Upholstery shop built on father-son rapport
HURRICANE, W.Va. -- This is not just Tim Smith's story. It's also about his dad, the Bob behind Bob's Upholstery. His father, who can't hear or speak, started the business 40 years ago in his garage with a '49 Ford truck that wouldn't start without help.
It's a story of mutual respect -- a son filled with admiration for all that his father achieved, a dad grateful for the success his son made of the business he started on a very thin shoestring in 1973.
Located in Hurricane since 1990, Bob's Upholstery bustles this time of year with marine work. Boat tops and boat seats in various stages of renovation reflect the firm's go-to reputation in the boating community.
Tim runs the shop with his wife, Carol. His dad, approaching 80, still works three days a week.
Generally outgoing and upbeat, the son softens at the thought of his impossible childhood dream: He'd give anything if he could hear his father's voice.
"I'm from St. Albans. My mother and father both are deaf. They weren't born deaf. He had an ear infection in both ears when he was 3. My mother had rubella when she was a child.
"They were good parents. They were strict. But it was hard to explain in sign language what I was trying to tell them as a kid. I don't remember learning to sign. Dad said I caught on when I was about 4.
"I have two younger sisters. They would always say, 'Tell mom this' or 'Tell daddy that.' I would say, 'No, you have to learn to sign, too.
"Through grade school, every teacher would find out my parents were deaf, so they would make me stand up in front of class and do the alphabet because they thought it was so neat.
"When we were growing up, we would flip on a light or stomp to get Mom or Dad's attention. They could feel the vibration and turn. When I was born, my mother said she would get up every two or three minutes because she couldn't hear if I was crying. They finally brought in Dad's mother to help them.
"His mother was so proud of him when he built his own house because they had never owned a home. They lived in a one-room apartment on Clendenin Street where the Civic Center is now. She worked at Superior Laundry over on the Boulevard.
"He worked at Tickle's Upholstery for 20 years. He learned upholstering at the deaf school in Romney. When he was a teenager on a summer break, Mr. Tickle would hire him. He would just do the grunt work, tearing off the old stuff.
"He quit Tickle and moved to a place called the Bargain Barn on Big Tyler Road. After a few years, he decided to go into business for himself.
"He taught mom how to sew, and they worked together. It's unbelievable what they did.
"I was 14 when they started the business. His mother was staying at the house at the time. She would answer the phone when I was at school. When I got home, dad would take me on calls for estimates. I was basically just an interpreter.
"As soon as I turned 16, he told me to just do it myself. I had learned over the years how to price things and how much fabric it took. It's not a trade you learn in six months. He taught me how to tear down, then I learned to sew a little bit.
"He started out of his garage. The first couple of weeks, he got no calls. Finally, he got one, and he got the job, and he was so excited. It took off after that.
"We started out with this old truck, a 1949 Chevrolet pickup truck. Every time we would deliver something, we would make sure we were on a hill so it would start. Sometimes we weren't, so I would get out and push the truck, and he would pop the clutch. He finally got his first van.
"The business stayed in our home for 17 years, until 1990 when we moved down here. We were running out of room at the house. In the mid-'80s, we had branched out into marine stuff. He knew John Lucenti who had the marina where Lou Wendell is now. John asked him to do some seats and tops. Now we do work for all the marinas.
"He wasn't real keen about the move here. I told him we needed the space. Now we're running out of space again.
"He retired a few years after that. He still comes down and works about three days. He will be 80 in December.
"You know what my dream was when I was a kid? My parents being deaf, I always wished he could hear my voice, and I wish I could hear how he would sound. He's never heard the sound a bird makes. So many things. He has a voice. He can scream with the best of them.
"Think about it. In today's world of I-can't-do-this-or-that-because-it's-too-hard, here's a guy who got out of school with maybe the equivalent of an eighth- or ninth-grade education. They concentrated on teaching them a trade. He actually built a house. It's amazing what he's done.
"He's a big Mountaineer fan, although he's a little mad at them these days. He played all the sports in school. He wrestled, too. He wrestled a freshman from WVU and pinned him.
"I thought I was going to college, but I started doing this and I kind of liked it. I kept thinking, 'Who is going to do this for him? Who's going to go on these estimates?' And even if he finds someone, what if they cheat him?' I thought maybe later I would go to college, but I just never did.
"It's a good enough living. I'm happy. I've got so many friends who do a job that's the same thing all the time. Here, everything is different. One day, it's a little loveseat. Next day, it's a boat cover. It's interesting to me.
"When my dad was a young man working, there were lots of upholstery shops, a dozen or more. Now the trade has whittled down to a handful.
"Everybody would buy nice furniture that was worth recovering. Now we live in a throwaway society. You go buy the $499 set. It wears out, throw it away and buy another $499 set. Maybe the younger generation can't afford the high-end furniture. When he started, that was 100 percent of our business. Now furniture is only 20 or 30 percent and the marine stuff is probably 70 percent.
"Furniture is a steady trickle now. You see old pieces, heirlooms, something grandma handed down. That's the kind of things we get.
"We do work for professional people, too. Lawyers and doctors are regulars. Every professional has a waiting room with chairs. We started doing those, too. My wife, Carol, hooked up with a couple of decorators doing window treatments and furniture, and they subcontract it back out to us. So we also have that.
"Carol gets on me about working too many hours. Sometimes in the summer, for 10 or 12 weeks, I'll work 12 or 14 hours a day. Everybody wants their boat in the water right now.
"The marine stuff is almost year-round. I tell them to get it to me in the winter. That's the time to do them.
"When John Lucenti asked my dad to do boat tops, he didn't know how but he said, 'Oh, yes. I can do that.' He looked at it and learned by trial and error. We needed a different set of distributors to get things like zippers and snaps. Otherwise, the furniture in a boat is the same as furniture in a house.
"We do a lot of work in Summersville. The hard thing is trying to make covers on boats on the lake. Some boats are big and don't have trailers to bring them here, so you've got to keep measuring, back and forth, back and forth.
"I'm considering buying an old bread truck and sticking a spare machine in there and going up there and trying to do it on site.
"I bought my first boat in 1988. I've always been around boats. My dad owned a boat when he was doing work for John Lucenti. We would go fishing at Bluestone Lake.
"I have a deck boat on Summersville Lake. We leave the camper in storage up at Mountain Lake Campground. We go up and do a little work, and as soon as we get done, I buzz out on that beautiful lake and relax a little bit. That's my getaway.
"Sometimes I have to hide, but I understood that going in. They say, 'Hey, come look at this.' I say, 'We can do a little business, but don't call me off the lake.'"Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.