HED:Despite setbacks, the Chandler family has sold furniture in Okolona for 117 years
By John Cummins
OKOLONA - Around these parts, the name Chandler is often associated with fine furniture and real estate concerns. For the better part of 117 years, it was also associated with undertaking.
When Robert Tavens Chandler came to Okolona from Holly Springs in 1881, following a yellow fever epidemic, he began a furniture and undertaking business with his son. Subsequent generations of the family kept up the dual traditions.
"They had the caskets upstairs and the furniture downstairs," said Robert Walter Chandler Jr., 38, warehouse manager for Chandler's Furniture Center.
Walter Jr. didn't have opportunity to go into mortuary science. His father, Chandler's Furniture Center owner Robert "Walter" Chandler Sr., said that in 1949, when he and his father restarted the family business after a seven-year hiatus, the undertaking went the way of horse-drawn Hearses.
"I wanted to deal with the living, not the dead," said Chandler Sr., grinning. "When I was a boy and used to come into the store, I saw some things I didn't want to see."
During the lean years that followed, including some major business setbacks, undertaking might have proved a profitable sideline. The Chandlers', however, stuck to selling appliances and furniture. Now, as the company approaches its 50th consecutive year, Chandler Furniture Center stands as a testament to business dedication.
$5,500 in capital
Robert Walter Chandler Sr., now 71, was a 23-year-old Navy veteran and agricultural student at Mississippi State College when he entered the furniture business with his father, Walter Clifford Chandler.
A tall man who looks younger than his age and still puts in nine-hour days, Chandler Sr. said he planned to be a farmer. His father's health had failed in 1942, forcing the sale of the original family business. Seven years later, Walter Clifford Chandler approached his son about opening another furniture store.
He agreed, and they began the new business with only $5,500 in capital.
At first, the majority of the firm's business was in electrical appliances.
"To be honest, I didn't have the capital to get into furniture then," said Chandler Sr. "I still sell (electrical appliances), because I made a living at them so long I hate to kick them out."
Early on, Chandler Sr. began working nine hours per day, six days per week. He shrugs off the long hours as necessary for success.
"If you grew up in the 1930s, during the Depression, you learned early on that if you didn't work, you didn't eat. Everybody who grew up then knows this."
The store struggled early on. In 1951 a severe winter storm hit the region. Some areas lost electricity for more than a month.
The lack of electricity didn't help businesses, especially one which did the majority of its sales in electrical appliances. The storm closed the store for only a week, but brought along a dry spell in sales that continued for some time afterward.
"When you have expenses, you have to sell everyday," Chandler Sr. said. "When you don't sell anything for a month, you're about at the end of your rope."
Customers finally returned, but the store still had a hard time prospering. Chandler Sr. took full control of the store in 1966, splitting the store's $6,000 in assets with his father.
"It was like starting all over again, with $3,000," Chandler Sr. said. By then, however, he had made loyal customers throughout a wide area through word-of-mouth about the store's quality merchandise and customer service.
He drove the store's delivery van himself, delivering furniture to repeat customers in Alabama and Tennessee. Often he wouldn't arrive back in Okolona until the early morning hours.
By 1967, the store began to thrive.
In 1972 the store had another close shave. Leaving Memphis with a load of televisions for his store, Chandler Sr. stopped at an eye clinic to pickup some glasses. While inside, his truck was hijacked.
He eventually recovered the truck and trailer, but not the cargo.
"Somebody on the loading docks had tipped the hijackers off. Police later told me they were professionals, and it was good I didn't get in their way."
Chandler Sr. learned a lesson the hard way. From then on he carried a pistol each time he went to Memphis.
"I never went without my Smith and Wesson .38 Police Special, and I let them see it on the docks," Chandler Sr. said.
The loss of $15,000 worth of merchandise was a hard one for his business to swallow. Chandler Sr., however, said he made up his mind to sell twice as many televisions to make up for the loss.
"And I did it too. But it was still a real lick. It happened just as the store was beginning to grow."
Chandler Sr. said he's proud to be where he is now. Besides the store, he's acquired extensive real estate holdings, including farms and 10 buildings in downtown Okolona. He won't divulge the store's sales, but confides that they've grown consistently in the past few years.
"I'm above where I expected to be," he said, chuckling. But Chandler Sr. said he's found that short margins, long hours and hard work are part of furniture retailing, and he might rethink his choice of careers if he could start again.
Chandler Sr. laughs when he thinks about his early years in the family business.
"The reason the Lord didn't want me to prosper was because He didn't think I could stand prosperity," he quipped.