March 20, 2013

Skillman Furniture on Alexander Street Is Princeton Institution of Long-standing

HAND-CRAFTED: “I make unfinished knotty pine bookcases in assorted sizes, including four stock sizes. These have been very popular, and we’ve been selling a lot of them.” Michael Oliver, co-owner of Skillman’s Furniture Store on Alexander Street, is shown with a selection of his handmade bookcases.

HAND-CRAFTED: “I make unfinished knotty pine bookcases in assorted sizes, including four stock sizes. These have been very popular, and we’ve been selling a lot of them.” Michael Oliver, co-owner of Skillman’s Furniture Store on Alexander Street, is shown with a selection of his handmade bookcases.

History detectives will have an intriguing puzzle to solve at Skillman’s Furniture Store at 212 Alexander Street. Does it date back to 1743, as The Business Founding Date Directory suggests? Or was its beginning in 1863 in accordance with Mercer County’s honoring of Skillman in 1988 “as a distinguished representative of the Mercer County business community, in recognition of its continued service to Mercer County for 125 years?”

Michael Oliver and his mother Vivian Oliver, owners of Skillman, aren’t sure, although it is certain that the Skillman family was well-known in Princeton for many generations. Thomas Skillman is thought by some to be the company’s founder, when it was known as the Skillman Express Storage & Furniture Exchange. In later incarnations, it became the Skillman Express Freight Piano and Furniture Mover, and then as recently as 1935, the Skillman Express Storage & Warehouse: Leading Local & Long Distance Movers, Expert Packers, Craters & Shippers, Rug Cleaning and Moth-proofing.

Its early existence focused on moving and storing furniture, which it continued to do until 1988, when the company relinquished its moving license. From then on, it has emphasized buying and selling previously-owned furniture.

From 1947 to the mid 1950s the furniture business was located in the Benson building on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring streets, notes Vivian Oliver. “At that time, they sold and rented furniture. Years ago, the Princeton University students had to furnish their own rooms. Beds were $3 and chairs were $2!”

Mrs. Oliver’s late husband Paul was the stepson of Roy Skillman, who owned the business until his death in the late 1950s. Paul and his brother James began operating Skillman in 1960.

“Roy and his wife, Bertha lived in the current building, which dates to the 1800s,” reports Michael Oliver. “My brother and I always helped out in the store when we were boys, and I began working full-time in 1976.”

Hidden Treasures

With its strong foundation already established, Skillman’s has continued to flourish under his and his mother’s stewardship. Buying and selling used furniture, as well as offering reasonably priced new pieces is the focus of the business today, and not only does it fill an important need, the place is full of hidden treasures!

“We have one of the largest selections of second-hand furniture in central New Jersey,” says Mr. Oliver. “We also carry a line of inexpensive new items for the home and dormitory.”

Used items vary from inexpensive to top-name brands at affordable prices and from fair to excellent “like new” condition.

Customers can browse in the main store, where items are conveniently displayed with prices easily visible, or in the adjacent warehouse, filled with a tremendous variety of chairs, tables, sofas, bookcases, chest, cabinets — and much more

Mr. Oliver obtains items from people in the area, within a 15-mile radius, and the pieces have to meet his standards. “The condition of the item is important. It must be well-made, and something that will be in demand. When I go to a home, I’ll usually pick up more than one item.

“Also, today some people e-mail us with pictures of items they want to sell. Or they can send a photo by regular mail. This can save me a trip, if I know right away that it wouldn’t work for us.”

Great Mix

What does work for Skillman is a great mix of functional pieces at great prices. The customers are from all over — even New York and Philadelphia — and are all ages and backgrounds. A lot of people check out the website, reports Mr. Oliver.

“In the fall, we do a big business with Princeton students, who are getting things for their rooms. The students always want sofas and recliners. We also get young newly married couples, who are looking for dinettes or bedroom pieces and sometimes older people come in, who are downsizing, and moving to a smaller house. Then, they’ll need a few things.

“Right now,” he continues, “smaller dinette sets are very popular — we have four new styles in — and also the new counter-height tables and bar stools. There is also a lot of interest in Danish modern and other retro modern furniture.”

Futons are very popular, too, he adds, along with coffee tables, night stands, coat racks, and accessories, such as lamps and mirrors.

“We get things in all the time. We just got two love seats, a chaise lounge, and an ottoman. A great buy is a 9-piece dining room set, with six chairs, table, china closet, and buffet for $1200. We also have very handsome secretaries, including one in solid cherry, and a Lane cedar chest is in very good condition.”

Other pieces include a solid cherry writing desk, roll-top desk in oak, and a large traditional square desk suitable for a study or den. A charming tall candlestand table with cherry finish is a fitting spot for a lamp, and a camelback sofa — even a church pew! — are other special “finds” at Skillman.

Cheval Mirrors

Among the new, not previously-owned, pieces is a selection of 3-panel, tri-fold Zen screen dividers; wooden coat rack in different finishes; full-length tilted cheval mirrors, also available in different finishes; a 5-piece counter-height dining set, with table and four stools; a Queen Anne occasional table in cherry finish; coffee table and two end tables offered as a set of three for $89, coffee table only for $49, or two end tables for $49.

Other prices include lamps at $9, children’s desks at $8 or $9, coat racks at $35, sofas from $99 to $359, and screens at $69.

Mr. Oliver attributes Skillman’s success to its selection of good quality items at reasonable prices. “If people need it and the price is right, they will buy it. Even though the cost of doing business today is high, we really keep the prices affordable.

“I enjoy going to all the different homes, meeting the people, and looking at all the different furniture.”

He also confesses to a special attachment to some of the pieces that come in. “It’s how my house got furnished!”

Skillman is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 9 to 1. (609) 924-1881.