In the 96 years since it opened, Home Furnishing Co. Inc. on downtown Camden’s Broad Street has only had two generations of owners.
“The same family, the same building,” owner Likie Beleos said during an interview in the Chronicle-Independent offices Monday morning.
After these 96 years, Beleos -- who’s “almost 75” -- is making the decision to close the store and sell the building.
“But we’re not going to leave it empty,” he said, adding that he hopes someone will create a combination of antique mall and auction space. “It’s tentative, in the talking stages. I want to make sure there is something in downtown Camden that will draw people from all over the state.”
It all started with a teenage boy’s arrival in America more than a century ago.
From candy to furniture
Beleos’ father, Gus, moved from his home in a suburb of Tripoli, Greece, to New York City in 1902 at the age of 14. Two years later, age 16, he visited his brother, Spiro, in Newberry.
“Daddy was pushing a fruit cart in New York City and he decided to visit his brother. Some very good friends from Orangeburg picked him up in a horse and buggy. But he didn’t think Newberry was for him. He was used to nice horses, people wearing fine clothes -- hats and knickers -- so he said he would go back to New York,” Beleos said.
The brothers soon realized that the only place for Gus to catch a train back north was in Camden. Horses and buggies were employed again, allowing the brothers to visit friends running restaurants in Lancaster, Kershaw and Pageland.
“As they came into Camden at the top of the hill where the courthouse is now, my father looked to the left and to the right and saw the beautiful horses, people wearing their hats and knickers and the big fountain with horses drinking from it,” Beleos said, referring to the Richard Kirkland fountain that has since stood in Hampton Park. “He looked at Spiro and said, ‘It’s like a little New York City. There’s no reason not to stay here.’”
And so they stayed.
In Newberry, Spiro had opened a candy kitchen and he moved the business to Camden.
“It was downtown where Ellie’s Attic is now. They sold candy, fruit and ice cream and lived upstairs. They were very poor -- they came with little, nothing, but Camden gave them a great opportunity,” Beleos said.
By 1915, Gus’ cousin Theodore moved to Camden as well, and the brothers put him to work in the candy kitchen.
“The building is still in their family,” Beleos said.
Two years later, 1917, Gus and Spiro got out of the candy kitchen and decided to buy a furniture store on the same block owned by S. W. Parker in a building then owned by a wealthy family by the name of Geisenheimer -- a name that can still be seen on the safe in Home Furnishing Co.
“Daddy told me that the people who ran the furniture store would come in at 7, 8 a.m. and leave around 7 p.m.,” Beleos said. “He said, ‘We would open at 5 a.m. and be there until 11 at night’ at the candy kitchen. They were having to make the candy, you understand. The furniture business just made more sense.”
The new business was a partnership between Parker, the Beleos brothers -- including another brother, Chris, who had come to Camden as well -- and Walter Smith. Although the store opened in 1917, Beleos said his father and uncles didn’t celebrate a grand opening until 1920. Spiro decided to go back to Greece around 1930. Several years later, Gus returned to the Tripoli area to visit Spiro but had something more on his mind than simply visiting family.
“He was also looking to find someone from Greece to bring back as a married man,” Beleos said. “But he was a Shriner, a Mason, he was in a lot of the civic organizations and was in all the parades. Maybe he had become more Americanized -- he couldn’t find anyone to bring back.”
While Gus was in Tripoli, he decided to purchase two tailor-made suits.
“The man running the store says he has got a young girl downstairs -- the best seamstress in Tripoli. She measured him and made him two suits. While she did this, he fell in love with her and brought her back with him,” Beleos said.
Gus was in his mid-40s; the seamstress he would marry in her 20s. They would have four children: Likie, preceded by his older sister, Titsa and younger sisters, Becky and Niki.
“Daddy was 70 when Niki was born. He lived to be 93 years old. She kept him going, she was the inspiration of the family,” Beleos said.
A son’s life
Likie Beleos said it was good growing up in Camden.
“All the Beleos family moved to Camden,” he said, adding Dino (who ran the M&K Coffee Shop), and Pete to the mix.
In all, the first generation of Beleos brothers had about a dozen children between them.
“We all had a great time; it was great to grow up here,” Beleos said. “When I was young kid, I would come down early and build a fire so the store would stay warm.”
On one particular winter morning in 1950, a snowstorm hit Camden, turning the sidewalk in front of the store into a sheet of ice.
“A Monarch Studios photographer came down and took a picture of me chipping snow and ice with James Thorton who worked at the store. He’s still living in Camden, 90-something. I still have coffee with him every morning.”
