SALISBURY — Melonie Beaver still remembers the first time she saw blue Christmas ornaments.
As a girl attending a Christmas show for wholesalers with her parents in New York, Beaver was shocked at the bold, blue departure from traditional red, green and gold holiday colors.
Now, Beaver runs a 40,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse on Interstate 85 at Peeler Road that sells not only blue ornaments but Christmas decor in every shade from turquoise to periwinkle, as well as hundreds of other colors.
Piedmont Floral Galleries, owned and operated by the Rufty family for more than 60 years, has transitioned from wholesale to retail. Now open to the public year-round, the business run by the former Melonie Rufty, her husband Brad Beaver and her mother Barbara Rufty specializes in unique Christmas decorations, high-end artificial trees and greenery and custom floral design.
Just the amount and variety of ribbon in the store will boggle your mind.
“People come in here and they can’t believe it,” Melonie Beaver said. “They almost hyperventilate.”
Housed in a former furniture store, the gallery takes advantage of built-in nooks and crannies — and plenty of electrical outlets — throughout the 17,000-square-foot showroom to create room-like settings that people can recreate when they get home.
The gallery features 40 Christmas trees loaded with ornaments and garland and topped with everything from fanciful peacock feathers to elegant angels.
Beaver has created more than a dozen vignettes throughout the showroom using three basic building blocks — a coordinated tree, wreath and swag — to display different themes and color combinations, including this year’s hit, purple and taupe. Mantles collected over the years often provide a focal point.
“Women are very visual,” Melonie Beaver said. “They have to be able to imagine it in their own home.”
Beaver said many customers start decorating for Christmas in October and have a tree in every room.
“Most of our people are Christmas fanatics,” she said.
The transition from wholesale to retail wasn’t easy, the Beavers said. After five years in retail, the gallery, which also offers supplies and decor for weddings and other holidays, still struggles to spread the word that customers no longer need tax number to shop.
Retail is a completely different animal, Brad Beaver said.
Wholesalers rarely advertise and stay under the radar so they don’t have to turn away public customers, he said. Retailers do just the opposite, finding every way possible to attract customers and announce their hours and location.
As a wholesaler, the gallery purchased products in bulk, making a small profit on each item but selling vast quantities. Now, as a retailer, the gallery buys smaller amounts of a greater variety of goods and earns a larger margin on fewer sales.
“We are trying to overcome our reputation as a wholesaler,” Brad Beaver said. “People still ask if they need a tax number.”
The biggest challenge has been learning how to advertise — what to say and when to say it.
The gallery still sells wholesale to interior designers, but the garden supply wholesale business has all but dried up. Garden centers were Piedmont’s bread and butter when the company was know as Piedmont Garden Supply.
Melonie Beaver’s father, Harold Rufty, supplied garden centers and convinced many to carry Christmas decor.
That was before Walmart and Lowe’s.
The domination of big box stores and changes to the structure of the wholesale industry forced Piedmont to begin dabbling in retail in 2002.
Wholesale customers didn’t approve of the change, so Piedmont tried to keep the retail area separate. But the industry was changing, and merchandise shows once only open to wholesalers became free-for-alls.
“We would go to Atlanta shows and start rubbing shoulders with our customers,” Brad Beaver said.
Then, textile mills began to close, and the local economy tanked. Gradually, the family went all in for retail.
“We started seeing less and less wholesalers coming in the front door,” Beaver said.
The company fought its way through the Great Recession.
From 2005 to 2009, sales fell 30 percent. The decline has stopped, but sales have not recovered to pre-recession levels, Beaver said.
He declined to share annual revenue figures.
With four full-time and five part-time employees, the gallery offers personal attention and second-to-none customer service, the Beavers said.
“We stand behind the product,” Melonie Beaver said.
Employees have many years of experience in design and decorating and can help a customer match existing decor, create a custom piece and meet a budget, Beaver said.
“Like any small business, the best thing we have to offer is service and quality,” Brad Beaver said.
The gallery includes Rufty’s Chrismon Shop and Rufty’s Christian Symbol Kits, worldwide suppliers of materials, designs and kits for the gold-and-white beaded Christian ornaments popular during Advent. Many church groups make chrismons each year as a Bible study activity, and people fly in from across the country to attend workshops at the gallery.
Melonie Beaver and her mother come up with new designs every year, which are copyrighted.
Beaver’s son Addison Beaver does all the graphics for the chrismon design books that Rufty’s publishes annually. With training in drafting, mechanical engineering, video game development and simulation, he also handles all website and graphics responsibilities for the gallery.
He started at a young age in the business, just like his mom.
As a child, Melonie Beaver sold almanacs for 25 cents and Easter biddies (dyed chicks) outside O.O. Rufty’s in downtown Salisbury, which was founded by her grandfather in 1905.
Her father, one of five Rufty sons, founded Piedmont Garden Supply when he returned from World War II. When sales fell after the gardening season, he started selling Christmas merchandise wholesale to the same garden center customers.
Originally located in the basement of O.O. Rufty’s, the company moved to a three-story building on the corner of North Main and West Liberty streets.
When the Furniture House at I-85 and Peeler Road went bankrupt, Rowan County bought the property and in 1990 swapped it for the Piedmont Garden Supply building, which is now the county jail.
The store is still located at 280 Furniture Drive.
Melonie Beaver said the best part of her job is buying merchandise and finding new ways to display products every year. She buys from a variety of vendors and then combines the merchandise in unexpected ways.
For Beaver, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Oregon, where she studied fiber art and ancient art history, everything comes back to color. The store is organized by hue, from the stems of silk flowers to the $300 custom-made wreaths.
Some of this year’s color combinations include copper with burnished gold, orange with bronze, and nearly any color with champagne.
And if you were wondering what color is hot this year for ornaments, Beaver can tell you.
“Taupe is the new silver,” she said.
Or the new blue.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
Piedmont Floral Galleries
Where: 280 Furniture Drive, Salisbury
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, year-round. Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays now through Dec. 15.
Who: Owned and operated by the Rufty and Beaver families
Why: Wholesale since the 1960s, the business has transitioned to retail in the past five years and is open to the public
How: For floral gallery, 704-636-7739. For Rufty’s Chrismon Shop, 704-636-7790.
Perk: Free tea, coffee and homemade pound cake every day.
Get there: Take I-85 to the Peeler Road exit. Drive past the Wilco truck stop and turn left on Furniture Drive (sign says “truck entrance.”) The gallery will be on your right at the end of the road.
Go here: www.piedmontfloralgalleries.com, www.chrismons.com, www.christiansymbolkits.com