By Brad Hicks
For decades, the large yellow letters above its entrance have greeted many a visitor to downtown Erwin.
This year, what has become a landmark in the downtown area is celebrating a significant milestone.
Keesecker’s Appliance, Furniture & Flooring has now been in business for 70 years. The Main Avenue mainstay opened its doors in 1946 under the ownership of P.M. and Pauline Keesecker, who operated the store until the 1970s.
The store, then known as Keesecker Appliance & Furniture, was sold in the 1970s to P.M. and Pauline Keesecker’s sons, Steve and Sam. Steve would eventually sell his interest in the store to his brother.
Sam Keesecker ran the store until his death in 2011. With Sam’s passing came the possibility that the store, in business 65 years at that time, might close its doors.
But, after learning in the summer of that year that Keesecker’s might shudder its doors, Unicoi County native Ben McNabb stepped in and, in the fall of 2011, purchased the store from Penny Keesecker, the wife of the late Sam Keesecker.
McNabb, who has worked in the flooring industry for more than 20 years, had been living and working in Georgia for the five years prior to his purchase of Keesecker Appliance & Furniture. He saw the store as a chance to return and apply his flooring expertise in Unicoi County.
“When I found out that the store was going to close, I felt like it was a good opportunity for me to get back home,” McNabb said.
Because of the longstanding reputation the store and the Keesecker family had in the community, McNabb made the conscious decision to leave the Keesecker’s name when he assumed ownership of the business.
“I’ve never even thought about changing the name,” he said.
There is also a history within the store’s walls, McNabb said. He said the store was apparently a grocery store complete with a soda fountain. There was once a pharmacy where the adjacent coffee house is now located.
After purchasing Keesecker’s, McNabb also learned that his family has a personal history with the furniture store.
“There’s still information with grandmother and my grandfather buying stuff down here,” he said. “I found some records not too long ago that actually showed where my grandfather bought a Snapper lawnmower down here.”
And while he elected to keep the name, McNabb has made some changes to the store. First, with Penny’s encouragement, he moved Keesecker’s out of the lawn and garden business and made flooring a focal point of the store.
On Oct. 31, 2013, McNabb, as a way of further expanding the business, also opened the Steel Rails Coffee House in the space next to the furniture and appliance store.
“We figured with the aging clientele of the store, we needed to get a younger generation coming in to Keesecker’s, and it really has done that,” McNabb said of Steel Rails. “Over the past three years, it’s really helped us, I won’t say stay in business, but it’s really helped impact our business by having the coffee house and growing relationships with people my age and younger, the 50s and younger. We had a good relationship with the 60s and older, but we really needed to build that relationship with the 50s and younger, and we see everything from elementary school kids all the way up to our White Cup Coffee Club that meets every Wednesday.”
McNabb said Keesecker’s has become more of a regional business, as calls are regularly fielded from customers in areas such as Jonesborough, Johnson City and Bristol seeking furniture, tiling or hardwood flooring.
“It’s great that it is a local company, but with communications these days you can be more regional and that has helped us,” McNabb said. “Even with the downturn of the market, we’ve become more of a regional business.”
McNabb also said repeat business is an indicator that a store is doing something right, and Keesecker’s sees its share of repeat customers.
“Anytime you do anything, I think, in any small town, you have to sort of prove yourself,” he said. “And I think with our growth over the past five years, we can see that we’ve got a lot of repeat customers.
“That means a lot to me, when I look back on our customers and we’ve had just a tremendous amount of repeat customers, whether it’s we sell them a washer and dryer today, it’s a flooring job six months from now, and we sell them a mattress, we’ve had just repeat after repeat after repeat, and that means a whole lot to me.”
As McNabb stated, not many business make it to the 70-year mark. He said Keesecker’s, going back to the days when it was owned by the Keesecker family, accomplished this by making customer service a priority.
“I know by the people who have come in here and talked to me that Sam and Penny were focused on customer service, and I dare say you can ask anybody that’s bought anything from us that we’ll bend over backwards to make sure that is our key,” McNabb said. “Products only go so far. Service is the big thing.”
And, like the Keeseckers, McNabb has plans to involve his family in the business. He said he plans to bring his brother onboard in November to help with the store’s day-to-day operations, a move that may help further grow the business.
“We can’t operate efficiently if we don’t grow the business, so we’re trying to grow the business,” McNabb said.