Royal Furniture is leaving the city From S. Monroe St., going to Columbia

December 23, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Royal Furniture Co., the high-end retailer that made a name as a wholesaler catering to interior designers and customers by invitation, plans to pull up its century-old Baltimore roots and move to Columbia early next year.

The fourth-generation family business, a Southwest Baltimore institution that opened its block-long showroom to the public three years ago to boost business, will sell the 100,000-square-foot building and lease a smaller store in Dobbin Center in Howard County.

It has become increasingly difficult to draw customers to the South Monroe Street location, said Mike Meadows, vice president and general manager.

The showroom lies in an area of distribution and manufacturing warehouses, remote as a shopping destination. Across the street, security guards have patrolled the company's customer parking lot since 1990, the year Aaron Levenson, a company vice president and 30-year-old son of then-company President Joseph Levenson, was shot and killed outside the store in a botched robbery.

By contrast, a second Royal store, in Lutherville, has seen rapid sales growth, persuading store executives that the future of high-end furniture retailing is in the suburbs.

"We weren't losing sales, but we realized there's a tremendous market out there for high-end furniture, and we can better service it by going to Columbia, where people are more apt to come than downtown Baltimore," Meadows said.

"We don't see the growth that we see in the county."

In the fiercely competitive furniture business, retailers' survival has come to depend on their flexibility, said J'Amy Owens, president of the Retail Group, a Seattle-based consultant to furniture retailers and manufacturers.

"It's a tough racket," Owens said. "It's a rare thing to have a furniture store in a downtown location these days, because the demographics have shifted and haven't matched the customer profile.

"Furniture retailers have to go where their customers are."

Four successive generations of the Levenson family have expanded the business over the years, creating one of the largest furniture showrooms on the East Coast.

Royal, which began as Levenson and Zenetz furniture sales and manufacturing in 1884, took on its current name in 1891, when two Levenson sons, Charles and Samuel, joined the business and opened locations on Ostend and Frederick streets.

In 1950, when Charles Levenson became president and his son, Joseph, vice president, Royal moved and expanded its headquarters to the corner of Lombard and Eutaw streets.

The business changed hands again in 1965, when Joseph Levenson became president.

The retailer moved to its current, four-story showroom in 1971, building additional distribution warehouses nearby and bringing in the family's fourth generation -- Joseph Levenson's sons, Aaron and Robert.

By 1989, Royal had more than 300,000 square feet of showroom, warehouse and manufacturing space in Southwest Baltimore, making it the largest wholesale furniture operation in Maryland and Washington.

But in 1990, tragedy struck the family when Aaron Levenson was killed. The father of two had been next in line to take over the business. It has been run by his half-brother, Robert D. Levenson, since 1993.

Three years ago, Royal opened its showroom to the public.

Prior to that, furniture was sold wholesale to designers or retail only to members of buying clubs or customers accompanied by a designer.

"It made much more sense, instead of just a select group of people, we'd open to the public and increase our customer base," said Meadows.

But much of the company's sales growth has come from the Lutherville store on Riderwood Road, a retail operation started in 1992 as Aslan Valley Furniture, then renamed Royal Furniture in 1994. Sales have grown about 25 percent each year since then, Meadows said.

Royal executives have been looking to move from the downtown location for about a year. The company will try to sell $6 million worth of stock at marked-down prices, starting Friday for previous customers and next Thursday for the public.

The new 38,000-square-foot showroom should open by February, carrying brand names such as Pennsylvania House, Henredon and Sherrill, Meadows said.

Royal plans to expand its Lutherville store within two years and open another showroom in the Baltimore metropolitan area within five years, Meadows said.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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