Well Established 

Leo Burke Furniture has been a Carytown anchor for 46 years.

A slight man who is pleasant and dressed impeccably in a gray flannel suit and colorful bow tie approaches a customer. “Thank you for stopping in,” he says gently. Noticing the customer’s fascination with an unusual, U-shaped mahogany bookshelf, he steers the man’s attention to a larger, more elaborate shelving unit set against a back wall. “That unit is made in northern Italy,” he says, “We have another that is made in Portugal.” This is a natural salesman. This is Leo Burke.

It was in 1958 that Burke, now a sprightly 82, opened the store in this block. A native Richmonder, he had graduated from McGuire’s School for boys and attended Notre Dame before joining the Army. After World War II, he worked for Havertys, Kenneth Lord and Sydnor & Huntley furniture companies locally before starting his own operation. And according to long-time customers and employees Leo Burke is still flourishing, thanks to upper-end merchandising, competitive prices, familial secession and, from all reports, service beyond the call of duty.

“There’s no doubt about it,” says Mike Beasley, 43, store manager who has worked part and full time at the store since he was 14, “It’s the service.

They’ll do just about anything. If something goes wrong with something that was bought 10 years ago, it’ll be fixed at no charge. We’ll deliver a new bed and move the bed that had been in that room to another room. And we’ll move the bed that was in that room to grandmother’s.”

Says Robert Watkins, a Richmond interior decorator, “It really is a splendid store, they have a way of making their customers feel they are somebody. Their long-time sales people are from another era in terms of how they treat you.”

If Leo Burke brings over half a century of personal experience in the furniture industry and an old-school sense of how people want to be treated, his son Jack has steered the company in some new directions. Jack, now 45, left the insurance business to join the company in 1981 after his father had a series of heart attacks.

According to Jack Burke, furniture retailing was suffering during the 1980s. Traditional department stores were closing and long-time industry alliances were breaking down and shifting. Today, most furniture manufacturing has moved overseas.

When an arsonist torched the store in 1992 and insurance didn’t cover the inventory, Jack says there was never any question of not rebuilding and of not holding on to the employees during the transition. At this time, Leo stepped back and let Jack take the lead. He added contemporary selections to the highly traditional mix. He also sharpened a savvy awareness of what sophisticated Richmonders want (and how they want to be treated).

“We became more focused,” Jack says, “We sell things that are extremely good. We’re not the biggest, but we want to be the best.”

“We built on what my father started and are trying to perfect it,” says Jack of his efforts along with 12 employees, including six sales people and a degreed interior designer, “We’d go without an employee before we’d go with an employee who didn’t fit.”

As a boy, Jack worked in the warehouse and later drove the delivery truck. While he shares his father’s sartorial flair, wicked sense of humor and keen sense of observation, Jack is much more kinetic. Ollie, an English terrier, often accompanies him to the store.

Kip Kephart, who worked in display at the former Thalhimers Department Stores cites another factor in the company’s success. “Leo Burke is one of the few reminders of the past, where you know the owners of the store and you know their honesty and integrity. It is a rarity. We used to expect that from merchants, but, boy, it’s gone. Is it ever gone.”

The company’s customer base reaches around the country and the globe to Asia and Europe. Store trucks make runs each week to furniture distributors in High Point, N.C., and regular deliveries to Hampton Roads and the Northern Neck.

“I had a customer come in the other day from Northern Virginia who said he hadn’t been here in 40 years but that what he had bought 40 years ago was still serving him well,” says Leo, with understated pleasure.

Todd Yoggi, an interior designer, says, “Leo Burke completely, completely, stands out 100 per cent stands out among Richmond furniture stores. Its displays are well-done and color-coordinated. And its windows deliver a touch of Manhattan.”

“Richmond is a traditional town,” Jack says, “But people have very sophisticated tastes and generally have a good idea of what they want. We can increase their appreciation. Most people are receptive to suggestions.”

A survey of items on the sales floor reveals some traditional pieces masquerading as something else. Jack points to a high, seven-drawer chest that opens to reveal a television set. He calls it a “lingerie” cabinet, one drawer for each day of the week. “I guess someone with an exciting social life would need eight drawers,” he quips.

Furniture styles are ever-changing, especially to appeal to well-heeled young customers. “Back in the ’80s there would be a dozen Chippendale sofas on the floor,” says Jack pointing to a leather, sectional sofa, “Now you can’t find one. You won’t find a four-poster bed. Sleigh beds are popular.”

“We don’t have to use a cookie-cutter approach to sell the furniture,” continues Jack, scanning the eclectic mix on the sales floor which sprawls for almost half a city block across four buildings. “We work all our stuff together.” Having said that, he walks to a carpeted corridor that is filled with highly traditional dining-room furniture, “We call this ‘Chippendale Alley,’” he says, laughing.

“Our business changes, but changes with the pace of a glacier.” HS




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