BOONSBORO — Inside the old brick building on Boonsboro's Main Street where generations of local families have gone for furniture, for friendly conversation, and, in the old days, even for funerals, employees have been quietly informing customers of a difficult decision.
This summer, after celebrating its 174th anniversary, Bast of Boonsboro, believed by the proprietor to be the oldest continually operating furniture store in Maryland, will close.
"Mr. Bast has operated the store for a long period of time, and has been considering retiring, and the economy has just helped to make that decision a little easier," store manager Kim Teska said.
For owner Douglas G. Bast, 74, who also operates a neighboring history museum, a passion for preserving heritage has made the decision all the more harrowing.
"I just hate to see something like this close, but you have to face up to it: It just doesn't work out anymore," Bast said during a recent interview in the store's showroom.
The store has survived hard times before, but a combination of a poor economy and changing culture have convinced Bast there is no way forward from here.
"The younger set, when they are interested in furniture, they go to the computer and they, you know, find out who has what," Bast said. "They don't really look for furniture that's going to last a long time. They say, 'Well, gee, if it only lasts three or four years, I'll be interested in something new by that time, anyway.'"
Bast of Boonsboro will begin a going-out-of-business sale on April 29, will accept special orders through the third week of May, and has set July 1 as its anticipated closing date, Teska said.
"Most often when businesses are closing, it's usually on a poor note, and they're not in a position with their vendors or whomever to continue business," she said. "We are not in that position ... and we want to have the opportunity to allow our customers to get the merchandise, the traditional, quality furnishings that they would like to have, before we close."
The start of the sale coincides with the first weekend in May, when the store has traditionally celebrated its anniversary each year.
Cabinets and coffins
John Christian Brining started the business in 1837 as a cabinetmaker's shop that also sold coffins.
"You see, before the Civil War, people frowned upon embalming bodies, and so when somebody would die you would go to the cabinet shop and they would simply make you a coffin," Bast said.
After the Civil War, there was a surge in undertaking and embalming because soldiers did not want to be buried in what they considered a foreign land and wished to have their bodies shipped home, he said.
And so, when Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland Jr. was killed during the Battle of South Mountain in 1862, cabinetmaker Brining went to the battlefield, made the general a coffin, embalmed his body, and arranged to ship him home, Bast said.
Brining, a Confederate sympathizer, headed the militia in Boonsboro before the war, but had to leave it when the war started because of his Southern sympathies, Bast said.
"Over in the museum I have his original Confederate flag," he said.
The Bast of Boonsboro showroom still displays an ornate walnut hall piece — a mirrored stand for umbrellas, hats and coats — crafted by Brining the same year he embalmed Garland.
From apprentice to owner
John Christian Brining died in 1881 and passed the business down to his son, John Calhoun Brining.
About seven years later, Bast's grandfather, William F. Bast, came from Frederick County, Md., to apprentice under Brining for three years.
"He received $100 and free food and lodging for that period," Bast said.
After his apprenticeship ended, William Bast returned to Frederick County, but the Brinings, who had taken him under their wing, invited him back to work in Boonsboro.
Bast went on to become a partner in the business. A sign from that era, bearing the name Brining & Bast Furniture and Undertaking is on display in Douglas Bast's Boonsborough Museum of History along with many of the shop's early woodworking tools.
In 1908, William Bast bought out the other half of the partnership. When he died, he passed the business down to his sons, John H. Bast and Gerald D. Bast.
Douglas, Gerald's son, apprenticed as a mortician in the 1950s, but both he and his father preferred working with furniture to embalming bodies.
"So it worked out that he and I took the furniture business," while John and his son took the funeral home when they decided to divide the two in 1964, Bast said.
That funeral home became Bast-Stouffer Funeral Home when Douglas Stouffer and his family acquired it after the 2007 death of John H. Bast Jr.
The site where Bast of Boonsboro stands today is the same spot the business has always occupied, but the original building was replaced in the 1920s, Bast said.
Bast's grandfather collected used bricks, piled them outside the store, and, when business was slow, the store's employees went to work cleaning the bricks and, eventually, constructing a new brick store closer to the road than the original, he said.
"And when business was off again, he never laid anybody off; he built houses," Bast said.
Another side venture for the business occurred in the 1960s, when Douglas Bast decided to open a gift store in the shop and, driven by his love for unusual things, stocked it with exotic items he ordered from a company in India.
Those shipments included small pipes that proved especially popular, and when customers began asking for screens for the pipes, Bast realized they weren't being purchased as knickknacks.
"I learned then that the gift shop had really turned into a head shop," he said.
In the early 1980s, when the business hit another rough spot, Bast thought the end of the furniture business was in sight.
At various times, Bast sold antiques in the store and it housed an art gallery where original works were sold.
"I went off to auctioneering school and became an auctioneer, and I thought, ‘well, I can convert this building into an auction house,'" Bast said. "Then things kind of increased and improved, and I didn't have to do that."
This time around, Bast is not expecting a recovery. He said he is no longer up for running an auction house, but has considered moving his museum into the Bast of Boonsboro building.
For employees and customers alike, adjusting to the idea of Boonsboro without Bast furniture has been difficult.
"I cried," said bookkeeper Conda Slick, who has worked at the store for 22 years. "I still cry, because it's like it's a part of the town, and so many businesses that are unique have gone by the wayside."
Bast of Boonsboro has five full-time and five part-time employees, some of whom have been with the store more than 30 years, Teska said.
"This is a family business, and even for those that work here that are not truly blood family, they are considered family," she said.
The Bast furniture tradition is generational for customers as well as owners.
"They lived in a household that was full of Bast furniture, and they come here because, hey, Mom did it, Grandma did it, and it's like, 'That's what I'd like to do,'" Slick said.
One couple, longtime Bast customers, upon hearing that the business was closing, came in a few days later to buy a dining room suite for their son and several pieces of furniture for their daughter, Teska said.
"They wanted them to have furniture from Bast, which I thought was pretty kind," she said. "That speaks volumes to me, actually."
Another cherished customer Teska called to notify was the author Nora Roberts, who furnished about 90 percent of her literary-romance-themed bed and breakfast, Inn Boonsboro, with items from Bast of Boonsboro.
Roberts said she is always impressed with the store's variety and selection and staff's willingness to go to great lengths to help her find the custom pieces she envisions.
"We've had such a good relationship," Roberts said. "Everyone in the business has been amazing to work with."
Roberts said she planned to order bedroom furniture for her grandchildren before the store closes.
"My heart is broken," she said.