If you've walked or driven on North Limestone recently, you might have noticed a disturbing handwritten sign on a storefront across from the courthouse plaza: What? Merit Furniture is having a moving sale? They're selling the building? Say it ain't so!
Owners Stan and Larry Hitchner insist that the 50 percent-off-everything deal is no retail gambit and that the store with the round red sign and curiously eclectic window displays is leaving the building it has occupied since 1956. When that happens — the target date is November — downtown will never be quite the same.
Packed full of history
"We've got so much junk in here, you wouldn't believe it," says Stan Hitchner, who with his brother Larry took over the business that was started by their father, Cecil.
Upon reflection, he corrects himself: "Well, not junk. Let's call it quality merchandise."
"If it isn't here, you don't need it," Larry adds.
And as Gertrude Stein might say, there's a lot of there there.
Besides being packed with everything you'd expect at a full-service furniture store, there are many objects that defy categorization, including a pair of large desert-landscape paintings that Stan explains were created on an assembly line in Mexico — "Look closely, they're not exactly the same" — and a stuffed duck that sings, "If you're happy and you know it."
So if you need either of those things, you know where to find them. And it's all 50 percent off.
The thought of moving three floors of quality merchandise is enough to make the Hitchners swoon. They say they'd gladly sell the building lock, stock and singing duck. With all that stuff inside, Larry says, "Somebody could start a new business right now. Oh, shoot yeah."
The new owners will get not only the last of a once-thriving variety of downtown furniture store, but a building that has seen nearly 100 years of Lexington history.
Built several years after a fire destroyed the block in 1917, it housed a couple of early grocery stores, including a Kroger. The Hitchners will show you the dip in the hardwood floor where the cashier's counter once stood and the boarded-up hole where cold drinks were lowered for storage. They'll point to the vintage light fixtures.
"People are making reproductions of them. We've got the originals."
Upstairs for many years was an establishment called the Southland Hotel.
"We never could understand why," Stan says, given its North Limestone location. It changed hands often and, according to the Hitchners, had the kind of reputation that money can't wipe clean.
"They raided it quite a few times," Larry says. "It was a house of ill repute," Stan says.
Next door, where the restaurant a la Lucie is now, was once Serafini's Italian restaurant; the Serafinis lived upstairs (separate, of course, from the hotel). Their former apartment now merges with all the other upstairs rooms, about 17 in all. And there's furniture stored in every one of them. In the hallway ceiling are storage areas that require a ladder and apparently a shot of courage to open.
What's in there?
"We've never dared look," Stan says.
Will they before they move? "Oh yeah. There might be a pot of gold."
Catching the early birds
The neighborhood once was filled with furniture stores. Cecil Hitchner worked for several — Ideal, Wheeler's, Standard — before he and a man named William Mattingly started Merit in 1956.
Merit catered early on to "people who had cash money, who didn't believe in banks," Stan says, and housekeepers who were used to seeing "good quality stuff. That's what Dad provided for them."
Merit was directly across from a bus stop, and for a long time, the only federal building for all of Eastern Kentucky was a few steps away on Barr Street.
"If you were told to be in court at 8:25, and you're from Pikeville, you're going to be here at 6 in the morning," Stan says. To get the early birds, Merit started opening at 7 a.m. and closing at 4:30 p.m., which allowed Dad to catch the bus home to beat the traffic. Their clientele has changed, but those are still their hours.
Off to greener parking lots
Stan, 73, and Larry, 66, never planned on being in the furniture business themselves, but here they are today, more than 30 years after they started lending their parents a hand, with a building full of furniture downtown and a warehouse full of furniture on Seventh Street. And that warehouse is where they'll be, still selling furniture, after the North Limestone building changes hands. It comes with its very own fabulous parking lot.
They say they won't miss downtown.
"It's all attorneys and banks. There's no reason to come downtown to shop for a sofa."
And they will gleefully bid farewell to the Lexington Parking Authority.
But their neighbors will miss them.
Lucie Sloan of a la Lucie has been their tenant for years. She describes herself as "in limbo" for the moment.
Steve Popovich of Mithril Jewelers says he'll hate to see them go.
"They bend over backwards to help people." But he's not surprised they're moving. "It makes sense. They're getting older."
Flo Cowley, manager at Columbia Steak House, counts the Hitchners as good friends. "They may still be there in 10 years," she says, hopefully.
But a five-figure deposit and a contract signed last week make it likely that come November, Merit Furniture and its round red sign will have permanently left the building.