By Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
WILKES-BARRE — As the economy shows signs of improvement, people are buying high-end furniture again and Bell Home Furnishings in downtown Wilkes-Barre is expanding.
Bell Home Furnishings, which has been in business downtown for 55 years, now has a leather furniture gallery with American-made top grain cowhide in the former Army/Navy store next door on the second block of South Main Street.
“There’s a big demand for top grain cowhide and real leather,” James Bellezza, president of Bell Home Furnishings.
Other improvements also have been made to the former Army/Navy store that closed last year. One section inside includes home office furniture, and another includes motion furniture that reclines and home theater furnishings.
The new location has expanded inventory including brands such as Bassett and an HGTV system that allows people to design their own sofas and beds.
“You can pick and choose a style sofa, change it and put the fabrics on,” said Mark Lomando, manager, and Mr. Bellezza’s nephew, who has worked for the business for the last 30 years.
Mr. Bellezza purchased the former Army/Navy store for $159,000 and parking lot for $154,000. He declined to say how much he invested in renovations. It took about nine months to complete the improvements.
“We found the need downtown and we just wanted to expand our business. We’ve been very busy,” he said. “The downtown needs more retail. The more retail you get, the better your downtown is.”
Mr. Bellezza’s father started the business in Hazleton in 1948. When Bell Home Furnishings started on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre in 1960, it began with one floor and has increased to multiple floors of furnishings arranged by different categories.
Its original location on South Main Street also has been remodeled and features bedroom sets on the second floor, dining rooms on the lower floor and sofas on the main floor.
“Dinettes are new. Everything from the lighting to the carpeting was changed,” Mr. Lomando said. “Most of our upholstery is customizable. It is domestic.”
While other stores sell furniture made offshore and cheaper ready-to-assemble furniture, Mr. Lomando said Bell Home Furnishings sells high-end dining room sets made of wood that he said will last for more than 25 years.
People are now looking to buy higher-quality, American-made furniture since the economy and home sales have been improving, he said.
“People are tired of buying a sofa, having it three years and having it fall apart,” he said. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the furniture made overseas. They want something that’s better-made. They’re willing to spend a little bit more money for it.”
Consumer spending has increased in both 2014 and 2015 and there are other signs that the economy has been improving, according to Teri Ooms, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development.
“More people are working, there was a slight increase in wages, and statistics are demonstrating the people are not saving money from lower gas prices, they are spending it,” Ms. Ooms said. “Given those factors, we are likely to see modest increases in spending continue through 2016.”
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership that helps promote downtown Wilkes-Barre businesses, said while he has heard news reports about the recession finally being over, he puts credence in observations by long-time business owners like Mr. Bellezza, who have a ringside view of consumers’ willingness to spend and are seeing it in the cash registers.
“The quantitative data on the growth of the economy is one thing, but the qualitative observations from retailers is really a sign that pocketbooks are, at least in many cases, getting full enough that people are willing to spend more than they had been on certain types of consumer purchases,” Mr. Newman said.
Mr. Newman said Mr. Bellezza has been a stalwart in downtown Wilkes-Barre for decades and has operated his business during some “very dark times.”
“The fact that he is now expanding Bell Home Furnishings into the second building and has made a sizable investment in his properties is a real vote of confidence both in the state of his business and the state of downtown Wilkes-Barre,” he said.
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