Furniture store rises from ashes

  • Mon Jul 12th, 2010 9:39pm
  • News

By Derek Sheppard Kitsap Sun

BREMERTON — Ralph Erickson stood in a rebuilt warehouse behind Arnold’s Home Furnishings and remembered what the view was like a year ago.

In July 2009, he could see a busy thoroughfare in the distance, but the foreground was filled with the remains of his workplace since 1951, everything burned.

“You could stand here and look clear to Kitsap Way,” Erickson said recently as he stood amid the clank and clatter of a new furniture warehouse.

Less than a year after an arson fire razed much of Arnold’s Home Furnishings, the longtime Bremerton business is open again on Kitsap Way.

By any measure, it’s been a whirlwind year for the store and its employees. On an unusually warm early morning around 2 a.m. July 27, 2009, a 16-year-old Bremerton boy used a butane canister and lighter to shoot a flame into the building, igniting a furious fire that drew hundreds of firefighters from miles away and laid waste to most of what Arnold’s had built since 1951. The boy was convicted in November after a juvenile court trial.

Meanwhile, Arnold’s employees were working out of temporary digs just down the road on Marine Drive, and planning to reopen on Kitsap Way.

“Our goal was to be back in business in less than a year,” Erickson said. “We’re stronger than ever.”

The newer half of the sprawling complex mostly survived last July’s massive fire, largely thanks to a fire wall, sprinklers and fire doors that admirably served their purpose.

Now, the gallery is about half the size of the former space. But Erickson said Arnold’s management thinks “we have a better size now than we had before.”

With a smaller store, Arnold’s can focus on avoiding duplicating product lines and give customers a better experience, the theory goes.

A chain-link fence still borders the east half of the site, where the part of the building that burned down once stood. The wreckage has been cleared and the space is ready for a new tenant.

Erickson said they’re looking for a compatible retail tenant who wants to build there.

Erickson, a tall Bremerton native who speaks in a smooth tenor, isn’t afraid of change. In fact, he embraces it.

“Things do change, and you have to let that change help you,” he said.

Erickson has been with the furniture store since Wendell and Betty Arnold opened it in 1951. Kathy Christensen has been an agent of change for much of that time, constantly researching, tweaking and tailoring the store’s looks and products.

She started in 1974, an Olympic College student at the time, doing office work.

“I told Ralph I wanted to be on the floor doing displays,” she said. And she has.

Rebuilding the surviving parts of the store started with gutting the floors and ceilings. Two processes were used to rid the building of the smoke smell — not a trace remains — and Arnold’s has gotten some upgrades. Fire and seismic codes have changed since that part of the showroom was built in 1994.

One upgrade is a state-of-the-art water pump that will increase water pressure for the sprinkler system. The Bremerton Fire Department recommended it, he said.

“Of course, we’re pretty conscious of fires,” he said with a with a hint of humor.

Less than a week before the anniversary of the fire that nearly destroyed Arnold’s, the store will begin its summerlong grand reopening. Erickson and Christensen said they prefer not to dwell on the fire or its anniversary date.

“We’re just moving ahead,” Erickson said. “That’s history.”