By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Most furniture sold today is made overseas, but it wasn’t long ago that most of the furniture sold in the big department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s was actually manufactured right here in Amesbury.
In its heyday, Chatham Furniture Reproductions Inc. was a successful furniture manufacturer that employed 240 people in two factories and supplied high-quality cherry and maple wood products to stores across the eastern U.S.
But as was the case with most other American manufacturers, the pressure from foreign competition ultimately proved insurmountable.
Chatham Furniture was one of the last American-made furniture manufacturers in New England before it officially shut its doors on July 30, and on Friday the company will auction off the last of its inventory.
“Everything must go,” said Paul Kapela, owner and founder of Chatham Furniture, who added that the furniture is worth $200,000 and he hopes to sell it all.
The auction will begin Friday at 2 p.m. at the company’s headquarters at 4 Poplar St., and the building will be open for a preview starting at 9 a.m.
For Kapela, Friday’s auction is a sad but inevitable end to the business he first started in a single-stall garage in Haverhill in 1962 when he purchased a table saw for $125.
While he worked seven days a week making all the furniture he possibly could, Chatham Furniture grew slowly but steadily throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Kapela first moved the company to Amesbury in 1972, and over the course of his 50 years in business, Chatham Furniture never wavered in its commitment to high-quality, American-made furniture.
“All of the years we were in business it was strictly solid wood product,” Kapela said. “We never used chipboard, flakeboard, plywood, none of that stuff. It had to be solid, native New England lumber.”
By the early ‘90s, the company’s Amesbury operations had settled in its current location. The company began to experience slower growth rates as time went on, but Kapela said the first signs of trouble came after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when the global markets came to a standstill.
“After 9/11 I really felt it, we all felt it,” Kapela said. “It came back, probably about 60 percent of (the market) came back again, but then China really killed us. China moved in and killed us, there was no way we could compete.”
As the Chinese began to invade the market, Kapela found he couldn’t hope to stay afloat given all the financial advantages the Chinese manufacturers had.
“If you go to China, they don’t need workers comp, there’s no insurance, there’s no time and a half, there’s no OSHA, there’s no fire insurance, there’s no medical plans, no benefits, you can’t compete with that,” Kapela said. “I’ve got to abide by the rules of my country, which I’m willing to do, and that would not allow me to compete.”
Kapela said he had heard stories from friends in the industry that painted a stark picture of the working conditions in China. He said the treatment of workers there is “pathetic,” and that his loyalty to his employees was perhaps another factor in his company’s demise.
“My most skilled employees I kept on until the end,” Kapela said. “And that really hurt us because we were paying people more money than they could possibly produce.”
In the end, Kapela knew that his company’s time, and the local furniture manufacturing industry as a whole, was running out. Rather than take out loans or try to radically restructure, he simply shut down the machines and called it a career.
Looking back on his 50 years in business, Kapela said there wasn’t really anything special about his company, and that their success was just a product of a blue-collar attitude, a willingness to work seven days a week and an understanding of how the business worked.
“I had the Armani suit and the dungarees, and you wear the dungarees when it’s time to work, and you wear the Armani suit when it’s time to go to the show,” Kapela said. “That’s the role we play, but everyone was important, right from the consumer to the floor sweeper. That’s why we were successful, what else can I say?”