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University Pickers: Finding Their (Re)purpose

Trish Gleason remembers the moment she knew she would own University Pickers. A couple had opened the business, and Trish and her sister, Cindi Pope, had a booth in the store. Trish was helping out on opening day, standing by the archway between the front and back of the store.

“I heard … God say, ‘This is going to be yours one day,’ ” Trish said. “I wish I had told Cindi at that moment because I had this confused look on my face. … Within four months they mentioned it to me that they might have to leave town … and asked us if we would like to purchase it.”

The whole idea was foreign to Trish and Cindi. They started with a small booth in the store, known for its hand-crafted goods and furniture. Trish built headboards and other home decor from reclaimed doors while Cindi made jewelry to fill their space.

Owning a store like University Pickers had never even crossed Trish’s mind before that opening day experience in the middle of the store. Still, in a twist of fate, it was only one month later the couple who owned the store learned one of their jobs required them to relocate.

That was four years ago.

In the short time the sisters have owned the store, University Pickers has turned into the go-to spot for custom furniture and antiques. You’d be hard-pressed to find a reasonably priced, solid-wood, no-veneer piece of furniture anywhere else. Things just aren’t built the way they used to be. But you can head into University Pickers and find an array of items with dove-tail joints and hand-carved details. Things that have stood the test of time but still have a lot of life in them.

Cindi lives in Memphis, but she comes to Huntsville one week a month to help with the administrative side of the business. The sisters’ personalities complement each other—Trish is the face of the company while Cindi stays focused on the bookkeeping.

Family Traditions

Trish and Cindi’s first taste of repurposing came from their mother. She grew up poor, the oldest of nine children who often lived without indoor plumbing and carried that frugality into adulthood—even when she could afford newer things. She stripped and refinished furniture, spray painted home decor and mixed antiques with modern items so her home “always looked like Better Homes and Gardens,” Cindi said.

“One thing I remember specifically, … she had a huge wall of windows and couldn’t find a curtain rod long enough that wasn’t a bazillion dollars,” Trish said. “She went and got PVC pipe and painted it and put finials on the end of it. … She was always doing stuff like that—shopping thrift stores and flea markets and making it look finer by the accessories that she put with it.”

Those practices are commonplace now, but Trish and Cindi’s mother did them 20 years ago—long before Pinterest gave us easy access to crafty ideas.

Trish’s foray into crafts and carpentry began when she saw a headboard made from reclaimed wood online and decided to make one for herself. She posted the photo on Facebook and soon learned a lot of people loved her creation.

Cindi, a self-taught jeweler who learned her skills from Youtube tutorials, had a tin of old buttons her husband’s grandmother handed down to her.

“They were so beautiful,” Cindi said. “I thought, ‘I can’t get rid of these. I’m going to hang on to them.’ So, I ended up making jewelry out of the buttons. Then I started realizing people liked them, and I sold them.”

As Trish and Cindi talk about their lives, a list starts to emerge of new things they’ve done, skills they’ve acquired and techniques they have researched just because they saw something they liked and decided to figure out how to do it themselves. That can-do attitude comes from their parents.

“If they wanted to do something, they just dug in and did it,” Cindi said. “We had that example of our parents just kind of making do with what they had and just trying it. Sometimes there’s a failure, and sometimes there’s something awesome.”

You Run Your Railroad

It’s ironic that a business based on antiques has to stay ahead of the trends, but it’s something Trish and Cindi work towards every day. No one taught them the ins and outs of running a business based around repurposed furniture, largely because this type of business didn’t exist a decade ago.

On top of the usual small-business lessons, they had to learn how to get great vendors and how to keep those vendors happy enough they would stay at University Pickers.

“I think we stay focused on what we are doing, so we don’t really look at what other people are saying or thinking about us,” Cindi said. “We just do what we need to do to make our vendors successful.”

Trish and Cindi are overwhelmingly humble. They don’t go around bragging on their store or the fact that they own their own business. In fact, someone came up to Trish’s husband a while back and told him that an older, married couple owned University Pickers. He didn’t correct them, just because they like to stay so focused on their own work instead of arguing with people about company ownership.

“Our dad always taught us, ‘You run your railroad, let them run theirs, and you’ll stay on track,’” Trish said.

The repurposing industry shows no sign of slowing down. More and more people are looking for unique, quality items for their homes.

“I think our customers, too, are looking back at a simpler time or what they think is a less-complicated world, and they’re attracted to having those things in our home,” Cindi said.

So, if you want a taste of the good ol’ days in your home or you’re looking for a piece of furniture that will last another 100 years, check out University Pickers.

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