Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Furniture shopping in San Francisco

Posted by shannonclark on July 25, 2006

I have moved into my new apartment (wish it were a condo, I’d buy it in a heartbeat if it were for sale, though I doubt I could really afford it) and for the past few weeks I have been exploring the furniture stores of San Francisco (on my own) and trying to figure out what will work in my new place.

This is a story about the good and the very bad (and not to mention the tons of cheap, cheesy and/or cheaply made yet overpriced).

If you don’t know me (that’s my photo up on the side of this blog). I’m male, in my early 30’s, and today I am dressed in a nice blue dress shirt and grey slacks, carrying a Crumpler computer bag (which if you don’t know is a very good but not all that cheap bag) and today I was listening to my ipod shuffle. My haircut’s recent, though today I am a bit scruffy (didn’t shave this morning). But I mention all of this because today I had a serious study in contrasts – and one of the most puzzling, rudest and most basically annoying retail experiences perhaps in my entire life.

I have always been told that one of the keys to retail is to not make assumptions about your customers – and especially here in the Bay Area I would think that stores, even relatively high end stores, really would need to heed that advice – I am probably very similar in apprearance to hundreds of software/tech industry millionaires (though I’m certainly not a millionaire yet), and while I’m not a millionaire, I do have money earmarked for furniture – and it is much more than an IKEA/student budget – I have about 1700 sq. ft.+ of apartment to furnish, I like to entertain, and I want to create for one of the first times in my life a space that is true to myself and my tastes – and one that I can share and enjoy with friends.

In short I am a very real customer, with the money to buy, and I have been shopping for a number of weeks.

So today, when I walked into the store “In Your Element” (not going to give them the benefit of a link – go search for their website if you like – but read on before you think about shopping there).

They have a window display of very nice looking modern furniture, and a sidewalk display stand pointing people to how to find them – nothing on any of that sign or on their doorway indicating that they are “for the trade only”. I walked in and as I am wont to do started looking at the pieces that caught my eye, feeling the fabrics, and looking at the prices. They were high, but not unreasonablely so, and the quality looked to be very nice, almost everything was from Italy, and there were a couple of pieces in particular that caught my eye. One was even relatively speaking affordable – it was one of a series of very simple, yet elegent, small tables that they had, some bar height but some not bar height, and most under $500.

Possibly ideal for my kitchen, where I want something simple and elegent, but with a touch of style and some practical elements. Nothing fancy about the materials, though they were elegently used (and most definitely not the cheap country pine furniture or shoddy particle board/mdf stuff I’ve seen in too many places and on craigslist).

So I wanted to seriously inquire, however as I was walking through the store one of the employees after briefly greeting me, quickly started avoiding me and running around the store picking up the pricetags and cards that described all of the furniture in the place – in an attempt I can only guess to get me to leave and to prevent me from learning their prices or what the pieces were.

It was truly incrediably bizzare.

And by far the rudest experience I have ever had in a retail environment (ruder even than the, also Italian, man who kicked me out of his ‘private’ club for also looking at the prices and menu while thinking about getting gelato, makes me wonder if there is something non-Italian about looking at prices?). That at least was direct – if also incrediably rude. This however was quietly rude and grating.

I attempted to engage him – I asked for the dimensions of the table options – and he did in fact give me the dimensions – which were, unfortunately, exactly what I am looking for, (32″ x 32″ – not clear if it was counter height or not – would prefer not). But when I tried to ask him about the price – he gave up, stonewalled, and was about as rude as he could possibly be.

To test that it wasn’t something I had eaten at lunch or some “be rude to me vibe” I was giving off, I walked up the street to my destination, a great furniture store called Khyber Pass Outlet (I’ll try to find a link for them – they are hard to find – one related resource I found while looking for them, however is a great Guide to buying Rugs which I will probably refer back to in the future).

This was my third time looking in Khyber Pass Outlet. It is a crowded but easy to explore furniture store, specializing in imported furniture, much of it direct from China, and quite a lot of it very very nice, great woods, well made, with lots of attention to details. And lots of options to look at.

I will probably return there to order a mirror for my hallway (large, leather wrapped standing mirror – nearly 40″ by 69″ – not cheap (and it looks it) but not crazy expensive either – and it will be a really stunning addition to my entryway where I plan on placing it.

I may also return there for a really great, pale Elm table they have from China. Made in China by Americans who have incorporated a combination of modern design with traditional craftmanship and quality – resulting in a really stunning set of pieces. If I go that route I’ll end up with a 72″ x 38″ pale blonde Elm table with four square legs and a really elegant yet simple design. Very wide, solid planks and a really functional and beautiful table, one I would treasure for years (my other option I’m considering is also very stunning but in a different way). It is just a bit too big for one thought I have had, which is to buy TWO tables and use them as desks (getting two 5′ x 3′ or close tables) against the walls of my living room, moving them out into the center only for entertaining.

If I went with the Elm table that plan is out – and I would very tempted to buy a matching, stunning sideboard (will be measuring tonight if it would fit) which would make for a really amazing piece in my room and a great place to serve large meals (and lots of storage for linens, silverware and place settings as well as serving platters etc).

And I would consider looking at their selection of rugs, though I don’t know if they have quite the right mix of quality, colot, design, and price for me (not sure I want to spend $3000+ on a rug, even if it is handmade and pretty amazing that’s a lot to spend on something that can get stained).

Anyway it was quite a study in contrasts. I was able to talk with the salesclerk at Khyber Pass, discuss the options I am looking at, take measurements, get prices (even get offered a discount off one of the prices on the mirror which I may take her up on) and she didn’t blink when I mentioned that I would be going to another store, The Wooden Duck, later this week for their bi-annual sale in Berkeley. From them I plan on buying at least two benches, and very likely a table (which would also work as a desk – though it may be so stunning that I don’t want to use it as a desk) and I’m going to look at a number of their other pieces. I’m also considering buying a table and four chairs used from someone on Craigslist, going to look at a similar table while I’m in Berkeley.

In fact she had the confidence to suggest I buy the pieces there that I know I want, and see how they look in my space – as well as offered to let me take a rug home to see if it would work in my space (with an impression of my credit card as collateral). All very reasonable and very confident – and given how frequently their inventory turns (and they have three stores in LA in addition to the stores here, and seem to buy furniture very frequently, new shipment arriving tomorrow in fact, that makes me more confident in coming back to them in the future to get pieces that I would like.

More on the rest of my shopping – mostly bad experiences – after this evening’ s networking.

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