From the rather modest outward appearance, you might not realize that the Aberdeen building houses the shop of one of the Northwest’s most sought-after craftsmen, but that’s the way Charley Rowell likes it.
The fourth owner of Holcomb Upholstery on Park Street — it has been operating at various locations in Aberdeen since 1928 — Rowell has loyal customers from all over the West Coast.
“We have lots of customers from Seattle and Olympia. We’ve done cars from as far away as New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, California. And there’s a shop in Portland that does high-end hot rods that we do regular work for.”
“That place cracks me up,” says Aberdeen classic car owner and enthusiast Tony Halekakis, who’s had a couple of his car interiors restored there. “It’s nothing to look at and you just drive right by and not know that people come from all over the country to have their cars worked on there.”
Halekakis is currently having the interior of his 1959 Hillman Minx restored. That car was originally sold more than a half-century ago just down the street at the now-defunct Grays Harbor Motors dealership once located on Simpson Avenue.
But Rowell does more than cars, taking on just about any kind of upholstery work, from cars and boats to antique furniture.
“Cars are probably about 60 percent of our business,” he says of his shop, which he owns and operates with the help of just four others, including his wife of 25 years, Raija, who handles all the bookwork.
Rowell’s reputation comes from decades of experience in the business, all on the Harbor.
Learned from dad
He grew up in McCleary, where he learned the trade from his father Gary Rowell, who left the profession years ago and is the longtime executive director of the Union Gospel Rescue Mission of Grays Harbor.
“I’ve been doing this like 32 years,” said Charley Rowell, “but full time about 28 years. I actually started tearing seats apart when I was 15 years old. Back then I was just tearing some stuff down and trimming it out.”
By the time he was 21, he had moved to the bigger city of Aberdeen and went to work at Holcomb Upholstery, which he later purchased.
getting through the great recession
It’s a small, but once again booming business that has survived the Great Recession. All his clients come to him via word of mouth as he does no advertising.
“When the recession started, that first fall and winter were pretty tough,” Rowell notes. “But it came back. … Things are starting to pick up. A lot of upholstery shops have shut down (due to the recession), but we’re in Aberdeen and we’re thriving. Probably by this spring things will be as good as everything was before.”
Rowell credits the low overhead in Aberdeen with his ability to operate a shop as big as he has and generate loyal customers.
“A lot of shops are at least $10 an hour higher for labor than us,” Rowell said. “We charge $60 an hour for just about anything. I can’t imagine trying to run a place in Seattle; we couldn’t have a shop like this. I couldn’t make enough money to pay the rent. This is big for an upholstery shop. It really is. A lot of shops are about the size of a two-car garage. Most of them are pretty small. This is pretty nice. We can have a handful of cars in here and still have room to park the (company) van and still have projects sitting around.”
Last week, in addition to several furniture jobs in various stages of repair, Rowell had a sparkling 1957 Bel Air, a 1979 Z28 Chevy Camaro and Halekakis’ 1959 Hillman adorning the shop, all in for restoration.
Rowell says the recession was tough because most of the projects he works on qualify as luxuries.
“A lot of the work we do, people don’t need to have done,” Rowell said. “A lot of these are luxury items — especially the cars. If you have extra money you might do them, and a lot of the cars we work on, you have to have a certain amount of money to be doing it. There’s a lot of guys who do a lot of the work themselves on their cars, so it saves them money, but upholstery is a lot different than putting an engine in a car. We’ve done some cars that are pretty high-end show cars and a lot of custom work.”
Rowell said it’s taken him many years — and lots of trial and error — to reach the point where he’s considered a master of his craft by legions of satisfied and returning customers.
“You learn a lot of tricks over the years while trying to figure stuff out,” he said with a chuckle. “Now, there’s getting to be less and less guys doing it, which I guess is good for my business, but it takes a long time to learn and you have to be dedicated. I’m still learning. Honestly, it took me at least five or six years for me (to become proficient).”
Pleased with apprentices
To that end, Rowell has two young workers/apprentices — Rick Graham and Adam Eddleman — helping him in the shop. He hopes they will eventually take on what seems to be a disappearing craft.
“I’ve got two guys who are dedicated, show up for work on time every day and I’ve actually been training them from the ground up. I prefer to do that because then they do stuff the way I want it done and I know what to expect.”
“He’s a really good boss,” said the 29-year-old Graham. “I’ve worked here 10 years and have never heard him yell once. A lot of the process is figuring out how to do something. There’s a lot of trial and error and, obviously, Charley is a well of knowledge,” he said while taking a break from his Pfaff commercial sewing machine, where he was upholstering seat covers.
While Rowell’s shop is filled with the various tools and materials of the trade, this is a business that involves lots of labor, especially when it comes to restoring furniture. But he points out it’s worth the investment, especially considering how poorly furniture has been manufactured over the past 30 years.
“We see stuff that we take apart and we just shake our heads,” Rowell said. “Up until the 1980s, as long as you bought a decent piece of furniture you still had a good frame. It really goes along with that. Today, most of it is coming from China. There’s hardly any furniture being built in the U.S. right now — you’ll pay $6,000 to $8,000 for a couch made in the USA. With the older furniture, you can have it reupholstered and 20 or 30 years later you can have it reupholstered again and always have that great frame.”
And that’s the starting point for any furniture job, he notes.
“With furniture, we basically go down to the springs and rebuild everything while we’re in there. … We put good high-density foam in them so they’ll hold up and they’re always comfortable.”
That’s the big difference from modern furniture, which some of his customers have learned.
“Everything nowadays is pretty much made out of plywood. … or particle board — we’ve seen that,” he said. “We’ve told a number of people that we’ll do whatever you want but it’s not worth it. You need to find a better piece of furniture if you’re going to pay the money (for labor). That’s what you want, because it’s going to hold up.”
And Rowell makes sure things will last by only using high-quality materials in all his jobs.
“We don’t buy cheap materials,” he said. “We figure if you’re paying for our labor you definitely should be putting good stuff on it that will hold up. We’re pretty good about steering people in that right direction.”
But Rowell said his biggest projects are still always the cars, with a couple of jobs billing out for nearly $18,000.
“We did a Model A roadster pickup for last year’s Portland Roadster Show,” he said of one of those bigger jobs, which took his shop weeks to complete. “There was nothing in it when we started and, basically, everything in it was hand-built and it was really beautiful, and we did all that work here.”
It was a challenging task, as are many of the custom hot rods and classic cars he takes on.
“We have a lot of imagination on how to do stuff,” Rowell said of himself and his crew. “It’s kind of tough … because you know what you want it to look like, but getting to that point is not easy.”
Despite those day-in, day-out challenges, it’s easy to tell that Rowell loves his work and relishes the hands-on approach.
“I still do lots of sewing,” he said with a laugh. “I sew all the time … I work all the time. I’ll do it until I retire. Maybe by the time I’m in my mid-50s, I’ll be able to sell the shop and maybe just have a shop at home that I’ll do hot rods in.”
David Haerle, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3928 or by email: email@example.com