Saying goodbye to a Washington institution
Published 6:22 pm Thursday, January 23, 2020
I’m writing this from the couch Billy Jefferson sold to me. Note that I didn’t say the couch I bought from Billy Jefferson. You’ll see the difference later.
You know who Mr. Billy was if you’ve spent more than five minutes on Main Street, reading this newspaper or watching a local show on television. He, like his ads, were hard to miss.
Now, we all will miss him a lot. Mr. Billy died Sunday at home after a year-long bout with lung cancer at the age of 87. He leaves behind his wife of almost 68 years, DeVere, son Bill, Jr. who will continue guiding the Big Bargain Furniture operation after running it with his dad for some years now, along with daughter Ginger and son Jeff.
My friend Ray Midgett, the president of the Historic Port of Washington Project did a video interview with Mr. Billy that you can see at hpow.org. Go to Links and click on Billy Jefferson Interview. It’s a fascinating look at how he opened Big Bargain Furniture when he was in his mid-20’s and built it from the ground up into a thriving business that has customers throughout the East, including me.
My wife and I moved from Raleigh in the summer of 2019. Our house there held three couches, even though it wasn’t that big. One had seen better days, so we donated it. Another made it through the front door of our new home here but couldn’t go any further. My wife decided the front hall was no place for a couch, so we gave it to one of the movers.
The remaining sofa was the newest of the three, so we thought we were okay. Then it started to peel. After a couple of weeks of sweeping flakes off the floor, it was time to go shopping.
One of us was thoroughly frustrated with the terrible turn of events (guess which one) and gummed up the process at every opportunity.
I had enjoyed talking with Mr. Billy on many previous occasions while he was sitting in one of the rocking chairs outside his store and I was wandering along Main Street getting to know my new community. He told me great stories of the past and how the town had changed, so we decided to make him our first stop.
He let us look around without being intrusive, while telling us about various manufacturers and the differences in fabric and craftsmanship.
I, of course, was focused on value and wanted one that wouldn’t fall apart for a decent price. With some guidance, we found one we liked, but it was over our budget. We haggled a bit but couldn’t come to terms.
Since it wasn’t Mr. Billy’s first day, he knew how this was going to go and told us to look around at other stores and wished us luck.
I was walking past his store at least two weeks later, maybe longer, and he was sitting outside talking to my neighbor.
“Found your couch yet?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I replied. “It’s sitting in your store, but you won’t sell it to me.”
Mr. Billy paused a moment, then recalled the exact figure at which our negotiation from weeks ago had ended. He sighed and said “Look, I need to sell something today. My son’s out of town, so don’t tell him, but I’ll give it to you for this much” and named a price.
I demurred, so he sighed again and looked at my neighbor. “I get the feeling that your friend here (meaning me) is close with his money, is that right?”
We all busted up laughing and the deal was closed.
Every time I saw him after that, he always asked how we liked our couch.
RIP Mr. Billy. We miss you already.