Martin Furniture and Design has stood in downtown Gainesville for more than 70 years, and now holds the oldest business license in a shopping district poised for change.
Three projects, including one on the square itself, will together change the landscape downtown, bringing residential, restaurant, retail and office development.
Meanwhile, longtime businesses in the area have closed as their owners have decided to retire, Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said.
Gem Jewelry, which opened in 1936, closed in December. Saul’s, a clothing store on the Gainesville square, shut down earlier this year after 79 years in business.
But the area is ready for new businesses, Dunlap said.
“It’s ripe for redevelopment, and I know a lot of people are looking now,” she said. “It may not be right on the square, but I think they will have opportunities.”
The Bradford Street shop’s owners are working to evolve to meet the needs of modern customers and anticipate growth in the business community.
The company no longer just focuses on furniture, a shift that Ben Martin said has helped it stay successful as other local furniture stores have shut down. Including a wider range of home décor products has helped the owners expand their customer base and work with customers in new capacities, he said.
“The business has evolved quite a bit in the last 10 years…This store was run by a bunch of men a long time, and it showed. Now it’s really not,” Ben Martin said. “This is a fashion business, and I have gotten out of the way of these women and let them bring fashion to this business. And we have just flourished because of it.”
Clifford Martin founded Martin-Johnson Furniture in 1945 with a business partner, and about five years into the business, Clifford and his father bought the business and renamed it Martin Furniture. Clifford’s brother Johnny also joined. Ben Martin, Clifford’s son, started working there in 1981 and now owns the business, renamed Martin Furniture and Design to reflect the store’s new focus on décor and other aspects of the look of a home. Ben Martin’s sister Margaret also works there part time.
For Ben’s wife Courtney Martin, who has been working for the business for 18 years, working in design was a natural change. Her mother owned Ronald’s, a clothing store at Lakeshore Mall, so she has been around fashion and retail her whole life. Expanding the store’s offerings has helped them attract and get to know customers who may not need a new piece of furniture but want to support a local business, she said.
“We have a lot of pop-in traffic, people waiting for a restaurant to open or waiting for a hair appointment, so we thought why don’t they have gifts they can buy, like a candle or a baby gift?” Courtney Martin said. “Everyone who comes in can’t buy a sofa, or doesn’t need one, but they could buy a pair of earrings or a coffee table book.”
The store still sells plenty of furniture — the building’s two stories have a variety of furnishings, including sofas, beds, mattresses and recliners.
Debbie Williams started working at Martin Furniture in the late 1970s.
“You have a different day every day with people coming in to the store,” Williams said. “New friendships are made. … It’s a family atmosphere, and that is how they treat their employees.”
She left the store to care for her children but returned when they were older and has now been back at the business for 20 years. She works in sales and collaborates with Courtney Martin to find merchandise for the store.
Working with interior designers keeps the staff busy, Williams said. She enjoys making new connections and working with customers and co-workers.
The personal connections are also what have made Carolyn Marlow of Gainesville a loyal customer at Martin Furniture. She has been shopping there since 1959, and multiple generations of her family have worked with the Martins to furnish and decorate their homes, she said.
“They have time for everybody, they shun nobody, and they always have a smile for them,” Marlow said. “They just go out of their way to help you … I was taught to be honest and truthful, and that’s that store.”
Mildred Carpenter of Chestnut Mountain is another longtime customer. She has been shopping there since 1990 and said most of her home furnishings are from Martin Furniture. Carpenter said she has gotten to know the Martin family and the store’s employees over the years, and as a piano player and singer, she performed at the funerals of Clifford and Johnny Martin, as well as two bookkeepers at the store.
“They’re great, they really are, and are much an integral part of Hall County and Gainesville,” Carpenter said.
Kim Kiesel of Flowery Branch has been going to Martin Furniture for about three years, and the Martins have helped her decorate every corner of her home—Courtney Martin even helped her pick out paint colors, she said.
“They have done so many things for me — everything from doing one room at a time or several rooms at a time to a potted plant. No matter what you’re looking for, big or small, you can find it,” Kiesel said.
Maggie Griffin, a Gainesville interior designer with a studio on Boulevard, has also been working with the business as they have shifted to a design focus. She said her clients often prefer to work with local businesses, and she takes them to Martin Furniture to find what they need.
“I’d rather give (Martin Furniture) the business than a national big box store. … Everyone there is so friendly and very accommodating. They care about meeting my clients and seeing what I have going on,” Griffin said.
Ben and Courtney Martin’s three children do not currently work at the store, and Ben Martin said the family is looking at options for keeping the store open.
“We’ve probably got another four or five years of pedal to the metal, and then we will probably look at our children and see if they want a shot at the title,” he said.
For now, the Martins say they have enjoyed seeing downtown Gainesville develop and are anticipating future growth in the business community.
“A lot of people didn’t even know we exist, and then with all these restaurants, it’s ‘hey, there’s a furniture store’… I know that has been a really big factor,” Ben Martin said.
The people, both customers and employees, have been the driving force of the business, he said.
“That is what has been the main factor in our success, it’s all these fine people … It’s not me by a long stretch,” he said.