Sofa Survivor

After nearly 40 years, the art of buying and selling old stuff forges on at O.K. Furniture

Only five passengers are visible in silhouette as a westbound KAT bus moves along the 3900 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The bus rumbles past Burlington Printing, Barnes Barber Shop, and Unchained Bail Bond, three going concerns whose front doors remained locked because it's too early for handbills, haircuts, and jailhouse sureties.

Without stopping, the bus passes Electric Service Co., closed since its owner died, and Wangs-N-Thangs, shuttered after the proprietors couldn't sell enough wings and related things. It drives past other empty storefronts, their previous retail purposes not easily identifiable.

Commercial activity is confined to the sidewalk in front of 3906 MLK Ave., where three men say little as they move items out into the morning sunshine. There are some chirps as the wooden legs of a couch and loveseat are positioned on the concrete. A few metallic tinks are heard when three washers and a refrigerator are lowered to the ground from a handtruck.

O.K. Furniture is open for business, and its co-owner is ready to sell. And buy. He is almost always willing to buy.

"Yes, sir," Harvey Crider says to a visitor after unlocking the front door. "Here we go. Another day."

Harvey's parents, the late J.D. and Ethel Crider, had 10 children. J.D. was a preacher for the Church of God. Raising this giant brood required funding beyond the coins and crumpled bills that were collected in the offering plate. Wherever J.D. Crider was sent to preach—he led churches in Detroit, Miami, Calhoun, Ga., and elsewhere—he would open a business to augment his income. The family cleaned carpets in some places, sold used furniture in others.

J.D. Crider died at the end of 2005, but the last and largest of his businesses, O.K. Furniture, survives in the Burlington section of Knoxville, on the city's east side. Harvey Crider and his mother are the owners.

"When I think of home, this is it," says Crider. He was born a few months after the store was issued its business license in March 1970. "My father was proud to tell people this is the only place I've ever worked."

The store's main lines are new and used furniture, along with secondhand appliances. They occupy the most floor space, but near, on, and around these items are many other products. A wooden rowing oar rests atop a counter; a riding lawnmower sits near some mattresses leaning against a wall; and light from fluorescent ceiling tubes glints off an old baseball trophy.

"My father bought anything that wasn't nailed down," Crider says. He has one full-time employee and several part-time workers.

The original store was located in a building on the 3800 block of the avenue. It was demolished after the business moved in 1983, and today is an empty lot. O.K. Furniture now occupies two adjacent buildings.

"This was a very unique area right here," Crider says while standing in the main store, which was originally built as a grocery market and later functioned as a textiles plant. He believes the building is easily over 100 years old, and it is where the nicer pieces of new and used furniture are displayed.

"See where the board is right over there?" Crider says, pointing to a spot along the western wall. "That is a big, beautiful door, covered up. The streetcar used to run right down the alley beside this building. Grocery patrons would buy their groceries here and go outside under a huge awning and wait to catch the streetcar."

The other building, which is not as old as the main store, has three storefronts that were formerly occupied by a jeweler, a shoe retailer, and a feed and seed business. It serves more as a warehouse than a showroom. Holes have been cut in the walls to enable easy passage between the three spaces.

"We get all kinds of things," Crider says as he walks through the secondary building. He points to a wood-and-coal cooking stove, and then at some bicycles, four large organs, assorted windows and screen doors.

"We've got pieces of carpet," he says. "We've got enough beds to make your head spin. We've got chairs, odd and matching." His wife is not an employee, but she regularly helps her spouse bring some order to the inventory.

Used sofas, chairs, and loveseats are stacked high on metal racks along a wall in the second building. J.D. Crider bought the racking at an auction after the World's Fair closed. At a time when people wondered how to adapt the Sunsphere to other uses, J.D. immediately knew what he would do with the surplus pieces of metal.

"I don't exactly know what they were originally used for," Harvey Crider says, pulling hard on one of the racks. It does not move. "We've used them like this here ever since and they're perfect for that."

Twenty years ago, O.K. Furniture was more of a junk store than its 2008 incarnation. There were few new items. It was not uncommon for pieces from the same furniture set to be displayed across the room from one another—or in a different building.

"I used to be called ‘Lamont' when I went to school," Crider says with a laugh. Fred and Lamont Sanford were father-and-son junk dealers on the 1970s television show Sanford and Son. The show's theme, written by Quincy Jones, features a harmonica. "Kids used to come up behind me going ‘whah-whah-waa-waa, whah-whah-waa-waa-waa-waa.'"

Business has been a little slow recently, Crider says, and many of the people that come through the door are more interested in selling than buying. If a proffered item is too heavy to be brought inside, Crider will go out and have a look at what is in the back of a truck, or on a trailer. He uses this method to buy nearly all of the pre-owned furniture.

Even when there are plenty of them in stock, Crider usually buys the sofas, loveseats, and dinette sets that are brought to the store. "You have to," he says, "because that might be the very set that catches the eye of somebody that comes in here."

Large analog television sets are another matter. These units, including ones with cabinets made of handsome wood, have become difficult to sell in this high-definition era. Seeing a massive tube television in the back of a pickup, perhaps something taken from a recently deceased widow's living room, Crider sometimes declines to even step outside and make a curbside inspection.

One item that is not for sale is a cathedral-type tabletop radio. It is a reproduction with modern electrical gear, not an antique having electron tubes. The radio is the last item J.D. Crider ever purchased off the street and his son will never let it go.

A small amount of bartering is done at the store, and over the years customers have offered to trade airplanes, guns, kayaks, and cars in exchange for furniture. Barter represents a small portion of sales. Crider is willing to listen to cashless offers because he feels this sets the store apart from retailers that require traditional payment methods. Also, he believes economic uncertainty may prompt more people to again embrace the old-fashioned system.

"It used to be a larger segment, barter, and I foresee it probably coming back in," Crider says.

Harvey Crider is a few years away from turning 40. He has taken steps to plan for the future of O.K. Furniture. New roofs have been installed on both buildings. Inventory layouts have been adjusted, but the store remains recognizable to longtime customers. J.D. Crider would still know his way around the place, and that is an important detail.

Each morning when he unlocks the front doors and helps move some items out onto the sidewalk, it is impossible for his son not to think about J.D.

"I want to keep it going as long as I can," Crider says. "I admired my father a great deal. I want to have a little bit of a legacy in it, but I really look at this as my father's legacy."

Back inside the main store, Crider points to a tapestry on the eastern wall and corrects himself. There are two items in stock that he will never sell: the radio and this.

The tapestry shows the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the avenue's namesake. With its bright colors, it could have been made around the time of the King's 1968 assassination. Some customers have offered $500 for the tapestry, cash and carry. Others, neighbors, also routinely ask about how much it would cost for them to buy it. But Crider politely declines, no matter the price, just like his father always did.