Birney Imes: Finishing touch

August 1, 2009 10:36:00 PM

Birney Imes - birney@cdispatch.com

 

Friday afternoon Raymond Griggs sits on an empty five-gallon lacquer thinner can under twin 100-year-old red oaks. The trees shade a corner of the Quonset hut where he has refinished and repaired antique furniture for more than a quarter of a century. 

 

Griggs, a tall, soft-spoken black man, moves with a grace and elegance seemingly at odds with this inelegant setting. Yet somehow the picture makes sense; after all, this is a world of his making, where he, working alone, has plied his trade these years. The can he sits on is one of many scattered on the bare ground behind the building. For his guest, Griggs brings out a recently refurbished upholstered chair, roughly the same vintage as the oak trees. 

 

The building, once the home of a Case tractor dealership, looks like an oversized, half-buried metal culvert with a brick facade on each end. It is crammed with tangles of chairs, sideboards, pie safes, all waiting to be brought back to life by Griggs'' healing touch. Amid the heat, dust and clutter of the shop, he has carved out a workspace for two sawhorses and his trusty companion, a transistor radio.  

 

Like many in the South, the 61-year-old Griggs has stayed close to his roots. The house he''s lived in since he was 7 sits next to St. Matthew M.B. Church where he is a trustee. His shop is little more than a mile to the east. And Griggs was working in a building across the road from his home when he chanced upon his life''s work. 

 

There in the mid-70s he was employed by Tommy Howard, a Pepsi Cola bottler. One day Howard''s wife, Genie, needed help stripping paint in Hamilton Hall, their antebellum home. Howard sent Griggs to assist. Soon, Genie Howard, Griggs and Marvin Cole were running The Strip Shop out of a warehouse on Southside. 

 

"None of us knew what we were doing," said Griggs of those early days. "It was great." 

 

In 1976 Howard sold The Strip Shop to Cole and opened Hamilton Hall, an antiques and interior decorating business. The refinishing business couldn''t support two people, and a year later, after moving to its present location on the Island, Cole sold to Griggs. 

 

Griggs says he enjoys the paint stripping most, doors, furniture and once the inside of a mobile home. "We do it the old-fashioned way, by hand," he says. "We paint it on and take it off." 

 

The "we" Griggs refers to is himself. "Working alone is the only way to go," he says. "The more people, the more problems you''ve got." 

 

A tour of his shop reveals challenges requiring a range of skills. 

 

A gilt mirror from Mississippi State awaits plaster of Paris detailing. A wood chest needs a filigree made from seasoned walnut Griggs keeps on hand. There''s even a piano. 

 

When questioned about a crudely made cedar chest requiring complete disassembly and regluing, Griggs answers, "It has sentimental value; it was his daddy''s."  

 

Griggs says the down economy hasn''t affected his business; if anything, it''s helped. "Most people are trying to preserve what they have." 

 

Few have the patience to acquire the skills and knowledge he has attained through years of exacting trial and error, Griggs says. "They want the money and they''re gone," he says. Yet for Griggs the money has come.  

 

"It''s been good," he says of the business. "It''s helped put two kids through eight years of college." 

 

The kids are Quintrelle and Quintelle, twins who were co-valedictorians of Columbus High, Class of ''95. Together still, they live in Richmond, Texas, where one works as a computer engineer, the other as an industrial engineer. When the girls lived at home, Griggs said they could be in different rooms and know what the other was thinking. "It was frightening," he said. 

 

Griggs has done all manner of jobs for Frank Loftis, who owns historic properties and sells antique and contemporary furniture. 

 

"He''s really unique," Loftis says of Griggs. "I''ve relied on him for years." 

 

Loftis is particularly appreciative of the role Griggs played in the 1990 restoration of the Elks Club building on Main Street. 

 

Over the years the oak inlays on the walls had been painted white. Windows, doors and trim needed attention as well. "Raymond stripped that entire building." said Loftis. The job, says Griggs, took four months. 

 

"He always did a great job," said Loftis. "But, he would never let you watch him, especially the way he mixed his stains." 

 

When asked about Loftis'' comment, Griggs laughed. "You don''t give your secrets away. That''s the whole idea, keeping something for yourself and at the same time giving something to others."  

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.