Much has changed at the corner of Madison Street and Desplaines Avenue since 1981, when schoolteacher Francis Carr bought a building there. The building used to contain an old-fashioned pool hall; next door was an old-fashioned tavern. There was a Greek-run restaurant across the street.
Today, a parking lot covers the spot where the tavern stood. The pool hall is gone, and a medical billing business operates in its place. The restaurant has churned through several incarnations. The current one offers sushi (Carr has no problem with sushi, but speaks wistfully of the idea of a nearby source for Italian beef).
But certain things stay the same. And other things – chairs, tables, desks, even doll houses– get an assist from Francis Carr at The Furniture Recycler, where old furniture is refreshed, repaired and re-varnished. Carr is an Oak Park resident who is very pleased with the location of his business.
“Forest Park has been very good to me,” he said.
Carr started the business in Oak Park, where it stayed for five years, until the Madison Street building became available, and the lower taxes of Forest Park lent allure. A used furniture store managed by Carr’s wife, was only one of many businesses to occupy the west storefront – formerly Kelly’s Pool Hall. “I briefly rented to Gunzo – they used that space to work on a catalog.”
But the constant presence on the corner has been Carr’s furniture rehab business. Carr gives new life to beloved family pieces, or refinishes newly acquired antique treasures.
So what’s the most difficult job a furniture refinisher faces?
“Sometimes when you’re redoing a piece with a lot of parts, just trying to make sure everything fits back together properly!” Carr said. He often wishes for extra hands.
Several chairs and tables are in mid-process, held together at various angles by clamps. Carr has one part-time helper and saves time by farming some items out for simple stripping. Items in need of upholstery are also farmed out, once the woodwork in finished. He reserves the complex craftsmanship and artistic choices for himself, making replacements for missing or damaged pieces of wood. On any given day, there may be 15 to 25 projects in various stages of completion.
What’s the most common item customers bring in for refreshing?
“Chairs,” said Carr, describing them as “the most used and abused item in the house. Also, pedestal tables.” When asked about his work habits – does he go from start to finish on a single item, or work a little on each piece to stay fresh – Carr prefers to do as much as possible on a single project.
The trouble, he said, is often in actually starting on a piece, since there is much assessing and planning to be done before disassembly can be done.
Carr didn’t start out intending to refinish furniture for a living. A Western Illinois University graduate, he studied English Education and taught in what was called, at the time, a “social adjustment school” (what today might be termed simply an alternative school) called Montefiore. He also lived for a time in Denver, teaching at St. Vincent’s, a home for emotionally disturbed children. Carr found the work rewarding, partly because “my wife and I team-taught there.”
“After we had three kids, the furniture sales was kind of meant to be [wife Ellen’s] introduction back into the working world.”
The refinishing started when Carr decided to strip and finish something himself, rather than pay someone else. He asked his dad for advice. “My dad was a painter who painted classrooms in Chicago public schools. He was very knowledgeable about preparation, which is all-important in getting a good result.” While teaching in Denver, Carr also worked for an antique shop, where he did some repairs and added to his store of knowledge and experience. “I did some refinishing for him, nothing very involved.”
After decades of experience, Carr has developed a system for maintaining the quality he seeks. Carr carefully matches the stains and varnishes, and admits to being unable to accept less than perfection in an aspect of his work.
“I try to be a perfectionist,” he says. The only real obstacle to ensuring perfection every time is usually the customer’s budget. “I try to put myself in the customer’s shoes. What will they say when they see the finished version? I try to fix problems as they occur. Occasionally, a piece just won’t cooperate!”