After 35 Years, An Alternative Furniture Retailer Spreading Eclectic Culture – Hartford Courant
A colorful door set into the ivy-covered brick building that is home to Fairhaven Furniture is one hint that this is an enlightening place to visit in the largely industrial Fair Haven section of New Haven, overlooking the Quinnipiac River.
While this off-the-beaten-path location on Blatchley Avenue offers some challenges (“We don’t exactly get drive-by traffic,” laughs co-owner Elizabeth Orsini), it hasn’t stopped Fairhaven Furniture from developing loyal, committed customers who turn to the store for uncommon, made-to-order furniture, art, handcrafted jewelry and pottery, housewares, rugs, lamps and organic children’s toys.
“We have New York style but with old-school craftsman techniques,” explains operations manager Lao Triffin.
“People come and spend an afternoon here just because it can be like a museum, a nice place to come, relax, talk to people,” said Lao, nephew of co-owner and founder Kerry Triffin, a Yale grad who started the company in 1981.
“Back then it was Kerry’s woodshop. He was making bookcases that he’d cart down to New Haven on the top of his station wagon.”
The business was known as Fair Haven Woodworks until about 10 years ago, when Kerry Triffin stopped making wood furniture and became a full-time retailer — although not a traditional one.
“This is the way business should be, it should be friendly and neighborly and rubby-dubby,” Kerry Triffin said, adding that people prefer it that way, “instead of giant businesses in malls owned by people in faraway places.”
Rubby-dubby? That’s a word Triffin picked up from the 8-year-old daughter of a customer, whose family used that term to describe colorful, locally owned businesses.
As the business grew, Triffin and Orsini — they are husband and wife — took over parts of all three floors of the 25,000-square-foot building, which was once owned by Foskett & Bishop, a commercial plumbing and manufacturing company founded in 1893.
Three weeks ago Triffin and Orsini bought the building where the company has been for three decades. Now they hope to lease space to like-minded businesses — including GreenWave, which has developed an alternative, sustainable method of ocean farming.
“I want the whole building to feel like this special place,” Triffin said.
Growth has been strong, about 8 percent to 10 percent a year, said Orsini, who buys the housewares and accessories. The business has nine employees in addition to the owners.
Made-to-order and custom furniture still represents the majority of sales, and these days, Triffin designs pieces and works with artisans from Vermont, Connecticut and other states.
As parents of two grown daughters, the couple lovingly refer to the furniture store as their “third child” and are invested in being part of Fair Haven’s landscape, which is both industrial and residential.
“It’s cool. Historically, it’s always had a mix — ethnically, income-wise,” said Triffin, pointing out the Blatchley Avenue mansions of former oyster industry magnates, not far from small fishermen’s shacks lining the Quinnipiac River. “This is an extraordinary resource. What other city can claim having a river that in six blocks becomes a wild river?”
Orsini is from the South End of Hartford, where she attended St. Augustine and South Catholic High before UConn. She was in catering before she joined the business in the ’90s.
Triffin grew up in New Haven. “People come out of the woodwork to get together and make something happen,” he said, recalling picket lines for a Don’t Dump on Us campaign. “I love the fact that Fair Haven has that in its bones, in its DNA.”
Inside the store, the River Street Gallery — which looks like a cozy living room and occasionally hosts concerts — is where local artists exhibit their work.
Orsini heads to New York gift shows to find unusual accessories and treasures with a global feel that nonetheless fit the store.
“I just have a different eye and I’m shopping for a pretty different customer. Because our roots are in wood, a lot of my shopping is for wood products,” she says. “It’s not a frou-frou shop.”
The basement is filled with dining sets, as well as sofas, sectionals and chairs, many from a sought-after Norwegian leather company called Ekornes.
Triffin, who routinely calls out to customers by their first names as they enter, has a quirky habit that exemplifies the atmosphere at Fairhaven Furniture. He hands out a small piece of peach-colored paper called a “happiness voucher,” with five tips about how to be grateful, kind and at peace. Along with it, he provides a small, wooden figurine that he calls an “emissary of happiness.”
The figurine is meant to be passed along to someone who needs a lift. He has plans to make a sign for the inside of the store that will read: “You found the candy store, now be the kid. Smile.”
Courant columnist Dan Haar contributed to this story