Ex-secretary reinvents career and living spaces Woman marks five years in upholstery business

November 30, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

When Mary-Melissa Harris met her future husband several years ago, she advised him to quit his engineering studies and do what he really wanted -- make and refinish furniture.

He did exactly that. And four children later, he returned the compliment, advising his wife to leave her job as night secretary at Frederick Memorial Hospital and start an upholstery business.

Today, they are both doing what they love -- and making a comfortable living together doing it.

Part of their satisfaction is that the success of her 5-year-old business in Taneytown has grown largely by word of mouth. And by a little luck -- like getting a government contract to redo the community activity center at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

"It's true that we picked her out of the phone book," a Fort Detrick spokeswoman said. "But she went out of her way to provide service that other people wouldn't even think of."

Harris -- who has had no formal training -- said she finds that listening to clients, having a sense of humor and being personable are "very important."

The New Iberia, La., native inherited her eye for furniture from her Creole grandmother and her taste in interior decorating from her mother, she said.

"Every home we ever owned, she would redecorate," Harris said.

Her mother, who sewed all her clothes, taught her daughter to do the same, giving Harris a feel for fabrics.

"All through high school, it didn't occur to me that I would do this for a living," she said. "It was too much fun for a job. The job I was trained for was executive secretarial."

But as her mother would do, she began redecorating when she and her husband bought a 75-year-old house in Carroll County several years ago.

"When people would come to my house, they would say, 'You could do this for a living,' " she said. "I went to the library and got some books. And I said to myself, 'This is too easy. I want to do this. I really want to do this.' "

Leaving her job as the night-shift secretary at the hospital was the hard part, she said.

"I love chaos. And I learned so much -- about people, about how short life is, about the value of living" at the hospital, she said.

But Harris, who reads five books a week on average, had come across a book with the premise that people who are not in management are destined to be "worker bees."

"I didn't want to do that," she said. "I wanted flexibility to be with my family and to work at night. I had a job with medical benefits, and I did a lot of worrying [about leaving]. It was a very, very hard decision. Do I regret it? No. Absolutely not."

All she needed to get started as an upholsterer, she said, was a couple of saw horses. She opened her business in a Taneytown carriage house with dirt floors in 1993. Her husband, Tom, does the refinishing; she does the reupholstering.

"After the first job, we put in a cement floor," she said, and they have since moved to a commercial garage that they are renovating.

She attracted customers by "putting funky things in the window -- leopard chairs, other wild things," she said. "People would see it from their cars and call in from their cell phones."

Mary-Melissa Harris is almost reverential when it comes to furniture, especially older furniture.

"From the time I was very young, I always got stories with the furniture," she said.

When she enters a home the first time, she wants clients to tell her about the furniture.

"Some people say we're too personal," she said. "But I don't think you can be impersonal. You're talking about someone's home. "I have a good eye for what's pleasing, but the customer has to live there, not the decorator," she said. "If a person likes a particular color, I say, 'Let's see what it goes with.' "

Help with choices is what Harris provided when Vicky Patton began decorating her new home in Winfield, Patton said.

"I'm not one of those people who like page 49 of Ethan Allen" Interiors Inc., said Patton. "I want my own stuff. I go to yard sales, estate sales and auctions and had bits and pieces for years.

"I thought I knew what I wanted, but Melissa gave me the encouragement to go ahead. 'You know what you want,' she told me. 'Let me show you some things.' "

Tom Harris refinished a mahogany chair Patton had picked up at an auction, and Mary-Melissa Harris upholstered it.

"Later, I found a mate that was almost identical and we did it all over," Patton said. "When people come in, they ask, 'Where did you get those gorgeous matching chairs,' and I say, 'Oh, they're just junk.' "

The city of Taneytown chose Harris and her husband to refinish a table and some antique chairs.

"It was tough to bid out. We utilized them because they were so convenient, right across the street" at the time, said Charles P. Boyles II, city manager.

"We had the antique table patched in the past, but they fixed it as it was originally put together," Boyles said. "It is now sturdy as it was originally. There is all the difference in the world."

Fort Detrick, the city of Taneytown and the Pattons have asked Harris and her husband to do additional work.

"If you're proud of whatever you do, people will come back right away, and you can establish a business in a year to two years," Mary-Melissa Harris said. "But it takes five years to become a household name" -- which is how long she has been in business.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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