The slogan winked at me from the rear window of a bright red Chrysler minivan parked in a furniture showroom lot. "Veni, vidi, VISA: I came, I saw, I charged." It seemed fitting.
We were in High Point, N.C., the self-proclaimed home furnishings capital of the world. An indulgent shopper can do serious damage to the household budget in a place like this, where a single Oscar de la Renta dining room table sells for upward of $22,000.
But if you're in the market for furniture, nowhere else in the nation compares. Nearly 300 manufacturers are here, spread out along a 120-mile strip from High Point to Hickory and Morgantown, N.C. Much of America's furniture is made in the region, and much of it is displayed in showrooms and discount malls.
Many knowledgeable shoppers find the area irresistible.
"It's better than a box of Godiva chocolates," said Orange County resident Barbara Hayes, who recently combined a Savannah, Ga., vacation with a scouting expedition to the High Point-Hickory area. The result? Enough furniture to fill her new 3,500-square-foot Coto de Caza home.
"I'd rather go to High Point than Disneyland," said Hayes, laughing. "I can't wait to go back."
Twice a year, High Point doubles in size when the world's home furnishings manufacturers visit to hawk their wares to retailers at the International Home Furnishings Market. The shows, which draw about 75,000 vendors and buyers, are closed to the public.
But the rest of the year, the public turns out in force, descending on the region by the hundreds of thousands to buy samples, discontinued items and manufacturers' mistakes. East Coast residents arrive in pickup trucks to haul purchases home.
Some shoppers aren't looking for bargains as much as they're seeking a larger selection from which to choose.
"I'd been everywhere in my area and couldn't find what I wanted," Hayes said. "And you can't shop for furniture on the Internet. I wanted to see the finishes and touch the fabrics. I can do that in High Point."
It's a bonus reason to visit a state that boasts remarkable scenery, including some of the East Coast's prettiest shoreline — the dramatic barrier islands called the Outer Banks — and the nation's busiest park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which draws more than 9 million visitors annually.
Between the Blue Ridge peaks to the west and the long expanse of white seashore to the east lies the state's heartland. It is home to North Carolina's largest cities, well-known universities such as Wake Forest and Duke, a rapidly expanding research and technology industry and furniture manufacturers such as Drexel Heritage, Thomasville, Lexington and Henredon.
I visited the area in April with Jorden Nye, a friend who's searching for furniture for his new home. We drove south from Washington, D.C., savoring North Carolina's uncrowded highways, comparatively low gas prices ($1.83 a gallon) and inexpensive accommodations. Chilly winter days had just given way to the warmth of spring; white dogwood and bright pink azaleas bloomed everywhere. Rolling hills were covered by deep green forests.
Into the fray We arrived in High Point on the opening day of the International Home Furnishings Market. The weeklong trade show is in April and October each year, and it's an unpleasant time for consumers to visit. Credentials are required and accommodations are in short supply. (Jorden and I — who visited using press credentials — had to stay 60 miles away in Chapel Hill.) The mart itself is every bit as crazed and confusing as insiders warn. Acres of high-rise showrooms are spread out around the city's downtown; 188 buildings create 11 million square feet of exhibition space.
A lot of walking, a lot of faux Tuscan tables, a lot of imitation Waterford crystal chandeliers.
But High Point is more than its market. About 65 of the state's manufacturers are here, along with 70 retail discount stores. There are furniture malls, furniture specialty stores, even a furniture landmark — a 3 1/2-story building designed to look like a bureau. "The world's largest chest of drawers," boasts the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
One of my favorite stops was a museum called the Furniture Discovery Center in downtown High Point. I learned the difference between a tub chair and a club chair, designed a sofa on a computer and played the "What Wood Would You Guess" game, which taught me how to recognize walnut, cherry, poplar and other common woods.
My newly acquired furniture expertise served me well later in the day, when we found a shopper's Shangri-la on Business 85 just outside the city limits. Two mammoth furniture stores on opposite sides of the highway make browsing — and buying — easy.
Furnitureland South, which humbly calls itself "the world's largest home furnishings showplace," has floor space equaling 19 football fields. The store carries 400 lines of furniture, has 4,000 hanging rugs and 26 miles of racked furniture. And, of course, there's the World's Tallest Highboy, which forms a fanciful storefront for the complex. It's similar to downtown High Point's giant chest of drawers but is about 50 feet taller. "It's even identifiable by passengers flying high overhead," brags the store's website.
Across the street is Boyles Furniture, a bit smaller but a bit more upscale. I had expected Vegas — or a mortuary waiting room — after reading the purple prose in promotional literature for the store: "After passing under a canopy of hand-painted clouds in our foyer, you'll enter the Street of Dreams, where exquisitely designed furniture and accessory vignettes flank both sides of the pathway."
But the vignettes actually were beautiful. And no one harassed us to buy, buy, buy. We were free to stroll without a sales associate dogging our footsteps.
