Parker Gibson may have closed the store bearing the name of his business, Springdale Antiques, almost two months ago, but he hasn’t retired. Gibson, who turned 73 in September, is still doing some of what he’s done for more than four decades: restore antebellum Southern furniture. He only closed the store for health reasons that he prefers to keep private.
Furniture became his passion and second career in 1972 after having worked for The Camden Chronicle for a number of years, primarily as an advertising executive. Gibson had already begun working with furniture before leaving the newspaper. One day, he went to his wife Gladys (who, Gibson said, everyone knows as Dumpy -- “although she’s certainly not dumpy”), and asked her what she thought of him working on furniture full time.
“She worked at DuPont and made enough money for us to survive,” Gibson said. “In the early years, if not for my wife, we wouldn’t have had the cash flow. It takes two to three months from commission to completion.”
The harder person to talk to about going into furniture restoration full time was Chronicle co-owner Clarence Ford.
“Talk about being scared; I was shaking in my boots,” Gibson said. “He sat behind his big desk and said that if I was going into business for myself, he wouldn’t try to talk me out of it. He said I needed to get it out of my system, but that the door would always be open for me to come back.”
He never did.
Instead, he got with Perry McCoy who built Gibson’s first shop in 1972 on South Broad Street. There, he focused on the furniture repair work he had come to love. About five years later, a female customer offered him the chance to work out of a building she owned at the corner of DeKalb and Lyttleton streets.
“We tore out the inside of the building and built a ‘building in a building’ -- about 3,000 square feet. This was a boom time for me,” he said.
By then, word of Gibson’s work had long begun to spread. The business had also added a retail component.
“I learned that you’ve gotta sell yourself, then you can sell your product,” he said.
As he did both -- retail and repair -- he learned more and more about the furniture he was working on, or buying, restoring and reselling. As he did, he became more and more fascinated with pre-Civil War furniture of the South.
“I began to learn and love Southern furniture,” Gibson said. “By 1983 or 1984, I was selling all Southern furniture from before 1850.”
His love of such furniture even shows up in his own home in Edgewood. He also has a home on Lake Wateree that he claimed has even more of the furniture he treasures.
For example, in one room, Gibson has a corner cupboard from 1830. He’s also sold such pieces.
“I sold 10 in 1984. I thought to myself, if I can sell 10, I can sell 12,” he said.
He got his chance at a show at Camden’s old Canteen on West DeKalb Street.
“I sold my 12th and it got to the point where I could sell 18,” Gibson said.
Around that time, the city began tearing down the old Camden Elementary School (CES) building, starting with the façade. Gibson got his hands on floor sills and other wood pieces and built farm tables and poster beds from them. He also made a plantation desk in a room off from the kitchen, and a butler table sitting in his living room.
“Everyone wanted Camden stuff,” he said.
Next to the cupboard is a chest of drawers that is actually certified by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. It’s from 1810.
“It got to be where I didn’t look at furniture from after 1821. I had the store full of these things,” he said.
Examples of items that have been in his store can be found in his bedroom: the posts on a queen bed and a chest of drawers. But the bedroom has even more significance. Someone visiting the home when Gibson and his wife first bought the originally 1,100-square-foot house would have had to step down into the space now occupied by the bedroom. This was his workshop. Turn right and through what is now the bathroom and visitors would have ended up in an outside work area.
As the business grew, Gibson found himself traveling out of state -- North Carolina, Virginia and, especially Georgia. There are shows in Atlanta where he could sell $10,000 to $30,000 worth of furniture in one weekend. And in 1988, he added another business to the mix: Springdale Carpet Cleaning using a dry, instead of wet, extraction system so he wouldn’t hurt client’s floors. The extra money paid for his daughter’s education at Clemson. He closed the business about two years ago.
Fourteen years ago, Gibson moved Springdale Antiques back to South Broad Street just off the southwest corner of Rutledge Street.
“Sammy Small had been recruiting businesses to redevelop the area,” he explained.
The front of the building showed off items for sale; the back and outside rear of the building served as work spaces.
As much retail business as he did, it was the labor -- restoring furniture -- that paid the bills.
“During all those years, there were only two where retail surpassed labor,” Gibson said. “That shows you the importance of the restoration business. You can’t just refinish a chair. If you can’t fix a chair, it’s not worth a durn.”
The real importance, however, lay in the relationships he cultivated.
“I would come home and talk to my wife about my friends,” he said. “She said, ‘They’re not your friends, they’re your customers.’ But they were.”
Years ago, the Gibsons traveled to Blowing Rock, N.C., on a day with freezing temperatures. They met up with some of Gibson’s clients. They invited the couple inside to get warm and enjoy some coffee and soup.
“They told my wife, ‘Parker is like the DSS; when he comes back, he likes to take a look and make sure we’re taking care of stuff.’”
In the beginning, though, Gibson said he was actually quite naïve about the business.
“I didn’t know that everyone didn’t know how to fix things,” he explained. “In my family, everyone knew how to fix things. That’s the atmosphere I grew up in. I have a God-given talent to fix things. If you can’t fix something, you can’t put a finish on it, and everyone loves my finishing.”
Gibson said the combination of his talent and integrity led to more and more people finding out about his business.
“In the early 1970s, there was a lady -- a very good customer I did some work for -- who said I would never succeed in this business because I was ‘too young and too Southern,’” he said.
What he found, however, was that when someone does a good job, people want them to do it again. That’s led to him having customers from around the state and even out of state.
“I never made a world of money, but success can’t be measured only in money,” Gibson said. “It’s so good for my heart and soul to have all these wonderful people who rely on me to take care of their furniture.”
Locally, most of that customer base is in Camden’s historic district, between DeKalb Street and Kirkwood Lane primarily east of Broad Street.
There is an additional secret to his success: “All my business is around women.” He said if he’d only had to deal with men, he’d likely be broke.
That he is not, but he is slowing down. His health problems require him not to lift anything more than 30 pounds.
“The doctor doesn’t want me to lift things, but I do want to continue working,” he said.
That has cut out the trips to the Atlanta shows because of all the loading and unloading that has to be done. Gibson said he’ll likely not take on any projects during the summer’s heat and humidity.
To keep in touch with his customers, Gibson worked out a deal with his former telephone company and his current cellphone company to transfer Springdale Antique’s phone number to his cellphone.
He said he wants clients and potential customers to understand that while he is no longer selling furniture, he is still restoring pieces. He said he has been blessed by clean living, which is helping him to deal with his health problems and allows him to stay active, as much as possible, with organizations he belongs to and church.
“I always had little in-store traffic,” he said. “My average customer didn’t even know about Springdale Antiques. When someone calls the store’s number, they’re actually getting me on my cell phone. Going forward, I want people to know that I still may be able to help with their furniture. Just call.”