Julie Selby never planned on running a furniture consignment shop.
"It's just the way life took me," says the owner of Room Service at 933 Liberty Road.
In August, Selby will celebrate 20 years of doing what she never planned on.
In that time, Room Service has expanded from 2,500 square feet to 9,000 square feet and has helped lead the way as an area of nondescript storefronts turned into a design destination.
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Given the economic turbulence of recent years, these two achievements practically qualify as small-business miracles, enough to elevate her to the status of Lexington institution.
"I don't know about that," says Selby. But she admits "it feels pretty good" to have found something she likes doing and to have kept it going so long. An open house is planned for later in the month to mark the anniversary.
Twenty years ago, Selby had her sights set on becoming a CPA. The Danville native had been juggling motherhood with part-time jobs and was working as a bookkeeper at a now-defunct consignment store when she and a co-worker began tossing around ideas about how they might do the job themselves.
"Neither of us had any experience," she says. But with the goal of improving on the furniture-consignment business model, they found a space on Liberty Road and named it Room Service.
"We jumped in and took it slow. We needed inventory and went to estate and yard sales. Gradually we started getting consignments."
They settled on policies and percentages that haven't changed: for most furniture, the consignor gets 60 percent of the selling price. There are price reductions every month. If unsold after 4 months, the furniture is reclaimed or donated to local charities.
Selby bought out her partner in 1996 when he moved out of state and has been sole owner ever since.
Just say no? Not so easy
The merchandise at Room Service comes from homes that are merging and homes that are breaking up. Self-employed "pickers" stop in to hawk their finds. And people faced with clearing out a parent's lifetime call Selby, hoping she'll take in Mom's sofa or bedside table.
Selby tries hard to say yes when she can. She wants to say yes, because "the hardest thing about the job has been learning to say no," she says.
"People get so attached to things; they'll get angry. I try to help them understand it's not personal."
It can be tough to hear that Mom's favorite chair has limited value on the open market.
What sells best is "newer furniture that you can buy in stores now," says Selby.
Bedrooms sell well. Leather sells well. Art, on the other hand, doesn't. Neither do most antiques, in Room Service at least. Try next door at Scout.
One customer came in with a lot of furniture from her mother's house, and the sofa quickly sold. It was a bit of a shock for the customer later, when at a local funeral home for a service, she found herself sitting on it.
"She told me it was comforting," says Selby.
Early on, Selby learned that she needed to supplement consigned items with new ones. "It really fills in the space. It's hard to do all consignment." Now about 25 percent of the inventory is new accessories.
Survival of the nicest?
One of the more slippery statistics to pin down is the percent of small businesses that survive 20 years. Best to simply say that the odds are stacked against it.
Jeff Perkins, co-owner of Scout, which also consigns furniture and sits next door to Room Service, says Selby welcomed his business even before it moved in.
Perkins says he knows the secret to Selby's success: "I think why she's been in business so long is she treats everyone the same. She's so pleasant; it's her hallmark. We love being next door to her."
Selby now has five part-time employees. Linda McLean has worked there for 16 years and echoes Perkins' opinion of her boss: "You couldn't ask for anybody better."
The job has other advantages, too. There are the unusual customer requests — "I'd like to buy those gas meters outside" — and the daily opportunity to rearrange furniture, which is displayed in roomlike settings. It's a lot like playing house. And there are always familiar faces dropping by.
"Eighty percent of our customers we know, and know by name," says Selby. "We have people who stop in every day."
Recently, Linda Alphin and her little white dog Napoleon were in shopping for some furniture to go in their new place.
"I may want to consign some things I bought here in the past," Alphin tells Selby.
Diana Hays of Berea says she comes in several times a year, at least.
"It's consistently attractive, good-quality furniture. Why furnish your home with new furniture when you can get furniture that looks like new for a third the price?" she asks.