Nick Hill Jr., co-owner of Kern-Hill Furniture, couldn’t help but think about his late dad in the run-up to Father’s Day; specifically, what Nick Hill Sr., perhaps best remembered for the catchphrase, "C’mon down," would have thought about the plethora of restrictions surrounding COVID-19.
Seated on a leather sectional in his and his brothers’ showroom at 660 Nairn Ave., the venerable furniture-and-appliance store’s headquarters since 2007, Nick Jr., 63, is confident his father, a colourful character who died in 2003 at age 71, wouldn’t have been a huge fan of social distancing, let alone informing paying customers he couldn’t sell them a lamp or nightstand because neither was considered an essential item.
"That’s for sure," pipes in Andy Hill, 65, referred to as "No. 1 son" by his father when the two used to trade lines back and forth in their always entertaining, usually unscripted TV and radio spots.
"I know exactly what he would have said if one of us told him we could only let a certain number (of people) in at a time: ‘How am I going to pay the rent? Never mind that, how am I going to pay you guys?’"
Nick Jr., whose younger brother Scott, 50, completes the ownership group, says their father was "old-school, all the way," a trait that appealed to everybody he dealt with, pretty much.
"His handshake was his word, that was just the way he did things," he says, pointing to a white Stetson hanging on the wall behind the reception desk, the same lid Nick Sr., the self-dubbed "ol’ cowpoke," donned for many of his television commercials. ("The old corral is overstocked, so c’mon down for fantastic deals!" he’d boom.)
"Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t come in and comment how much they miss the big guy. ‘Hey, us, too,’ we tell ‘em."
Nicholas (Nick) Hill, immortalized in a song titled Nick Hill by Winnipeg roots rockers Andrew Neville and the Poor Choices, grew up on a farm just north of Winnipeg. A talented hockey player, he was scouted by a number of professional squads ahead of his 18th birthday. Following high school, which he purportedly made his way to on horseback, he joined the Port Arthur West End Bruins, an Ontario-based farm team of the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins.
"He used to watch Hockey Night in Canada with us and every time (analyst Don) Cherry came on during the intermission, he’d point at the TV and snarl, ‘That guy never went into the corners with me,’" says Nick Jr., describing his dad as a consummate power forward who would just as soon beat you with his fists as on the scoresheet.
The elder Hill signed with the Sydney Millionaires in Sydney, N.S., ahead of the 1952-53 season. The team’s nickname, the Millionaires, was a misnomer, to be sure. He earned so little that year that when he returned to Winnipeg for the summer, he took a part-time job at Manitoba Television Sales and Service, a North End shop run by John Kiernecki.
Hill played one more season — in 1953-54 he recorded 45 points in 52 games while racking up 130 minutes in penalties for the Milwaukee Chiefs — before calling it a career. He and Kiernecki joined forces in 1954, and, after expanding their line to include home furnishings, renamed the operation Kern-Hill Furniture.
The store, originally on Derby Street, relocated to 950 Main St. in the late 1950s, then to its longtime home at 843 Main St. in 1963. To help fund the second move, Hill registered Kern-Hill as a co-operative, the idea being that customers who paid a nominal fee for a lifetime membership would receive dividends on everything they bought there, which could be applied to future purchases.
Kiernecki was relatively young when he died, just 43, but the senior Hill never considered changing Kern-Hill’s name in the ensuing years. The brothers did drop "Co-op" from their moniker, however, when the co-operative part of things was legally dissolved in 2004.
"Andy and I were just kids when we started working in a factory Dad had, making buttons for couches for maybe 50 cents an hour," Nick Jr. recalls with a laugh. "There was one time in our early 20s, after we were done university and both working here full time, when we told him we were going to quit if he didn’t give us a raise."
Their father upped their salary all right, but he immediately began charging the pair rent to live at home, "so it’s not like it made much of a difference," Nick Jr. says, shaking his head.
Nick Hill Sr., a philanthropic sort who was heavily involved with Rainbow Stage, the Red Cross and Muscular Dystrophy Canada, never retired. One Friday afternoon in March 2003, he informed his sons he wasn’t feeling well, and was leaving work early to go to the doctor’s office. He died two days later.
