WOODLAND — Few things can devastate a small community more than the public school closing. Yet consolidations to save money and provide better educational opportunities have left a large number of closed schools across the state, most of which have remained vacant or been torn down.
But a school closing in Woodland, which is in Chickasaw County, led to unexpected economic opportunities. The school purchased by the family of Henry Woodland in 1986 is now home to the largest family-owned furniture store in the state.
“When the school closed we were afraid our town would dry up and go away,” says Woodland’s daughter, Talitha Hudson. “There was a closed auction bid, and my parents, brother and sister were concerned that it not get into the wrong hands. It just so happened that we got the school. But we had no idea what to do with it.”
The Woodlands consulted state economic development officials in Jackson who recommended opening a retail furniture store. The thinking was that considering Northeast Mississippi is the top upholstery furniture-producing region in the country, a retail operation that served as a local outlet for the manufacturers would prove to be popular.
Opening Woodland Wholesale and Retail Furniture was a great idea. But success came through trial and error.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Hudson said. “We bought a whole truckload of two sofas in the same style with two different kinds of fabric, and two types of end tables. The furniture in Mother and Daddy’s house was 30 years old. We were just not into this kind of thing.”
The business started out in one corner of the gymnasium, and then grew to take up the entire gymnasium, all of the classrooms and the cafeteria. Four more buildings were added around the school for a total of 375,000 square feet of space. Another 100,000 square feet of new buildings is currently coming out of the ground.
“The furniture business really took off,” Hudson said. “It was a local place people could come and buy products they had built themselves. We didn’t do any advertising. But just by word of mouth and the grace of God we have grown to be the largest family-owned furniture store in the state of Mississippi.”
The business started out about 75% wholesale and 25% retail, but switched over until about 80% of the business is retail and 20% wholesale.
Henry Woodland says the store’s basic strategy has been to allow everyone to buy just like a dealer. The store sells wholesale to everyone whether they are buying one piece of furniture or a truckload.
Woodland says his family business is “a cart tied behind Franklin Manufacturing’s freight train.” Franklin Manufacturing, locating 10 miles away in Houston, is one of the largest privately-owned furniture manufacturers in the country. The company produces about 1,500 recliners per day in addition to other items of furniture such as sofas.
When Woodland Wholesale and Retail Furniture opened, Franklin Manufacturing owner Hassell Franklin asked the Woodlands to stock Franklin’s furniture products so employees would have a place to buy the furniture they make. Woodland was initially dubious he could sell the 50 recliners per week that Franklin envisioned because business had been slow the first couple of years. But business really picked up after they started offering Franklin products.
“We had the space so we started filling up classrooms, the gym and the lunchroom with recliners,” Woodland said. “Word trickled out, and we have been going strong ever since. It is nothing fancy. We have no air conditioning, and no heat except in July. That keeps costs down to give people a good deal. We buy by the trailer load, which keeps freight costs down, and just charge a small handling fee.”
Franklin Manufacturing, which is considered in the same quality league as Lane and La-Z-Boy recliners, has about 1,400 employees, but those form just a small portion of the customer base of Woodland Wholesale and Retail Furniture. Customers, including “mom and pop” furniture store owners who resell the products, come from around the Southeast from Texas to Georgia.
“People have been good to us,” Woodland said. “There was no traffic here when the school closed in 1986. It was a dead area. I was really uncomfortable going into the furniture business. I’m an old retired Navy officer raised on a nail keg. I didn’t know anything about furniture. Because Northeast Mississippi is number one in the nation in producing upholstery furniture, we needed a place where local products could be marketed. But we never dreamed the business could be so successful.”
For the first two years Woodland never advertised. Business grew strictly by word of mouth. Woodland says the only reason they started running a few television ads was that the customers who came 10 years ago wouldn’t recognize the place.
“We advertised a little to let them know it has grown,” Woodland said.
Besides good prices, part of the attraction is the wide selection. For example, there are about a 100 different styles of baby cribs and entertainment centers to choose from. The store has everything from grandfather clocks to oriental rugs. About the only major household items the store doesn’t carry are appliances.
Woodland’s sales average in the range of $1 million per month. That brings in a healthy $18,000 to $20,000 per month in sales tax revenues for the town of Woodland, population 186. Those revenues have allowed improvements such as building a volunteer fire department, a community center, upgrading the water system including adding elevated water storage tank and installing a sewer system at no cost to city residents. Daughter Patti Watkins, the mayor of Woodland, oversaw the improvements.
With so many customers coming by, the Woodlands have added a caf