train each employee, and since he wasn’t in the business of line production, each employee took on a single project. In the end it didn’t really work for Newport. Soon he was back to building on his own.
At 67, Newport doesn’t plan to retire any time soon. There isn’t anyone lined up to take over from him. And, at this point he isn’t going to try expanding the business or moving into a bigger space either.
“I don’t have any long terms plans except to keep building this stuff,” Newport said. “I should, but I don’t.”
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