By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Last year, as a tribute to the U.S. armed forces, Isaac Cohen built a car with a model of an F-18 fighter jet affixed to it.
“I was celebrating 30 years of being in the country, and I wanted to show some way of thanking them for fighting for us, fighting for our freedoms,” the immigrant from Israel said.
The car is on display at the Tupelo Automobile Museum.
But it’s Cohen’s friendliness and business acumen that are on display every day, whether it’s in Houston, Texas, where his company is based, or in Tupelo, which he considers something of a second home.
He is here again this week for the Tupelo Furniture Market, where he has been an exhibitor since its start in 1987. Cohen has built a loyal following of customers across the country who come to buy framed art.
Yes, pictures. Paintings. The stuff that hangs on walls.
In the furniture industry, they’re called accessories. And they’re an important part of the business.
Put the right accessories with the right furniture – stage it just right – and a retailer has a better chance of landing that coveted sale.
“It’s like having a kitchen,” Cohen said. “You can’t have just bread. You’ve got to have other parts, too, like the refrigerator and the stove. It all works together.”
Cohen didn’t provide dollar figures, but he said business has been booming, even with the recession taking the economy down a nasty road the past couple of years.
“In 2008, we were up 44 percent,” he said. “In 2009, we were rocking along, hit a couple of bad months and ended with a 16 percent increase. Last year, we were up again 23 percent.”
Business, as the saying goes, is booming at Classy Art.
A different start
But in 1983, Cohen was in the construction business in Houston when a friend from New York introduced him to the framed-art business.
It took a couple of years, but Cohen decided to get into the business himself, opening a 6,000-square-foot warehouse.
“It took a little time to build up and it was probably 1985 when I got all the way in to my neck,” he said with a smile. “And I’ve been in it ever since.”
He started selling to what he calls mom-and-pop stores. Seeking to expand his clientele, he began showing at a trade market in Dallas. It was there he heard about Tupelo, and he managed to make its first show.
“We got here around midnight because we took the wrong highway and ended up on the Natchez Trace,” he said. “We stayed up all night to set up. Those first few shows were rough, but I knew this would be a special place.”
In fact, Cohen says Tupelo is his favorite market to attend.
“It’s a writing show,” he said. “We write orders here. I quit going to Dallas and Orlando. I love the people, the hospitality, everything here. We show in HIgh Point and Las Vegas. But this is still our biggest show.”
Janice Coleman, director of sales at the Tupelo Furniture Market, returns the praise with sincerity.
“Isaac is a wonderfully sweet, giving and generous person, and so very talented,” she said. “And he’s such an interesting person who does so much. He’s been a very loyal exhibitor and we’re proud to call him a friend, too.”
It’s the margaritas
Exhibitors at furniture markets, whether in Tupelo, High Point or Las Vegas, offer customers complimentary gifts, food, beverages and other enticements.
At Classy Art, it’s the margaritas that keep them coming.
“You have to make them perfect, and we do,” Cohen said.
But it’s also his approach that keeps customers returning.
“It’s about relationships, between you, suppliers and customers,” he said. “You have to be honest; just be yourself.”
There’s no hard selling going on the showroom. It’s relaxed and inviting.
“I never push,” Cohen continued. “You never push the merchandise.”
But at 58, Cohen still pushes himself. He’s creative, always building things. Cars, of course, are his favorite, although he admits his mechanics skills are lacking.
“I can’t even change a tire. But I love to build cars,” he said.
His sons, Jonathan and Gabriel, joined the company six years ago. Jonathan is vice president of operations and Gabriel is VP of sales and marketing.
While not officially retired, Isaac has given more responsibilities to his sons, and they’ve helped grow the business tremendously, he said.
“I come and go as I please, I’ll open and close the warehouse … I just do what I want,” he said. “I’m having fun. I worked my tail off and now I’m enjoying life.”