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The ottoman empire

Furniture, not Blue Ridge peaks or a sparkling seashore, is what draws many people to this part of North Carolina. High Point is a mecca for home furnishings, and its pilgrims are fervent.

June 13, 2004|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

High Point, N.C. — The slogan winked at me from the rear window of a bright red Chrysler minivan parked in a furniture showroom lot.

"Veni, vidi, VISA: I came, I saw, I charged."

It seemed fitting.

We were in High Point, N.C., the self-proclaimed home furnishings capital of the world. An indulgent shopper can do serious damage to the household budget in a place like this, where a single Oscar de la Renta dining room table sells for upward of $22,000.

But if you're in the market for furniture, nowhere else in the nation compares. Nearly 300 manufacturers are here, spread out along a 120-mile strip from High Point to Hickory and Morgantown, N.C. Much of America's furniture is made in the region, and much of it is displayed in showrooms and discount malls.

Many knowledgeable shoppers find the area irresistible.

"It's better than a box of Godiva chocolates," said Orange County resident Barbara Hayes, who recently combined a Savannah, Ga., vacation with a scouting expedition to the High Point-Hickory area. The result? Enough furniture to fill her new 3,500-square-foot Coto de Caza home.

"I'd rather go to High Point than Disneyland," said Hayes, laughing. "I can't wait to go back."

Twice a year, High Point doubles in size when the world's home furnishings manufacturers visit to hawk their wares to retailers at the International Home Furnishings Market. The shows, which draw about 75,000 vendors and buyers, are closed to the public.

But the rest of the year, the public turns out in force, descending on the region by the hundreds of thousands to buy samples, discontinued items and manufacturers' mistakes. East Coast residents arrive in pickup trucks to haul purchases home.

Some shoppers aren't looking for bargains as much as they're seeking a larger selection from which to choose.

"I'd been everywhere in my area and couldn't find what I wanted," Hayes said. "And you can't shop for furniture on the Internet. I wanted to see the finishes and touch the fabrics. I can do that in High Point."

It's a bonus reason to visit a state that boasts remarkable scenery, including some of the East Coast's prettiest shoreline -- the dramatic barrier islands called the Outer Banks -- and the nation's busiest park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which draws more than 9 million visitors annually.

Between the Blue Ridge peaks to the west and the long expanse of white seashore to the east lies the state's heartland. It is home to North Carolina's largest cities, well-known universities such as Wake Forest and Duke, a rapidly expanding research and technology industry and furniture manufacturers such as Drexel Heritage, Thomasville, Lexington and Henredon.

I visited the area in April with Jorden Nye, a friend who's searching for furniture for his new home. We drove south from Washington, D.C., savoring North Carolina's uncrowded highways, comparatively low gas prices ($1.83 a gallon) and inexpensive accommodations. Chilly winter days had just given way to the warmth of spring; white dogwood and bright pink azaleas bloomed everywhere. Rolling hills were covered by deep green forests.

Into the fray

We arrived in High Point on the opening day of the International Home Furnishings Market. The weeklong trade show is in April and October each year, and it's an unpleasant time for consumers to visit. Credentials are required and accommodations are in short supply. (Jorden and I -- who visited using press credentials -- had to stay 60 miles away in Chapel Hill.) The mart itself is every bit as crazed and confusing as insiders warn. Acres of high-rise showrooms are spread out around the city's downtown; 188 buildings create 11 million square feet of exhibition space.

A lot of walking, a lot of faux Tuscan tables, a lot of imitation Waterford crystal chandeliers.

But High Point is more than its market. About 65 of the state's manufacturers are here, along with 70 retail discount stores. There are furniture malls, furniture specialty stores, even a furniture landmark -- a 3 1/2-story building designed to look like a bureau. "The world's largest chest of drawers," boasts the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One of my favorite stops was a museum called the Furniture Discovery Center in downtown High Point. I learned the difference between a tub chair and a club chair, designed a sofa on a computer and played the "What Wood Would You Guess" game, which taught me how to recognize walnut, cherry, poplar and other common woods.

My newly acquired furniture expertise served me well later in the day, when we found a shopper's Shangri-la on Business 85 just outside the city limits. Two mammoth furniture stores on opposite sides of the highway make browsing -- and buying -- easy.

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