Furniture retailer celebrating 25 years in business

Blue Heron, 921 Mass., offers eclectic furniture styles and also major lines such as La-Z-Boy, Norwalk, Natuzzi (Italian leather), Rowe and Simmons BeautyRest mattresses.

Galen Tarman, owner of Blue Heron, 921 Mass., has been in business for 25 years, despite the rate of retail turnover under way in downtown Lawrence. Blue Heron's main competition has come from stores in the Kansas City area like Crate&Barrel, Pottery Barn and other national names.

Galen and Susie Tarman started out small.

In April 1982, the couple started selling handmade futons and slipcovers out of their North Lawrence home.

“We were truly a cottage business,” said Galen Tarman, 59.

They dubbed their modest startup Blue Heron – an evocative name with special meaning for Galen.

“I was a bird watcher for many years. I had a favorite nest of Great Blue Herons in a Sycamore tree in the Flint Hills,” he said.

Twenty-five years later – the business is celebrating its silver anniversary this month – Blue Heron, 921 Mass., is a mainstay of downtown Lawrence.

While other longtime retail operations (Casbah, Fields Gallery) have come and gone, Blue Heron has withstood the arrival of so-called “big box” stores on Iowa Street, the rise of Internet shopping and the cyclical ups and downs of the economy.

The store has also significantly branched out from its futon past, growing to encompass a wide range of furnishings, including many pieces made by major lines such as La-Z-Boy, Norwalk, Natuzzi (Italian leather), Rowe and Simmons BeautyRest mattresses.

Why has Blue Heron been able to exhibit such staying power?

“I think it’s a testament to our service and sales people. It’s not unusual for us to sit down with a customer for two hours to figure out what they need. Maybe that’s what separates us (from other businesses),” Tarman said.

“We have well-trained service people. They are sincere, they like meeting customers. It’s not just clocking in and out for the day.”

Full-line furniture store

Though the Tarmans started out working from their home, it wasn’t long before they decided to find more retail space – and they looked to the downtown business district.

Blue Heron was in their home from 1982 to 1986, then moved to 8 E. Seventh St. (now the home of The Raven Bookstore), where it remained for a year.

The Tarmans then moved the business to 937 Mass. (formerly the home of the Children’s Book Shop), remaining there from 1987 to 1998.

Blue Heron relocated to its present, roughly 5,000-square-foot space, in 1998.

The staff has grown from just Galen and Susie to seven employees, four of whom are full-time.

Tarman describes the store’s unique niche in Lawrence.

“We consider ourselves a transitional-to-contemporary furnishings store. By transitional, I mean you can put our pieces in your house that would work well with antiques and contemporary pieces,” he said.

“Ninety percent of the people who come in here say their house is an eclectic mish-mash; most people have a bit of a mixture. These are pieces that will go with any style in your home.”

The store now has a full-home approach, offering furniture for the bedroom, dining room, living room or home office, including many leather pieces, lighting, mirrors, artwork and other furnishings.

“It was a gradual change. We became more of a full-line furniture store,” Tarman said.

In addition to the pieces that customers can see on the floor, Blue Heron has access to many catalogues and does a lot of special ordering from about 20 companies.

“If it’s not in the store, we can find it,” he said.

Blue Heron does most of its business with customers who are in their late 20s to late 50s. Many of the older customers are “empty nesters” who are downsizing into smaller homes.

Among his customers who fit into this category are some of the residents of the Hobbs-Taylor Lofts, on New Hampshire Street.

Tarman said he hoped that the people who are buying condos in the upscale Bella Sera development, along the north side of Bob Billings Parkway near Wakarusa Drive, also will find their way to Blue Heron.

Building relationships

Blue Heron distinguishes itself by trying to offer furnishings that customers won’t find elsewhere in Lawrence, Topeka and the Kansas City area.

“We’re kind of an eclectic mix of cool and funky – things that are unique,” said Kathleen Hoff-Harvey, who works in sales and merchandising, as well as offering in-home consultations.

“The things that I find at market that turn me on are made by small companies or artists. We want to offer something more artistic, fun, maybe with an edge to it. Something clever and unique.”

And Blue Heron’s staff strives to make the store itself distinctive and inviting.

“I think it’s got a cool vibe, a nice ambience – candles burning, nice music, the sound of a fountain. And hopefully the person working here has a nice smile,” Hoff-Harvey said.

“We want people to feel comfortable coming in here. We love talking to customers, and we love selling. That means we can go out and find something else cool to bring in.”

Paige Ensminger, who has worked at Blue Heron for four years, is partially responsible for the store’s welcoming atmosphere, which invites customers to spend time looking around.

“I try to be kind of the ‘cruise director’ and make sure people are comfortable – yesterday, we were actually serving chocolate cake,” she said. “It’s so satisfying when you help someone find what they’re looking for.”

Spending locally

Blue Heron’s main challenge – as with any business – is surviving against intense competition.

Tarman said that about 80 percent of the store’s customers are in Lawrence, with the balance in Kansas City and Topeka. Blue Heron also ships furniture across the nation, often to Kansas University alumni who discovered the store while they lived here.

The store’s main competition is in the Kansas City area – stores such as Crate&Barrel, Z Gallery, Pottery Barn and Contemporary Concepts.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher. There’s Internet sales, cataloguing and big-box stores, mass merchandising. You’re even seeing home furnishings in Target and Wal-Mart,” Tarman said.

The key to Blue Heron’s survival is offering an intimate setting for customers, a lot of personal attention and extra services such as the in-home consultations and delivery within 150 miles of Lawrence on the store’s own truck. (Blue Heron will arrange delivery by a freight company to customers outside that range.)

It’s also critical, Tarman says, that Lawrence residents support local retailers if stores like his are to remain open.

“I’m really concerned with the future of business in downtown Lawrence as we try to compete with the big boys,” he said.

Lawrence residents will be rewarded if they give locally owned stores a chance, Tarman said

“I can’t be all things to all people, but if those who live here will do some homework and see what we do have to offer, I think they’ll find that it makes you feel good to spend your dollars in your hometown,” he said.