Business case study: The Door Store’s long life had a surprising opening, and some big swings
In 1953 a consignment of hundreds of hollow-core doors failed to meet a New York City buyer’s specification. Several enterprising young people in their 20s realized that buying the non-standard doors at $1 apiece was an unusual opportunity. They purchased the consignment and started a business in Greenwich Village building metal legs that would turn the doors into inexpensive tables and desks. The Door Store was born.
One of those young people, Natalia Karpovich, decided five years later to move the business to Cambridge, where she grew up as the daughter of renowned Russian scholar and Harvard professor Michael Karpovich. It moved in next to The Garage in Harvard Square – a working garage at that time. In 1971, the store moved to its current location at 940 Massachusetts Ave., Riverside.
More than 50 years later Andrew Anisimov, the son of Natalia Karpovich and Oleg Anisimov, runs the business, which still specializes in made-to-order tables and desks. With hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory, including attractive wooden tops that can pair with separate legs of various kinds, and with a full workshop in the basement, the company offers customers a wide choice of styles and finishes, including one-of-a-kind items such as custom shelving and kitchen islands.
The Door Store has been part of Anisimov’s life since he was born – the same year the business began. He has vague memories of the Harvard Square location, he said during a March 29 interview at the store, and began working there as a teenager on a variety of tasks, such as assembling hundreds of chairs. Anisimov stopped to attend college, where he was a devoted hockey player, but returned and became the store’s full-time manager in the early 1980s, a job he continued for more than 20 years.
The store has seen many changes over the decades. In the 1970s, “everything was butcher block,” Anisimov said. Then “cherry wood had a good long run,” but walnut is now more popular than cherry. Years ago, the store sold fabric but “all of that dried up in the 1980s,” which was also when many family businesses came to an end and suppliers became “conglomerized.” At one time, there were about a dozen furniture stores in the area (“it used to be furniture alley here,” he said), but few are left. Products got upgrades over time; for example, wood veneer tabletops are now banded in solid wood so they cannot peel or chip along the edges.
The dot-com bubble between 1995 and March 2000, when the Nasdaq composite stock index rose 400 percent then fell precipitously, were the store’s best years. There were as many as a dozen employees; on a busy Saturday, there would be five salespeople on the floor. “There were what seemed to me to be kids coming in here and ordering 25 tables at a time,” Anisimov said. “They were doing these start-ups. And they would call us a few months later and order a bunch more tables. Eventually some of them called us up and said, ‘Can you buy these back?’ That was after the bubble burst.”
For decades September was the store’s best month, as new people moved into Cambridge. When housing became more expensive in Cambridge and harder to find, the peak moved into August as, Anisimov speculates, newcomers began coming early to rent or buy, then left for a month or two before returning to take possession in September. “You couldn’t just show up and find a place,” he said. “In fact, we’ve had that blip once or twice in July.” April has always been the low point of the annual cycle.
Retail business shut down in 2020 due to Covid, and the future seemed ominous – but more people also began working from home. When Ikea and Wayfair sold out, The Door Store was selling desks “hand over fist.” As the pandemic persisted, “I was prepared to put in some of my own money to keep the store going,” Anisimov said, “but it wasn’t necessary.” Through various Covid-relief programs, the store got about $100,000 in forgivable loans to help carry on past the crisis.
Through it all there have been constants. Word-of-mouth has always been important to the business, which never spent much on advertising. Also, “the tables and desks are still the engine that drives this store,” Anisimov said.
Many customers are loyal for years, and as past customers aged and downsized, “we used to do a lot of deliveries to assisted-living places,“ he said. “And we’re still doing that.”
Dawn Leate became manager in 2009. Like Anisimov, she values the time she first spent doing various other jobs at the store. “I think it’s hard to manage the store if you don’t know it well. I had the foundation of the production end and by now I have a pretty decent rhythm knowing what to order and when.” Mario Davila is another core employee who, with Leate, has modernized the business with new, better tools for the workshop. “They’re amazing,” Anisimov said of the two.
A defining spirit
Leate and Anisimov are concerned about the recent removal of a dozen parking spaces nearby, plus four more that used to be two-hour meters but now are for only 15 minutes. “We’re still in a little bit of shock after this big change,” Anisimov said.
With all area businesses now relying on two loading zones, whether for contractors or restaurants getting deliveries, “we often don’t have access to the loading zone we always had access to,” Leate said. Business is down about 10 percent compared with a year earlier, but how much of that is due to parking changes is still unknown. A few customers have strapped small tables onto their bicycles, “and that’s a sight I’ll never forget,” Leate said.
Anisimov’s mother, Natalia Karpovich, was an independent-minded woman, “a spitfire,” Leate said. In the early 1970s Karpovich met regularly with other like-minded women on the third floor of the Massachusetts Avenue building housing The Door Store. Several of those women wrote the chapter on menopause that appeared in the 1973 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a feminist classic that sold millions of copies. Anisimov and Leate often think of Karpovich’s personality and business savvy, which were essential to creating and building the store’s long-lived business.