Back in 1951, his father, George Geottler, a commercial traveller for General Foods, looked at the striking Victorian buildings on the main street of Dublin, Ontario, with a prophetic gleam in his eye. He followed his instinct, left the road and opened a small general store. Several years later, he bought the larger building across the street and established Geottler’s Red & White, then one of a thriving chain of owner-operated grocery stores throughout Ontario. He sold groceries, but also dry goods, china, luggage and some furniture.
The structure was originally the local opera house. Later, in his parent’s day, it was transformed into a dance hall where Guy Lombardo played. Way downstairs where the solid stone foundation is still in evidence, the village jail was housed.
After 20 years of successful trading, George’s gleam extended itself to the adjacent building, once the butcher shop, a general merchants and an undertaking establishment, and transformed the entire edifice into, surprise! a home furnishings store.
This was not a sudden decision, much as it baffled his friends. “An up-market furniture store in a little village?” they questioned. But George had the foresight, judgment and good luck to marry pretty Abby Looby, the daughter of a bridge builder whose ancestors had been in Ontario for 120 years. The couple had four children and, as soon as they were old enough, Abby worked with her husband in the store. They were a great team, both with an eye to a future they believed in absolutely and, at 58, George had no notion of retirement. He owned some interesting buildings and wanted to utilize them profitably.
“They didn’t want to sell what everyone else sold,” son Stephen told us. “Right away they bought from companies like Kaufman of Collingwood, Flexsteel and Pennsylvania House. They knew they could offer not only quality merchandise but also really great value in their village setting. And from the outset they put tremendous emphasis on personal service and building relationships with their customers. I remember Mother down at the store at night, flipping through fabric swatches, helping people to plan their interior décor.”
It’s a very similar familial inspiration that spurred Stephen, and his partners, sister Pauline and her husband, Herb Hartfiel, to spread their wings to the sky’s-the-limit vision of what is now Ontario’s Furniture Village.
And it’s a lovely little village in what Stephen describes as “an emerging, really sexy part of Ontario”. Dublin boasts about 280 souls, plus several thousand turkeys at the processing plant, innumerable pigs and an active feed mill! An entrepreneurial Irishman changed the settlement’s name from Carronbrook to Dublin more than a century ago and also renamed the river that runs through it to, of course, the Liffey.
It’s geography, culture, tourism and nearby flourishing cottage country that makes it “sexy”. Dublin is located on heavily trafficked Highway 8, halfway between the town of Goderich and Stratford, the Shakespearean theatre centre. “A very busy part of the province of Ontario.”
The village is surrounded by lovely, rolling farm country where Mennonite families are a very strong presence. Approaching Dublin from any direction you feel you’re experiencing international travel with sign posts directing you to London, Brussels, Perth, Hamburg, Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo.
“Thousands of people come our way daily, not only during the very active theatre season, but all year. Our customers come from several counties. And from summer and year ‘round cottages on the nearby shores of Lake Huron, we see many U.S. citizens, part time residents of our area. There are tons of new seniors, too. They’ve just sold their houses in Toronto and now they’ve bought homes in nearby Grand Bend or Bayfield to be closer to children who live, perhaps, in London. They sold all their furniture or gave it to their kids and now they need new stuff. And they value good furniture and want to get it at the best possible price. There are a lot of expensive cars around here every day.” He glanced out the store window at a BMW and a Jaguar, parked at the curb, one with an open trunk being loaded with a small table by a jovial trio of customers. And frequently, actors and celebrities visit from neighbouring Stratford to browse the Village’s stores.
The family has created a destination. The first eccentrically expanded, multi-level building houses G.G. Goettler of Dublin, Fine Furniture, and it takes up a goodly portion of the west side of Mill Street. Diagonally across the street in a northeasterly direction is Carronbrook Furniture, opened this summer. Also across the street but southeasterly, is Dublin Clockworks Company, relocated from the Carronbrook site to the circa 1920 building until recently the home of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. That’s it? Not quite. Directly east, across that same street, you’ll find Dublin Mercantile, Gifts, Home Décor, Furniture and Antiques, a very pleasant boutiquey store, “a real complement to the Ontario Furniture Village package. Four furniture stores draw people, make it exciting, fun, really worthwhile to come to Dublin.”
Stephen led a whirlwind trip of the Village, beginning up, down and around the 41 levels of G. G. Geottler Fine Furniture. “We’re still renovating but retaining the integrity of the structure. Windows will be unblocked to let in more natural light, a peep-through opening will be created in the centre of the main floor so that customers will be able to view more product on the lower level.” Upstairs one can still see the intricate wooden trim of the old opera house, differences in flooring from pine to maple, a line of demarcation where the stage used to be, the site of the huge old wood stove, lofty beamed ceilings and wide windows. If you tread quietly, a tingle of ghostly vibrations from past revels might raise your hackles.
At Carronbrook Furniture, a heritage residence built in 1889 and for some years the home of Dublin Clockworks, the essence of the house has been retained with plank wood flooring and exposed brick. Airy, light and bright high ceilinged rooms, joined by a stately open staircase, contain Stephen’s newest venture, an extensive Rowe showroom devoted to urban transitional furniture “for the younger demographic. A little funkier than the theme of the first store.” Upholstery shown is sleek yet warm, well displayed and appealingly accessorized.