Behind young Likie and Thorton is the storefront for the Smart Shop, a clothing store that would be of later importance to the young man chipping away at the ice.
Beleos graduated from Camden High School in 1956 and Wofford College in 1960. He came back to Camden, anticipating to go to work for IBM.
“But I got in the Army in 1961 and got out at Fort Jackson after six months. That was it. I decided that was enough, so I came back and talked to Uncle Chris and bought him out,” he said. “I told him the only way I would stay at the store was if we added HVAC.”
Beleos helped his father add on to the store, doubling its size and then bought out his father in 1964, who retired in 1981.
The following year, 1965, he and Earl Kendrick -- a fellow furniture dealer in Sumter -- traveled to Hickory, N.C., on business. There, they met a local businessman who owned the Lincoln Hall furniture manufacturing plant he had up for sale. Beleos and Kendrick bought it, staffed it and it “took off like gangbusters.”
Beleos would work in Camden Monday through Thursday. Thursday evening, he would head for Hickory and stay there through the weekend, returning with a load of newly-made furniture ready for sale Monday morning.
How was the quality of the furniture Beleos’ own plant made?
“(A couple) who live in Camden, came in and bought a sofa and two chairs,” Beleos said. “Two months ago, they came back in and said they wanted to buy a new sofa and chairs. (They) told me they still had the old ones at home and they were in perfect shape.”
The couple told Beleos they needed a new set only because the old ones were set too low to the floor, making them hard to get in and out of. Beleos had them bring the old set back.
“They looked brand new! Fifty years later -- that’s quality,” said Beleos, who’s kept them and showing them off at the store. Furniture is still made like that today, but you have to look for it. You have to find it ‘Made in the U.S.A.’”
Beleos said that was a fun time -- hard work, but fun.
“But the best part of my life came in 1972 when I got married to my lovely, beautiful wife, Connie,” he said with her sitting next to him.
The couple has two children: a son, Tyke; and daughter, Stefani.
Two years after marrying Connie, 1974, Beleos made the decision to purchase the neighboring Smart Shop from Moultrie Burns, expanding Home Furnishing Co. yet again. In 1978, when McDonald’s came to Camden, Likie and Connie decided to try their hand at running a restaurant of their own with a partner/chef who ran the Elite Epicurean in Columbia. They served steak, lamb chops and other meaty fare.
“I think all Greeks are frustrated restaurant people,” Beleos said. “It was the hardest work ever in our lives.”
“But it was a good learning experience,” Connie added.
The restaurant closed two and a half years later when their partner decided to return to Columbia. Beleos sold the business to another Greek family. Today, it is the Camden House of Pizza.
The scariest day of Beleos’ life came in September 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina.
“The police called me and said all the windows were broken and the furniture was in the street,” Beleos recalled. “We drove down while the eye of the hurricane was right over Camden. It was so bright and clear. After a while we started hearing this rumbling -- it was the back part of Hugo. It took the roof off and set in a parking lot. I was so scared. The whole store filled up with water.”
The store was closed for a time; Connie Beleos said it took about a year to recoup the losses.
“We’ve just continued on since Hugo,” Likie Beleos said. “It’s been a wonderful life.”
Beleos counted two reasons for closing Home Furnishing Co. after 96 years: his age, and a desire to spend more time with their daughter, Stefanie, her husband and son.
Stefani Beleos-Fuller is a singer of yoga chants who lives in California but is recording her second album in New York City with fellow recording artist Anthony Molina and his band. Beleos said his daughter’s second album is incorporating a more pop, or hip hop, feel to it, and he and Connie are interested in putting more energy into following her career. They are also following the career of local rap artist Steve Norris, a.k.a. Blind Fury, through his manager, Travis Jiles.
Which brings Beleos and his wife to the decision to close Home Furnishing Co.
Starting Thursday, the store’s entire inventory will be on sale for “far less” than 50 percent off.
“Everything,” Beleos said, “and we have warehouses full that we will empty until they are depleted. We will be here for a good while yet, continuing the sale.”
The good-byes actually began Saturday.
“We sent out a letter to all the folks who had bought from us during the last year. At 11 o’clock that morning, there were 100 people in the store. Some had tears in their eyes, but we told them, ‘be happy for us,’” Beleos said
Rest assured, though, Likie and Connie Beleos have no intention of leaving Camden behind.
“We will continue to live here and try to vote here in Camden no matter where we go or what we do,” Beleos said. “Camden will always be our home base.”