By: Linda Matchan, Globe Staff
For: The Boston Globe
All hail Boston, furniture mecca.
The home of the Marathon and the Tea Party can now add “furniture hot spot” to its credentials, having just been named one of the 12 hottest cities in the country to buy furniture, along with such cities as New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.
Boston’s furniture scene is “very impressive,” declared Jennifer Litwin, a Chicago furniture maven who is writing a Zagat’s-style guide book that rates and reviews furniture stores around the country. The book, “Furniture Hot Spots: The Ultimate Coast-to-Coast Shopping Guide,” is scheduled to be published in March by the Lyons Press.
Some might be surprised to hear that the Hub made the cut. It may have culture and charm, but, then again, the faces of Boston include Barry and Elliot and their dizzying “shoppertainment” concept for Jordan’s Furniture, and Bernie & Phyl, the pseudo-celebrity furniture retailers known for the endless repetition of their homespun TV commercial jingle: “Quality, comfort, and price, that’s nice.”
But according to Litwin, Boston’s furniture scene is “as good as parts of the best cities in the country,” especially downtown, in the area around Park Square increasingly being referred to as the Design District.
“For contemporary furniture it’s a phenomenal city,” Litwin said. “It’s very easy to get around: You can park your car and walk to 10 different shops.”
Despite Boston’s reputation for rudeness, she reports she received mostly good service (“with the exception of Beacon Hill”); innovative shops, especially in the South End; and historic English influences in furniture and architecture “that make it really interesting and unique.”
Litwin, 38, has an MBA from the University of Chicago, and has worked as a mutual funds banking trade analyst and antiques broker. She has also catalogued furniture for Sotheby’s, owned a furniture store in Chicago, and reviews furniture for Consumers Digest magazine.
She was in Boston recently doing research for the book, which took her on a three-day whirlwind incognito tour of 26 stores from Cambridge to the South End, from post-college downscale to fine antique upscale. (For practical reasons, Litwin limited her research to furniture stores within 30 minutes of downtown Boston.)
Her strategy is to research the stores in advance and make up to three visits to assess inventory, pricing, attitude of salespeople, and ambiance.
Litwin is cheerful, engaging, and does not lack for self-confidence on her fast-paced surveillance missions. “This pricing seems high, do you have any options?” and “What kind of people shop here?” are the kinds of questions she puts to store staff, some of whom appear taken aback by her rapid-fire queries but answer them anyway, apparently taking her for either a designer or a busybody. (A shrewd marketer, she identifies herself before she leaves the store, offering her card and a brochure about the book.)
Litwin acknowledges that evaluating furniture stores is “more an art than a science.” Her list of “hot spots” seems a bit less than scientific; it includes well-populated centers such as New Orleans and Dallas, but no place in North Carolina, the country’s furniture manufacturing center. However, picking Boston, she said, “was a no-brainer. It’s a big city with lots and lots of interesting architecture and has made lots of changes in the furniture industry in the last several years.”
Stores that impress her have “appropriately priced inventory,” pleasant ambiance, uncommon furniture, and attentive salespeople. Litwin is a stickler for good service; one of her peeves is salespeople who fail to offer assistance, which happened in one upscale Boston store near Park Square, despite a number of attempts to engage the owner in conversation.
Litwin recorded the offense in a notebook. “I’ll mention that she didn’t leave her desk,” she said.
Other sore points include unrealistic pricing, which she cited in another shop that Litwin quickly dismissed as overpriced. “Look at this little French writing desk,” she noted, examining the $2,546 price tag. “It’s very expensive for what it is.”
She said she wasn’t impressed with the Beacon Hill antiques scene, “which was surprising, because it’s a neighborhood that’s been known for antiques forever. But I didn’t think they had such a wonderful selection of stores. The stuff seemed to be very overpriced, and the service wasn’t that great.”
Also, the store owners seemed “snooty,” Litwin added. She said she visited one shop during a heavy downpour, “and the owner wouldn’t even let me get into the store. He said, “I want you to put that umbrella outside. I would have done it anyway but I just had to get inside first. He had a rug in there; it wasn’t like I was standing on top of some 18th-century chest.”
Litwin is also working on a second book for a division of Random House called “Best Furniture Tips Ever,” which will offer advice on successful furniture shopping. “They bought it because they think I’m the Martha Stewart for the next generation,” Litwin said, breezily.
“It is absolutely true,” confirmed Dorothy Harris, director of antiques and collectible publishing for the Random House Information Group. “Have you ever seen someone so focused? She really knows what she is doing, and she is pretty charismatic.”
Litwin’s interest in furniture dates to a single experience several years ago. She was visiting a highbrow antiques showroom in Chicago that specializes in French furniture, and let it slip that she thought it was English, to the amusement of “an overly affected” salesperson.
“I was so mortified that I fled the showroom,” she said. “I vowed I was going to learn everything I could about furniture.”
Mission accomplished. Now she wants to save other hapless American shoppers — who spend more than $71 billion each year on furniture — from making similar gaffes, which presumably is why her book will include a section distinguishing between the significant European and American furniture periods.
She also hopes her guidebook will arm consumers with information about an industry that she says is poorly understood and sometimes even prone to “monkey business” — showrooms that remove price tags when a designer is shopping with a client, and store owners who get peeved when she asks a lot of questions or “try to sell things as period when they’re not.”
She described one Dallas antique store that was charging $100,000 for a chest the owner insisted had belonged to Napolean.
“I asked him how he knew this, and all he would say is, ‘I have my sources,’ ” Litwin said.
“The furniture industry in many ways is like the stock market,” she has concluded. “It’s all about what people will pay for it. I hope this will elevate the industry.”