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‘A Different Kind of Customer’

The furniture store’s key to success is keeping the inventory “updated and fresh.” © 2017 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Vandenberg Furniture survives and thrives in a big-box world

Cal Vandenberg has been a part of the furniture business for most of his life.

The 68-year-old owner of Vandenberg and Sons Furniture Inc., a store at 12000 North U.S. 131 in Schoolcraft that is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, went from working for his father, Anthony Vandenberg, pulling weeds and building furniture with his six siblings, to taking over the family’s furniture store 45 years ago. It seems as if the family business runs in the younger Vandenberg’s veins.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Right out of high school Vandenberg joined the U.S. Navy, which took him to California, where he was originally planning to stay. But he ended up coming back home and applied to work in a warehouse for Redwood & Ross, a local chain of men’s clothing stores that closed its doors in the late 1990s. It was an experience he says he will never forget.

“I show up (for an interview) like I’m dressed now,” says Vandenberg, gesturing to his suit and tie, “and the lady behind the desk goes, ‘Cal, this job isn’t for you. Get out of here.’”

He says it wasn’t just his clothes. “I think she realized I had more potential than working stocking shelves,” he says, even though he admits he “still ended up as a warehouse guy.”

Vandenberg went back to working for his father, which he said wasn’t always easy, but he loved it anyway. Of the six Vandenberg children, Cal was the only one to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Vandenberg and Sons has gone through a lot of changes over its nine decades. Its storied history begins with Vandenberg’s father, Anthony, working out of a storefront at 1344 Portage St., in Kalamazoo’s Washington Square neighborhood, in 1937, hauling used furniture from Chicago and selling it. Then, in 1938, Anthony and his brother Dewey opened a store at 123 E. Water St., in downtown Kalamazoo.

The store’s size increased by 10,000 square feet in 1947, and in 1952 the store moved to Portage, on South Westnedge Avenue. Dewey retired in 1956, and Anthony followed suit in 1972, selling the business to Cal and his brother-in-law Mart Kloosterman. Kloosterman left the business in 1986, and in 1996, Cal decided to move the store to a new location.

“I could have stayed,” Vandenberg says of the former location in Portage, which is now the site of a Meijer store. “But the building was in sad shape. It was a typical Michigan flat-roof building and was in total disarray.”

After he liquidated the Portage store, it took nearly two years for Vandenberg to prepare and finally move to the building where the furniture store is today. Meanwhile, he temporarily set up shop on Shaver Road.

“I was working in a block building (on Shaver Road) and a couple of warehouses just to keep my name out there,” Vandenberg says. “It was an old machine shop. I cleaned it up, tore out walls, painted it, put carpeting in just so I was there basically to service my customers if they had issues. That was a long 11 months over there.”

Then, in 1998, Vandenberg opened the store’s current location, with 10,000 square feet of space, but he says its location on U.S. 131 has helped the business grow its customer base beyond the Kalamazoo area.

Over the years, the store has almost tripled in size.

“My first addition back here was about 5,000 feet,” he says, noting it still wasn’t enough. “I had a garage full of furniture at home, and I have some old photographs where the furniture is still wrapped up and standing up outside the front of the store here because we had nowhere else to put it. It was a lot like The Beverly Hillbillies.”

But the changes Vandenberg makes to his store aren’t just to add square footage. He also works to ensure the store stays relevant in a world of big-box furniture stores like Ikea.

“It’s a matter of continuing to stay updated and stay fresh,” Vandenberg says. “I just replaced all my carpeting in here. I’m always changing colors. If you’re not doing it, you’re dead in the water.”

But he says his store’s biggest edge over big-box stores is that it fills a different niche.

“Is there some lost business? I’m sure there is,” he says. “(But) Ikea and those stores where people have to put things together, that’s just a whole different kind of customer. I’m not trying to compete with those guys.

“The quality that we’re carrying, people still want to sit on. They want to feel it. We can be much more personable with somebody, take a lot more time with them.”

It’s that high-quality furniture, the direct interactions with his customers and keeping his stock fresh and updated that give Vandenberg confidence in the future of his business.

“The brick and mortar store like I have here,” he says, “I think we’re here to stay.”

Adam Rayes

Adam, who is working as an intern at Encore Publications, is somewhat new to Kalamazoo, so his story this month on the Kalamazoo State Theatre’s 90th anniversary not only gave him an opportunity to see the interior of the historic theater for the first time, but triggered a desire to learn more about Kalamazoo’s rich culture and history. Adam is a native of Monroe and is majoring in journalism at Western Michigan University.

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