The absence of sales pressure isn't surprising, said Richard Bennington, a North Carolina professor who specializes in the furniture trade. It's a technique used by the larger High Point dealers. "They do an excellent job of training their salespeople," he said. "They can help you design a room if that's what you want. Or they'll stay out of the picture, if that's what you want."
Do shoppers save money?
"You'll save a little," said Bennington, who directs the home furnishings program at High Point University.
But by the time you factor in shipping, it probably won't be a lot. "The major advantages are that these dealers service their product and they have acres of things to choose from.
"But they don't want you to just come in and buy a lamp. They want you to bring your house plans and let them do it all."
Many shoppers do.
When Palos Verdes Peninsula residents Gary and Mina Accardo visited High Point, they were looking for furniture for a new 5,000-square-foot home. "Basically, we were furnishing the whole house," said Mina Accardo. "And friends of mine who shopped there were furnishing a 7,000-square-foot house.
"It was exciting. I had gone to so many stores around [Southern California] and they didn't have what I liked. In High Point, they had everything."
The land of '40% off' Despite High Point's vast selection, Jorden and I were ready to move on.
We'd learned a few important things:
High Point's furniture stores are closed Sundays.
Don't expect to shop after 5 p.m.
Almost everyone says they'll give you 40% off.
Everything in this part of the country is the world's biggest or best.
We drove west, heading for Hickory, another hotbed of furniture sales. But with lunch approaching, we detoured to Lexington, which calls itself the "Barbecue Capital of the World."
In North Carolina, barbecue is something you eat ("Let's have barbecue for lunch"), not something you do ("Let's barbecue the ribs"). Several Lexington diners compete for the title of "Best Barbecue in Lexington"; we tried Speedy's, where we ordered pulled pork sandwiches with slaw on them, North Carolina style. A thin sauce was served on the side. Tasty and cheap at $3. A pitcher of soda accompanied each order for $1.50.
Our next stop was at the Hickory Home Furnishings Mart, a four-story furniture mall that bills itself as the world's largest and advertises "100 factory stores, outlets and galleries that sell more than 1,000 lines."
We poked around the showrooms for several hours, trying out couches and plopping into overstuffed chairs. So many stores, so little time.
Jorden was looking for furniture, not accessories. But a comforter, with five designer pillows, called out to him from a showroom floor as he passed. It was tagged $1,000 but was marked down to $599. (That's 40% off, isn't it? What a surprise.) Another bedspread had called to him earlier: It was a $7,600 spread we'd seen at Furnitureland South. He answered the Hickory call. "I like this one better," he said, convincing no one.
But he still had no furniture for the new home. Would he try again?
"I'd go back," he said. "But I'd make sure I had more time to look around."
As for Coto de Caza shopper Barbara Hayes, "I'm dying to go again. But my husband hasn't released me yet."
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Shop, then a place to drop
WHERE TO STAY:
Grandover Resort, 1000 Club Road, Greensboro 27407; (800) 472-6301, http://www.grandover.com . This high-rise resort faces two golf courses and is convenient to High Point showrooms, Furnitureland South and Boyles Furniture. Doubles from $189.
J.H. Adams Inn, 11108 N. Main St., High Point 27262; (888) 256-1289, http://www.jhadamsinn.com . Stately historic home recently converted to an inn with 30 uniquely designed rooms. Frette linens, plush robes. Restaurant. Doubles from $129.
Augustus T. Zevely Inn, 803 S. Main St., Old Salem 27101; (800) 928-9299, http://www.oldsalem.org . This historic residence, built in 1644, has been restored as a bed-and-breakfast inn and is in the picturesque historic district of Winston-Salem. Two ground-floor rooms are pet-friendly. Doubles from $80.
WHERE TO EAT:
Mama Dip's Kitchen, 408 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill; (919) 942-5837, http://www.mamadips.com . Mama Dip, once a family cook, opened a restaurant in Chapel Hill in 1976 with $64. Now she appears on shows such as "Good Morning America." Dine outside on the wraparound porch or inside at tables with red-checkered cloths. Wonderful Southern specialties such as chicken and dumplings, $8.95, country ham, $9.95 and smothered pork chops, $10.95. Sides include okra, back-eyed peas, hush puppies and fried green tomatoes.
Speedy's Barbecue, 1317 Winston Road, Lexington; (336) 248-2410. This red-brick diner isn't much to look at, but you can taste the pulled pork barbecue famous in the region. Sandwiches $3.
Old Salem Tavern, 736 S. Main St., Old Salem; (336) 748-8585, http://www.oldsalem.org . This excellent restaurant is in a beautifully restored historic neighborhood in Winston-Salem, N.C. Eclectic American and German foods served by costumed hosts. Reservations recommended. Entrees $12.50-$19.75.
TO LEARN MORE:
High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau, 300 S. Main St., High Point, NC 27261; (800) 720-5255, http://www.highpoint.org .
North Carolina Travel and Tourism, (800) 847-4862, http://www.visitnc.com
— Rosemary McClure