Audrey Holt Harkins leads the family’s business in a new direction while remaining true to her roots
As much as anyone in the region, Audrey Holt Harkins has furniture in her blood. How could she not?
She is, after all, the only daughter of Sussex County icon Richard Holt, whose three Payless Furniture stores and vaunted status as pillar of the community essentially guaranteed Audrey would have some enormous shoes to fill after her beloved father passed away in 2012.
“It was very surreal,” Audrey said from the beautiful showroom of Holt Furnishings in Millsboro. “He had been feeling a little more fatigued than usual, but why not? He was getting older yet maintaining the same work schedule he had for as long as I can remember, which was usually seven days a week, maybe 12-15 hours a day. So, of course he was tired. Once he went to the doctor, however, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. He was gone 10 days later.”
Whether by coincidence or design, it was good that Richard had brought Audrey on-board years earlier, in 2005, to get his back while he made the transition through a challenging management period. The two had been a team for as long as Audrey can remember, her brain overflowing with nostalgic memories of life and times with her dad and with the furniture he purveyed with such pride, as if the latter were a sort of inanimate sibling.
“For a long time, Dad was a manufacturer’s rep and manufactured bunk beds in addition to having his own store,” Audrey recalled. “When I wasn’t in school, we’d hop in that white Ford furniture-delivery truck of his and just drive what seemed to me as a kid to be all over the world. Actually, it was just Delaware, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, but it was still a great adventure for me. I reveled in the smiling faces, extended hands and open arms of the people as my dad would approach them, making me feel loved wherever we went. I also remember how I would fall into the deepest, most restful sleep on the mattress my dad had placed behind the front seat of the truck as we made our way back home. Definitely good times.”
Now that she is in the leadership position, with two children of her own to care for, Audrey feels the best way to honor her dad is by doing what he had always admonished as she grew: Be true to your customers; be true to yourself. Part of fulfilling that mandate involved modernizing her business for maximum efficiency in a competitive 21st century marketplace. That means the oceanic array of traditional furnishings —including such esteemed and trusted names as Rowe, American Woodcrafters, Catnapper, Palm Springs Rattan and Paramount, to name a few — as well as media centers, youth furniture, bedding, outdoor furniture and even the area rugs that populate her circa-35,000 sq. ft. facility is broadly diverse yet unified by its easy availability to the middle-class budget. It’s where their “Stylishly affordable” slogan comes from. Speaking of stylish, Audrey encourages her customers to avail themselves of Holt Furnishings’ free design services, where either she or one of her talented on-staff designers will go to your home to conceptualize and execute the maximum potential of your space.
“We’re doing so many fun things with fabrics, patterns and colors; we just want people to see the interesting possibilities.”
The interesting possibilities are also abounding in Holt’s accessories collection, which can be found not only adorning the showroom’s numerous vignettes but also on Audrey’s kitschy-cool 15-ft. lifeguard stand. When you’re there, you’ll see everything from nautically themed accent tables and lamps to all sorts of tabletop accessories and much, much more.
“Accessories often make the room,” Audrey declared, “so I made sure I had an array of accessories for every room of the house and at every price point.”
Same goes for the wall art and standing art that Audrey has meticulously acquired. Thoughtful showpieces and conversation items that range from canvas paintings, metal art, driftwood and other accent mirrors to sculptures, statuettes, wood-carved sailboats and decorative clocks are all available at a variety of sizes and prices.
Make sure, though, that you don’t conclude your business at Holt without looking in on the gift section, which includes a panoply of spa products, beach products, baby gifts, candles, nautically themed gifts and even jewelry.
“We have traditional necklaces, statement necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings, along with a ton of beautiful quilts and placemats,” Audrey said.
When all is said and done, it’s clear that there is much to see at Holt Furnishings that is brand-new, while other things have remained steadfastly unchanged.
“The best advice I ever received was from my dad, when I was preparing to take over and run the store for him,” Audrey said. “I was a little nervous about the responsibility he was entrusting to me, and I told him that. He said that any decision I make is the right one as long as it allows me to sleep peacefully at night.”
So, now, Audrey sleeps peacefully at night… just like she did while blanketed under the yellow-orange glow of passing highway lights as a white Ford delivery truck made its way home.
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