Every Saturday at 2 p.m., Michael Oliver heads up a steep, rickety set of stairs, down a walkway, past neatly organized loveseats, to a workshop tucked away on the top floor of Skillman Furniture. Planks of wood are stacked up in the corner next to a long workbench with a few tools lying on it. A row of empty, decorative beer bottles line the counter behind the bench.
Since the late 1970s, Oliver has worked at the family business he now owns. He heads up to his workshop just after closing up early for the weekend. He doesn’t want to miss “The Moth,” his favorite NPR show. He turns on the radio and listens as he cuts wood to assemble into bookcases, stopping only to switch to a music channel when “The Moth” is over.
Oliver enjoys his routine in the family store that has been in business for more than a century. Skillman Furniture dates back to the 1800s, but the Skillman name in Princeton goes back further than that – perhaps to a time before America was even founded.
“From what I understand, it started as a stagecoach line between I think Trenton and Philadelphia. I found pieces of wagons up in the warehouse,” Oliver says. “Every once in a while, we get a phone call asking us if we’ve been in business longer than the country has existed. We can’t prove that though.”
Nowadays, Oliver runs Skillman Furniture at 212 Alexander Street, with occasional help from his wife and son. Skillman Furniture sells secondhand pieces of furniture to people from the Princeton area. University students have been coming to the store every fall for decades to buy discounted couches, chairs and other dorm room furniture.
Over the last several years, the university offered to buy houses and the properties of businesses on Alexander Street as part of the school’s expansion plans. Larini’s and every other business Princeton University officials approached eventually sold their properties — except for Skillman Furniture. Oliver was not reserved in explaining why he refused to sell: “They pissed me off with all the stuff they were trying to do here. It wasn’t the university so much; it was one guy in particular who was the project manager.”
Oliver claims a project manager promised to take care of any nuisances on the Skillman Furniture property that occurred because of the nearby construction of the new Dinky train station and arts neighborhood. It never happened, he says. Work on the new parking lot next door kicked up dust and dirt that clung to the side of the store, eventually becoming so thick that Oliver had to use a power washer to get it off. Next, the university knocked down a fence that was technically on the university’s newly-purchased land. They replaced it with a row of trees, which inevitably led to a pile of leaves in Oliver’s side-yard on windy days. Oliver claims the university never cleaned them up until he told them to.
“The guy from the real estate department told Princeton at one point, ‘I’m not even gonna talk to (Skillman Furniture) until this project is done because you keep making them mad and I have to agree with them,’” Oliver says. “The university was stepping on our toes.”
Oliver eventually got the project manager to agree to put up a new fence on his side of the property. The university told Oliver they would give him the funds to hire a contractor because they didn’t want to be liable if something happened to the property. That seemed to be the end of the story, until Oliver glanced at a picture of Roy Skillman, his grandfather and one of the store’s former owners, that hung over the kitchen table. All of a sudden, he remembered a piece of advice Roy once gave him. “He said, ‘Don’t ever take a purchase order from Princeton University, cause it takes forever to get your money.’ I turned around, walked back into the office, called his office and said, ‘No, you hire the guy and you pay the guy.’”
Even if Oliver didn’t have issues with the university’s construction process, he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t sell the business for what the school offered him.
“They’re looking at it as the property, the value of the property,” Oliver says. “I’m looking at it as, if you didn’t do this project, I would just be going along on my merry way. If I sell, that’s the end of Skillman Furniture. There’s not enough money in it anymore. So you have to compensate me for the business end of it too.”
Besides, Oliver’s perfectly happy as he is.
“I don’t know what it’s worth, but I’m not ready to retire yet anyway,” he says.
Its not clear what the long-term future holds for Skillman Furniture. Oliver is in his early 60s. His mom, Vivian, who used to help out around the store, just retired at age 90. Both of Oliver’s kids have other plans.
“I don’t think they would take it. My daughter is set and James, my son, is doing computer programming and robotics,” Oliver says. “Unless he builds a robot that can move furniture, I’ll just hang out as long as I can.”
He seems content with that. His next project is to convert the second floor of Skillman’s offices, which are separate from the building that houses all the furniture, into an apartment so he can sell his place in Lawrenceville and live there full-time. Maybe he’ll even have more free time to make bookcases, his favorite leisure activity.
And when retirement day finally comes, Oliver will put the property up on the market, although he’s already pretty sure who the buyer will be. “The university is going to outbid everyone else, but at least then I’ll know I got a fair market price for it,” he says.
Until that day, that property will be Skillman Furniture, just like its been for more than a century. And on Saturdays, the sounds of power tools and NPR will continue drifting out of the shed’s second-floor window.
At a time when the Internet, Route 1 and chain stores compete for customers, some locally-owned businesses have staying power. This story is the first feature in a series about longtime independent businesses in the Princeton area.