"None of us could imagine him suffering in a hospital bed for very long, so it was probably for the best," says Andy. "There were close to 2,000 people at his funeral, including the mayor and the premier. We all said he probably got a big kick out of that, from wherever he was watching." (In an official press release following Hill’s death, then-mayor Glen Murray labelled him a "civic treasure, who stood proudly among the many Winnipeggers who make our city unique and memorable. We all know him, or at least we feel we do.")
For decades, Kern-Hill’s extra inventory was kept in a multi-floor warehouse on James Street, in the East Exchange. A condo developer made the brothers a generous offer on that building in 2006, which meant it was time to go shopping for new storage space. As luck would have it, a 16,000-square-foot facility at 660 Nairn Ave., the former home of a door-and-window manufacturer, was available.
A month or so after acquiring the property, Andy was getting into his car at rush hour when he thought to himself, boy, there seemed to be a lot of traffic in that neck of the woods. The next morning he told his brothers instead of using their fresh digs for overflow, they might be better served converting it into a sales floor.
"The other thing that really got us thinking seriously about moving here was that the Main Street store had kinda run its course by then," Nick Jr. explains. "Not because the neighbourhood was bad, necessarily, but because a lot of people had the misconception it was bad, and let us know they were wary of shopping there."
"Another factor was parking," Andy interjects. "It was metered parking (on Main Street), which had always been a problem, especially during rush hour. Here, we have our own parking lot, so it just made sense to say bye to the old joint."
Nick Jr. says it was definitely an eye-opener, referring to the number of people who came through the door during the store’s initial year on Nairn and announced it was their first time shopping at Kern-Hill Furniture. They had already been in business for over 50 years, Wiens Furniture in Niverville is the only local furniture store he can think of that’s been at it longer than Kern-Hill, so he and his brothers would joke around, asking newcomers, "Jeez, what took you so long?"
Like most retailers, Kern-Hill has done its share of pivoting in the last 16 months. Pre-pandemic, online shopping accounted for a fraction of their sales — they didn’t even have a "shopping cart" on their website, Nick Jr. says — but now they don’t know where they’d be without one.
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"Our dad probably wouldn’t have been able to wrap his head around the thought of buying a couch by clicking a few buttons on a phone, without even sitting on it first," Nick Jr. says. "I’m a bit the same way, I much prefer to shop in person, but at the same time, I get that’s not how the younger generation does things."
On that topic; while the brothers aren’t planning to permanently put their feet up on an ottoman ("Dozens in stock!") any time soon, they are confident the store will be in good hands if and when they choose to do so.
Nick Jr.’s son Tyler has been employed at the store for four years, one of Andy’s daughters has filled in part-time and Scott’s youngest pitches in on weekends, around school.
"Then there’s my grandson who loves to run through the aisles, the same way my brothers and I did when we were his age," Nick Jr. says, smiling from ear to ear. "So yeah, I can see things staying in the family for a while yet."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
If you’re one of the unfortunate souls whose fridge, stove or washing machine went on the fritz in the last year and a quarter, you probably know how frustrating it was to try and land a replacement, something that hadn't been on back-order for months.
The owners of Kern-Hill Furniture feel your pain.
The same way there was a run on toilet paper, bleach and Kraft Dinner in the early days of COVID-19, new appliances flew off the shelves as well, as scores of people chose to spend money on home renovations versus family vacations. That, coupled with manufacturers around the world being forced to close for weeks at a time owing to staff testing positive for the virus, added up to what Andy Hill describes as “a perfect storm.” OK, more like imperfect, his brother Nick Jr. interjects.
“We were luckier than a lot of places because we kind of jumped on the ball early in terms of ordering furniture and appliances, thinking (COVID) could turn out to be pretty bad,” Andy says. “But since there was also a global shortage of things like compressor parts for fridges and freezers, it eventually went from being a question of when you could get new stock in to if you could get any stock, period.”