As I step through the doors of The Furniture Connector in South End, Rodney Hines greets me with all the warm familiarity of an old friend. A playful, sincere enthusiasm sparkles behind his blue eyes, and it's not hard to imagine how Hines has managed to be successful.
"As soon as people walk in, I make sure to let them know that if they're not here to enjoy a fun experience, then they probably shouldn't be here at all," he says.
Hailing from Hickory, Hines co-owns The Furniture Connector and High Cotton Home, two successful furniture stores located in one neighborhood. He spent years working in retailing and manufacturing before deciding he was destined to be a "retail queen." Now in his twelfth year of business, Hines has come a long way from the 10-by-20-foot storage unit he started out with — both stores span 7,900 square feet.
Hines has been active in the South End area for three years now, and he's chosen to make his home there as well. With his long-time partner, he has designed his living space after a style he calls "mid-century modern farmhouse." Openly gay, Hines finds Charlotte to be "very accepting of the gay community" and hopes for a continuing sense of solidarity among Charlotteans of all backgrounds.
"I'm not a political person, and although I have strong opinions about things like Amendment One, I also respect other opinions," says Hines. Amendment One, or the North Carolina Same-Sex Marriage Amendment, would define marriage in the state as between one man and one woman. Although same-sex marriage is already banned in North Carolina, the proposed measure would add the ban to the state constitution.
"I'm amazed, when I ride around my neighborhood, at all the signs on lawns about voting against Amendment One, and I know they're not necessarily gay households. It's liberating ... I really think if people closed their eyes, thought of someone they loved, and imagined not being able to be with that person in a way that recognizes what you have together, maybe things would be different."
From an entrepreneur's point of view, Hines believes Amendment One's passing poses the threat of a negative effect on our state's image. "Raleigh and Charlotte are regulars on 'fastest growing cities' lists," he says, "and this could really deter people from coming here to start their businesses." Perhaps his business model could serve as a metaphor for how Charlotte could continue to operate in the spirit of collaboration. "I am a co-owner in this business; my business partner is a straight man. I accept him and he accepts me and it's been great. That's been a part of our success."
So successful that TFC won Charlotte Magazine's BOB award for Best Furniture Store in 2011. Hines says the two stores function as two sides of the same creative coin. "It's like having two children," he says. "High Cotton Home is my straight and narrow child. It always knows where it's going, it's got a path." High Cotton offers a collection of American-made furnishings from designers like Thom Filicia, Annie Selke and Michael Weiss, as well as offerings from Hickory's Vanguard Furniture and other manufacturers. On the other hand, TFC is the "ADD child," with a broad range of styles, Hines says. "It will always change at the spur of the moment. It's a lot like me because I'm also all over the place."
Calling TFC "boutique-y" in its aesthetic, Hines points to the eclectic items that hold customers spellbound as they meander through the colorfully captivating displays. "We have anything from rustic to mid-century modern, and a lot of repurposed things. We carry what you don't find in regular, mainstream big box stores. We feature a lot of local talent, like Kent Youngstrom. He's a Charlotte artist, and one of his pieces got picked up by Crate & Barrel, but we're showing a lot of his original work."
As I gaze around the store, one piece piques my curiosity slightly more than others — a mounted deer head, displayed over a bed frame. Prominent antlers might catch the attention, but the eyes will linger over the deer form, covered in 1890s newspaper print from Augusta, Ga.
"It's all hand-done," says Hines. "I like to find people that do unusual things." He pauses, offering me that charismatic smile again. "At HCH and TFC, we really are quite the characters."