It can be surprisingly difficult to say goodbye to a piece of furniture. A broken chair that’s been in your family for generations. A table at which the family has enjoyed countless dinners, but you just don’t have room for it anymore.
How much more difficult will it be for Somerset to say goodbye to one of the places where people have bought those same essential household pieces for decades upon decades.
Lay-Simpson Furniture is planning to close later this year. Located on East Mt. Vernon Street, just east of the Somerset Energy Center, Lay-Simpson has been a downtown fixture for longer than most Pulaskians have been alive — long enough, in fact, that store manager Mark Cravens isn’t even sure when the store came to Somerset.
“We don’t know. Nobody knows,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve probably talked to 10 different people and the dates vary. ... I’ve heard everything from the late ‘20s to the ‘30s to the early ‘40s.”
What he could say is that the original store, closer to the Fountain Square, burned sometime in the late 1930s. The building Lay-Simpson is now located in was originally a hardware store.
“(The store’s owner) and Simpson went into a partnership and turned it into a furniture store, and before long, they bought (the hardware store owner) out,” said Cravens.
He pointed to a book called “Imperfect Paradise,” by area author Audrine Wilson Tucker. Describing events from her childhood, one section of the book states, “About 1943, Daddy went to Somerset to the Lay and Simpson Furniture Store and paid cash for a kerosene refrigerator. They told him that they’d deliver it the next day.
“We were so excited that we could hardly wait for the big delivery truck to roll up the Big Road to our house,” she continued. “When it arrived, it had Lay and Simpson Furniture Store written in large colorful block letters on each side of the truck.”
Impressed that the store he’s associated with got such a literary mention, Cravens also observed, “That was 1943, so we know it was around that long.”
Essentially, the building that houses Lay-Simpson has been sold, pending the closing of the contract. Cravens expects the store to shut its doors in mid- to late October of this year.
Cravens explained that the business end of the company is incorporated under Lay-Simpson Furniture, while the owners years ago put the building itself in a separate corporation. This allowed them to pay themselves rent, a means to take money out of the corporation whether it was profitable or not that year. In the current deal, it’s the building that’s being sold, not the business itself.
“Of course, what’s happened over the years is where the interest had been sold in some cases, or somebody died and interest got split up between heirs, now the owners in the building corporation are not exactly the same as the owners in the business corporation,” said Cravens.
However, other factors are causing the store to go ahead and close, explained Cravens — and business owners of all kinds will understand what Lay-Simpson is going through in these uncertain days.
“Because of the current condition of the furniture market, we thought about trying to relocate it, but we’re having a hard time getting product right now,” said Cravens. “We’re not closing because of bad business; our business has been excellent. But we’re running out of furniture to sell. These companies are eight, 10, 12 months out and you can’t get it. Our upstairs, and this has nothing to do with the building being sold, it’s empty.
“Think about how much extra money people got last year,” he continued. “Here’s what people don’t consider: The average family probably got $20,000 to $25,000 extra, but they also saved that much. They didn’t go on a cruise, they didn’t vacation twice last year, they didn’t go shopping at the mall. They didn’t go out to eat every weekend, because they couldn’t. ... So you add the two together, most families had an extra $30-40-50,000 to put somewhere. Well, most everybody put it in their home.”
As to what led to decision to sell the building, Cravens noted that the children and grandchildren of the original owners are getting up in years, “and the younger generation has just not wanted to take over the busienss and be involved in it, so they’re at the point now where they’ve retired, and with the current situation in the business and the opportunity to sell the building,” that’s what they’re doing.
The store has its roots in Lay’s Oneida Furniture Company, which opened in 1920 in Scott County, Tenn., thanks to Arlie M. Lay, who would go on to form a partnership with Virgil Simpson of Somerset around the time of the Great Depression. The Lay-Simpson Furniture Store brand was thus born.
Lay-Simpson has had stores in a number of communities around southern Kentucky and Tennesee, including Albany, Stearns, and Campbellsville — 14 total at different points in time. Back in Oneida, where is all started, “Lay Family Furniture” is still doing business. It and the store in Albany, which is also still doing business, will remain open even after Lay-Simpson closes in Somerset, and will not be affected by the local deal.
Virgil Simpson managed the store until sickness prevented him from doing so, then Hearstle Creekmore took over its management. The Creekmore family stayed close to the store — very close, as they resided in the upstairs apartment of the building; the old metal staircase leading to the residence can still be seen today.
“You can imagine what happened then,” said Cravens, laughing. “Someone would show up at your house at 11 p.m., 12 at night, wanting their refrigerator.”
Timothy Mounce took over management upon Creekmore becoming ill, and managed the store until 2011, when he retired and Cravens took over the management role.
Virgil Simpson’s daughter Sheila, known affectionately to those close to her as “Cookie,” still resides in Somerset at age 81 and has most recently served as president of the company. The business has been a big part of her life, but she knows it’s time for Lay-Simpson to say farewell to Somerset.
“It’s put food on my table for 80 years,” she said. “I grew up in the furniture. My mother and dad had the furniture business when I was born, so we moved to Somerset when I was 5. That was in 1944. ... I cut my teeth on new furniture.”
A graceful family matriarch, Sheila Simpson Thompson followed that comment by laughing and pointing out that she didn’t literally do that, but one gets the idea — her childhood was spent in amongst chairs and sofas, tables and beds, so many of which ended up in homes throughout Pulaski County.
“All the Lays and all the Simpsons are old,” she said. “This is a good time for us to get out.”
After Virgil Simpson went in on a mattress factory in the early ‘40s on University Drive where Cumberland Bedding was produced, that location later became the Lay-Simpson warehouse. It was sold in 2017, but likely not at the amount that the two lots on which the facility sat were originally purchased for — that amount, seemingly tiny today, was only $500 in 1941.
“I’m sure back at that time, that was a lot of money,” said Cravens. “That sounds pretty cheap today.”
Lay-Simpson had another location on the south end of town for a while as well, at stoplight no. 27; “That store was open five or six years,” said Cravens.
Cravens noted that Lay-Simpson Furniture has enjoyed a five-star rating, and is proud of the service the store provides, going above and beyond. He noted that sales and delivery personnel would sometimes leave the store in the winter during a snow or ice storm and go buy groceries at what used to be the nearby Food Fair, and use the store’s four-wheel-drive trucks to take the food to customers who could not get out, or would take customers to doctor’s appointments and other necessities.
“We consider ourselves just a local hometown store, just like stores did years ago,” said Cravens. “We still do things for our customers that I’m sure other furniture stores don’t do.”
Added Simpson Thompson, “The customers that were loyal to us, we were loyal to them too. We helped them buy what they needed. ... That was our main thing, customer service.”
Another interesting feature of the Lay-Simpson store is an old Hall’s safe in the business office — Cravens called it the “oldest thing in the store,” produced in the 1870s and weighing 2.5 tons. The safe survived the blaze that took down the original furniture store building and is with Lay-Simpson today.
Lay-Simpson Furniture has found many loyal customers over the years, said Simpson Thompson, even with new stores all the time coming in and going out. “That means a lot,” she said — and it will be hard for those customers to lose the business they trust, much as it’s hard for the family that built Lay-Simpson in Somerset to let it go.
“I’m sad because it’s closing but it’s something that we really need to do,” she said. “(The family took pride) in the fact that it was very successful, for many, many, many years.”