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64 years of furniture in Newton

March 25, 2011

For nearly 64 years, Pete Kirby has been a merchant in downtown Newton.

First working as an employee for Alman's Home Furnishings and then owning the furniture retail business, he's helped residents throughout eastern Catawba County establish their households.

Now, giant yellow signs outside Alman's showrooms on East First Street herald a retirement sale and Kirby's plans to step away from the business' day-to-day operations.

But it isn't the first time he's stepped away from the store.

"I tried retiring 15 years ago," said Kirby, 81. "I retired for one week. I decided that I didn't like it, so I came back to work."

Kirby first came to the Newton furniture retailer in March 1948. As a 16-year-old, he graduated high school, then fooled Uncle Sam with a "fixed up" Bible that reported he was 18 and old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Fresh off an 18-month enlistment, including stationing in Alaska, he started work in Hickory with Montgomery Ward.

"I worked for Montgomery Ward 13 weeks, and they changed my pay 13 times — every Monday morning," he said. "I wanted something I could rely on a little better. I went to work for the Alman brothers, who owned the store in Newton."

Kirby explained that, at the time, Alman's was a new company in Newton that came to the area from Asheboro. When the business filled an empty building in the "heart of Catawba County," there were four other furniture retailers in the city's downtown area, he said.

"Newton was blessed with furniture stores," he said. "I came here and went to work as a furniture salesman, and opened the first account that was sold here — to Mrs. Grace Hamilton on West 13th Street."

At the time, Newton was a bustling place to be, he said.

"When I came here, all the textile mills and all the furniture factories were still running. You couldn't find a place to walk on the sidewalk on a Saturday," he said.

In those days, he said, there were plenty of Saturdays when he ended a sales day and walked out of a store that was completely emptied of furniture.

"When the cotton selling season came, they would come in, sell their cotton, and a lot of times they would be in a wagon," he said. "They would come over here and buy a living room suit, put it on their wagon and go home."

The store extended credit to families, he said, and that allowed many families to fill their homes with their first pieces of furniture.

"There are a lot of people in Newton and Conover, and this area who would not have been able to establish their households in an effective manner without his help," said Kirby's son-in-law Joel Harris, who has managed the business the past 15 years. "He felt that if people were credit worthy enough, he would take a chance on them.

That is how he has made his mark on this town. He let people buy furniture and make payments, and they probably would not have been able to get merchandise any other way."

Kirby continued as an employee of Alman's until February 1960, when he faced a decision.

"I had two brothers that were trying to get me to go into the automobile business," he said, adding he determined he and his brothers could get bank financing to enter retail auto sales, but he wasn't sure if that was the right move. "I decided if I could get money to go into the automobile business, which I know nothing about, I thought maybe I could get money to buy half of this store."

In fact two competitors, including Maiden furniture retailer Jake Smith and Newton hardware store owner Claude Abernethy, signed his promissory note that allowed Kirby to buy half interest in the Almans' furniture store.

"We had a buy-and-sale agreement and my partner died in 1966. I bought his half of the store," he said, adding he bought the deceased Alman's share by making payments to Wofford College, where the late businessman willed his half of the store.

By 1973, Kirby said he owned the business free and clear, and he's enjoyed working as a furniture retailer.

"You meet a lot of interesting people, and you get to learn a whole lot about them especially if you do a credit business," he said, adding plenty of things have changed since he first started work, particularly the "credit side of the business." "It is a different world all together. The banks have taken total charge of the credit business.

"Everybody works with a charge card."

Newton, too, has changed, and all those downtown furniture stores he once competed against are long gone.

"It is sad. It is very sad. Newton has had a lot of good merchants, and there has been a lot of good cooperation among the merchants," he said.

"It is a shame they are all gone."

The furniture business, has changed, as well, he said, adding a lot of the company's furniture is sold via the Internet. Now with that furniture filling about 25,000 square feet of retail space in buildings along East First Street, as well as a warehouse near the old Catawba Memorial Hospital, he hopes the ongoing retirement sale at Alman's Home Furnishings will again help families fill homes throughout the area and around the world.

"It all needs to go," he said.

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