Back to the future. It's true, even small towns are now filled with national chains, but floor covering specialty stores have a unique advantage over other types of retailers: They can still offer a level of friendly, attentive service that is often associated with a bygone era.

Recently, I was reminiscing on trips our family took by automobile-imagine that-for vacation. Airlines were available but cost prohibitive for the average family. Two lane highways stretched from coast to coast. There were no by-passes to avoid slowing down or to avoid a four-way “stop sign.” Small towns had their Welcome signs displayed similar to the billboards along today’s interstate highways. These small towns offered their very own ambiance. “Filling Stations” offered “two pumps” and were usually on the corner for easy access. There were hardware and department stores and always an IGA for groceries... Dads stopped into the hardware store while moms shopped with the kids at P.N. Hirsch. Huge automobiles were parked “free” down Main Street at 45 degree angles.

Heating energy was supplied by either oil or coal. There were always the old reliable “wood” stoves as well. Window fans were so “cool” for those hot summer days and nights. Washing machines were “wringers” and the “first” clothes dryer presided outside in the form of a “line” with a bag of wood clips nearby.

Homes were constructed back then mostly with pine hardwood floors. They were often “painted” with inexpensive linoleum with a braided rug pattern on the face that was tacked to the floor and replaced quite often due to its lack of durability. Some builders began using oak hardwood flooring because it offered dramatically increased durability.  You could also stain and “shellac” hardwood instead of painting the floor time and time again. What will they think of next? 

Meanwhile, the big “downtown” department stores were beginning to display floor coverings with their furniture department. The mid 60’s brought changes in the flooring industry. Carpeting was beginning its “cover up” of existing hardwood floors. Builders were allowed to substitute carpeting for wood when federal loan laws requiring hardwood floors were amended. Local small town department stores seldom had the space or the local talent for selling and installing. Interstate highways were rapidly developing. The weekend afternoon drive through country towns diminished just as rapidly. Local residents too wanted the opportunity to see bigger and better flooring only displayed and/or available in the “big city.”

Fortunately, small town communities refused to give up and “blow away” like tumbleweed. As competition intensified in the metro markets, entrepreneurs formed business plans to maintain retail businesses in a small town atmosphere. Hardware stores embraced the support of national franchises that assisted in marketing and merchandising. Fast food chains expanded into these areas, bringing with them the sought after burgers and fries. Multi-pump gas stations began cropping up with a multiple array of snacks and beverages.

These small towns managed to embrace modernization while preserving the ambiance that enhanced your shopping pleasure. Obviously, the flooring industry on the local level was also overdue for adequate representation. Working out of the back of a pickup or van just wasn’t going to cut it. Viable retail contractors regrouped their efforts to offer the big city amenities and desirable flooring materials for their own personal township but also to homeowners in the nearby rural areas as well. Previously, sales were made through department stores and independent specialty contractors (without a store front) to meet the diminishing hardwood flooring market.

The “family owned” and/or “mom and pop shops” began springing up in the so-called small towns or strategically located between multiple townships for easy access. Fortunately, the big box stores had not yet “cropped” up. These particular franchises still predominately remained focused on largely populated areas where flooring stores already existed for them to draw away customers with discount “illusions.”

“Main Street” was always considered prime real estate for the small retail/contractor in the flooring market. Quaint store fronts were “naturals” for the customer searching for the friendly and personal attention. There was no number to take for service and sales people did not “shadow” you as you wandered through the store. The owners were almost always involved in community activities and usually belonged to the local chamber of commerce. They proudly sponsored athletic teams and advertised in the local paper. And most important, they were local residents themselves. They offered a level of service above and beyond the store’s normal responsibilities.

During the past 25 years plus, these flooring stores have also revamped their showrooms. Now hardwood flooring is in the front of the store, not the rear. The people who run these stores are knowledgeable about hardwood flooring products. They are often called to drive several miles to pickup an order for a customer from the hardwood flooring distributor.

Recently, this came to mind when I had the opportunity to meet the owners of Johnson Carpet in Princeton, Illinois. Jeff and Dana Vanautreve bought the business 14 years ago. They continue to carry on the tradition, services and practicality applied by the previous owner such as street parking, and old fashioned window displays including their annual Christmas theme. And when you walk into Johnson Carpet, guess what, you are greeted by a massive display of hardwood flooring. You’ll also find the sales force are exceptionally cordial and friendly. Jeff loves working in the “field’ with other installers. Dana remains in the store during business hours. Smiles and hand shakes are given out freely, and if you are fortunate enough to become a customer, the same goodwill follows you before, during and after the sale. Happy customers create happy owners.

At a time when many of you are working through a time of challenges, Wood or Wood Knot thought it would be a good time to recognize all the “Smallville” retail/contractors who remain a crucial element of the hardwood flooring industry.  We thank you for your contribution and remaining a Local Super Hero and not just another “Metropolis resident.”