“A little bit of bling goes a long way,” says Christopher Torres, the owner and creative force behind the furniture store Reincarnations. I talked to Christopher to find out how his business went from a yard sale side project to one of the fixtures of 14th Street’s “furniture row.”
Borderstan: How did Reincarnations begin?
Torres: It started with a yard sale. My background was visual merchandising and presentation for major retailers and department stores. As retail got more streamlined in the late ’80s and early ’90s, every store started looking the same. I was getting so stifled at work that I needed a creative outlet. So I started buying old pieces, giving them a totally fresh identity, and selling them at my yard sales.
I would work 40 to 60 hours a week at my regular job, then come home and work on furniture all night long. Customers would come up to me and say “where is your store?” That’s when the light bulb went off. I realized I had found a niche. In 1993 I opened up my first store on 17th Street NW near Dupont. I don’t redo furniture anymore, but that’s how it all began. I thought it was just a hobby, but it turned into a business.
Borderstan: How do you keep the store fresh after almost 20 years?
Torres: Everything in the store is new. I never repeat the same item. Sometimes that’s hard to do with hot-selling pieces, but I do it. I’ll kill it and I won’t bring it back. I don’t want to be Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel. Those are great stores – nothing against them – but you walk through those doors and you know what it’s going to look like. I like people to come in and be surprised every time.
Borderstan: You are sort of the anti-Pottery Barn?
Torres: It’s the truth! Everyone is so afraid to be different that they all end up looking the same. It’s really boring. I refuse to do it. Shopping is an outlet for a lot of people. It needs to be exciting and creative. It shouldn’t be a chore. A lot of people come in to the store and I can see that they’re struggling. I’ll go up to them and say “look, if you’re not having fun with it then you shouldn’t be buying it.” That’s always been my philosophy. It’s just furniture. We’re not doing major surgery. It should be fun.
Borderstan: You moved to 14th Street NW years ago, before it was popular. How come?
Torres: We had been on 17th Street NW for years, and every day I passed by the corner lot where the store is now on 14th Street NW. It was abandoned, and the windows were all bricked up. I always thought the architecture was so pretty, and that it could be a beautiful space.
Eventually I needed more room for the store, but I wanted to stay in the city. I thought of that space on 14th Street, but everyone said I was nuts – my broker said it wasn’t big enough, it was rundown, and it was on 14th Street. I was over in Dupont, which was hot hot hot, and I kept thinking that there was nowhere for all this goodness to go other than to 14th.
That was almost 10 years ago. It’s incredible how I’ve seen that street change. I was one of the first ones to move in, and now 14th Street has become furniture row. When I saw the big guys come, like Mitchell Gold, I knew I had made the right decision. I was the pioneer.
Borderstan: Did it make you nervous when the other stores started moving in?
Torres: No, I loved it – the big retailers spend millions on advertising to get people to their destination. And to get to their destination, you have to drive by mine. So I don’t have to pay for advertising to get people to my neighborhood. There’s enough business to go around. Plus, those stores have a totally different vibe and price point than we do. I love that those stores are there – I want more of them!
Borderstan: Do you have advice for other business owners in the area?
Torres: In this climate, my advice would be to play it safe but also remember to go out on a limb sometimes. Do something crazy that you would do in the best of times, because that’s what is going to get someone into your store. I see a lot of stores that are doing nothing and just waiting for something to happen. Take a risk on at least a couple of things. Otherwise it’s a world of grey and beige, and it’s not any fun for anyone.
Borderstan: What do you have planned for 2012?
Torres: I just signed a contract with a furniture manufacturer to produce some of my own designs, not only for my store but also for other retailers across the country. I’m going to focus on designs for urban contemporary situations. The pieces will probably come out this summer. So finally I’ll be able to have the pieces that I’ve been looking for but couldn’t get anywhere.
Borderstan: What decorating tips do you have for people who are just getting started?
Torres: Think big. Even in a very small room I would rather see two large pieces of furniture than a whole lot of little. Bigger pieces have more impact – they make the room feel bigger. When there are lots of little pieces everywhere, it creates too much clutter and your eye doesn’t know where to go.
With color, it’s all about what you love. Find a color combination that makes you happy and that pleases your eye – it could be from a men’s tie or a shirt you like – and go from there. Just because the world is saying that coral is the hot new color, don’t let that sway you. There’s no design police. It’s your home.
Finally, don’t involve all your friends! I see people bringing in six or seven friends, and everyone’ s opinion is going to be different. You’re going to leave the store so confused and you’re not going to buy anything, and nothing is ever going to change. And at the end of the day, everyone leaves your home but you.