At one time, White's Baby Furniture sold more children's furniture than any independent store in the state. It has served generations of Buffalo shoppers, who marked their fondest milestones with visits to the Kenmore Avenue store. But, by early next month, the store will be closed and White's baby legacy will be just another Buffalo retail memory.
If Gary and Sharon White, the store's second-generation, sibling owners, had followed their original plan, the store would have been closed already. But when they announced last November that they would retire, they saw a rush of business. People came in to say goodbye and thank the Whites for years of great service. They also placed orders — lots of orders — and paid for them in full.
Women who weren't even expecting yet, and family members thinking wishfully, came in to buy baby furniture because White's meant something special to them, and they wanted a piece of it before it went away.
Donna Bush of Amherst has been a White's fan for three decades. That's how long ago she bought a crib and changing table for her niece. Though it was a bit pricey, she got her money's worth: The set was used by several cousins, nieces, nephews and eventually Bush's granddaughter. It's still going strong and was just recently donated.
"It's sturdy stuff," she said.
White's started out as an employment and collections agency in 1939. Gary and Sharon's parents, Janet and Harry A. White, collected Great Depression-era debts. Then, seeing the debtors couldn't pay because they didn't have jobs, the Whites added employment services to help them find work. But when Harry returned from service in World War II, he had a premonition about the baby boom and thought a store would be the best way to capitalize on it.
"He listened to these G.I.s talking about their wives and looking at pictures of their girlfriends and said, 'I think there's going to be a lot of babies,' " Sharon White said.
Before the store moved to its current location at 1300 Kenmore Ave. in 1953, it was located across the street. The family lived above the current location, in what is now a vacant apartment, and annexed several surrounding buildings as the store grew.
In the mornings before opening the store, Harry would meander through the maternity ward at Millard Fillmore Hospital, shaking hands and giving out mosquito nets for baby strollers with the company's card attached. Back at the shop, if he had trouble closing a sale, he would say, "What do you want me to do, stand on my head? OK!" And then, that's what he would do. Janet, who lived to be 102, worked in the store every day until she was 101 and did the bookkeeping well into her 90s.
His son Gary White started in the business at about 8 years old, putting wheels on baby carriages. He worked 20 to 30 hours per week in the store while attending school full time at the University at Buffalo's School of Management. Sharon didn't join the family business until 1982, leaving her job as a maternity nurse in San Francisco to help her parents, who were starting to slow down just as business was really heating up. The 80s and 90s, Gary said, "were the big time."
"In the 80s, the nursery was the showcase. People had hand-painted murals. Everything had to match," said Vinnie Catania, who has worked at White's for nearly 35 years.
It was in the 1980s when salesmen started telling the owners that they sold more of their product lines at White's than anywhere else in the state — even stores in New York City.
"The economy was different then," Gary White said. "Everything was firing on all cylinders. Everyone was indulging."
Parents had children sooner and had more of them. They weren't saddled with student debt or with caring for their own aged parents. And the grandparents, who had pensions, "lavished everything on the newborn," Sharon White said.
After the baby boom, everyone wanted a piece of the lucrative children's market. In the beginning, all of White's competition was from independent retailers such as Baby Central, Baby's Bounty and Jimmy Frank's Babyville. But White's withstood every change in retail. Discount stores like Twin Fair, catalog stores like Brand Names, chain stores like Child World and big boxes like Babies "R" Us all gave White's a run for its money.
"We had to evolve through all that," Gary said.
They did it the same way most successful independent retailers do: by offering conscientious service and great quality. They inspected every order, opening and closing drawers to make sure everything was sound, and sending back what didn't make the cut. They asked customers questions about their lifestyle and the size of their nursery and used their decades of experience to help customers make informed decisions. And they stood behind everything they sold, which brought back generations of new and returning shoppers.
Then came the internet.
"That's a whole other ballgame," he said, exhaling. "The internet has been the most invasive."
Suddenly, the White's hallmarks — well-made furniture and attentive service, even its expertise — came up against new roadblocks. The furniture, built to last in the United States, is solid and heavy. It's not suited to online sales the way lighter, cheaper models packed to ship from China are. Today's consumers, used to educating themselves about products and perhaps fearing a hard sell, are sometimes standoffish and hesitant to take advantage of White's decades of expertise.
"It used to be that we might carry five colors of a car seat, and they didn't know there were eight, so they would choose from that," Gary White said. "Now it's like, 'Oh, you don't have the one with the purple polka dots?' No, I didn't order the one with purple polka dots."
White's would always offer to order the purple polka dot car seat but, in most cases, customers would rather just order it online themselves.
For better or worse, White's was the product of a different era, and that era is coming to an end. The family is targeting an Oct. 5 closing date.
"It's been a fun ride," Gary White said.