The Goettlers have utilized the main floor of what was once the attached warehouse for many After Hours events, all of them themed, with live entertainment, appropriate refreshments, talent shows, an antiques’ road show and auction, antique cars, and, just outside, a tent sale every civic holiday weekend. They use a beautiful and ancient shop counter, heavily carved, as a drinks and food server. There is a huge upper floor which might be leased in the future to another like-minded entrepreneur.
Just a quick scamper down the street is Dublin Clockworks Company, “a jewel of southwestern Ontario architecture,” said Stephen. The building retains the gentle hush of a banking establishment and Pauline, a professional interior designer, has captured and warmed its dignified conservatism. The commercial hall is filled with an amazing collection of handsome heirloom quality grandfather and grandmother clocks together with an array of curios. Even the vault, with its formidable solid steel door, is packed with treasures, elegant mantle, wall and table clocks. Additional space upstairs will become the main offices of the Goettler stores.
Dublin Mercantile was the last stop on the itinerary. Art and Cindy Laravee are active proprietors and, like the Goettlers, have instilled much of their fun loving personalities into the design and contents of their shop. Their philosophy echoes the Village promise of quality at excellent prices, all the way from unique antiques to fragrant candles, to unusual accent furniture and a plethora of well-chosen gift items.
The team has focused its marketing thrust on the total concept of the Village. “We’ve trademarked Ontario’s Furniture Village logo. We emphasize the fun aspects of shopping in Dublin along with quality and value. And we are huge disciples of direct mail. We have a list of 10,000 Preferred Customers that we protect like the Holy Grail, and send them postcards three or four times a year to inform them of our special sales and events. Very effective for us.
“Radio is very important, too, 250 to 300 spots on all stations before and during major promotions. The London, Tillsonburg, Kitchener and Wingham stations all have the audiences we’re looking for. They also carry our maintenance advertising.
“In print, we use local newspapers, the Stratford Beacon-Herald and glossy magazines in London and area. Also, the Stratford Shakespearean Theatre programme and regional theatre programmes are great exposure. We never, ever, put prices in ads. It’s just not meaningful.
“We’re always present at Home Shows in London and Stratford, and we’re in the yellow pages. And we don’t do flyers. Not effective for us.”
Any other ideas? “Yes, we want a billboard on Highway 8. That’s next!”
Stephen is a confessed stand-up comedian. We asked what he’d wanted to be when he was five years old. “Ten!” he grinned. He jokes constantly with customers, insults them gently, and they love it. During our conversation with him, he leapt to his feet several times to assist customers (and old friends) pondering purchases, bantering with them about their probable needs.
He grew up in Dublin, worked in the grocery store every night and on Saturdays after Grade 8. “I always had lots of jobs, then went off to University of Guelph and got my BA After that I lived in South America and in England. Twenty years ago, in 1982, I called Dad from the U.K. and told him I’d made up my mind to come home and join him in the business. We renovated the store and tripled the size from 6,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet.”
Stephen’s sister Pauline joined the team as did her husband Herb in 1988. “Herb had worked with Sklar in Hanover years ago, then at Simmons in Human Resources.”
A relaxed, friendly mood permeates all store activities. Sharon Beuermann is in charge of accounts; Kimberley Nyland is both customer service and delivery supervisor and the sales staff includes Elaine Cox, Natasha McDonald, Jim Maloney and Beverley Vandervliet.
Customers are encouraged to bring floor plans when they shop, and Pauline will visit their homes to ensure proper choices and placement. “We advertise free delivery and set up everywhere. Within reason, that is. Maybe we can find a way to the moon.
“If I didn’t have to talk with customers it would be a perfect business,” he laughed. “Business was relatively quiet this spring but now we’ve kicked in for the summer. Our continuing expansion expresses our optimism. We have 25,000 square feet in operation and we have land to build another 12,000 square feet in the future, so we’re ready to open more stores when the time is right.”
George, in his early and vigorous ‘80s, comes down to the stores every day. He studies the financial newspapers with Stephen to discuss current business trends and keep an eagle eye on goings-on. “The Financial Post is a freaking gorgeous beautiful newspaper”, said Stephen. “We both really enjoy it. We’re concerned now about the supply side of retail industry-wide, not about Dublin. It seems that China is in the process of revolutionizing what we do and how we buy. It’s a huge question mark.
“I think there might be a lot of guys at 55 or so, with small, good family stores, the backbone of our industry, who might just decide to retire. Not us though, we’re survivors. Ontario’s Furniture Village is a place to go, the place to go!”
The partners are working on a website, Rockers of Dublin. “We’re going to rebuild it so we can offer a virtual trip around our village. It’ll be a year or two down the way though.”
If you should see Stephen at High Point this Market, stop for a chat. Be ready to exchange jokes. And when you travel north, visit "the sexiest part of Canada”, the one and only Ontario’s Furniture Village!