The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Garnet Hill History

A Garnet Hill Story by Betty Moody,
Vice President of Garnet Hill Customer Service

All I wanted was to live in the mountains, to have a horse, and sleep in a brass bed under a beautiful quilt at the end of a happy day. It was 1981 and I was twenty-five years old. I wandered into Garnet Hill one day with an open mind. The place looked pretty. A winding brick path led through well-tended flowerbeds to a sturdy, new gambrel barn. Once inside I climbed a circular stairway to a loft where I met Pegge and Grant, the young founders of The Original Natural Fibers Catalog. Founded in 1976, the fledgling company was powered by a small troupe of spirited people. I knew I had found something very, very special.

The office was a splendid diversity of personalities. My first desk was an ironing board with one of three telephones, each with five lines. There were two new computers “upstairs,” and only one person who knew what to do with them. There was custom cherry paneling, a handmade cradle, chevron parquet floors, and a gorgeous full bathroom with hand-laid tiles. Everything and everyone was beautiful and unique, and it all worked.

On a typical day in the early ’80s, cigarette smoke swirled from a few desktops. The ching-ching we heard was the sweet sound of quarters (it was 25 cents for a catalog) dropping into a tin bucket as the mail was opened in the foyer. We loaded the woodstove, rocked the babies, answered the phones, and waited on people in our charming retail store. The bravest of us would zoom off with Grant in his Volkswagen Scirocco to the then Harrison Publishing Company on Route 117 in Sugar Hill. Here, we guided carefully layered queen flat sheets through giant German precision blades made to cut through tons of paper. Our efforts yielded the famous 1” X 3” flannel swatches that were lovingly stapled into each catalog we mailed.

Every customer received a hand-written thank-you note with their order. Electric typewriters banged out shipping labels. Classic and not-so-classic rock from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s blared from the basement, which was our inbound/outbound operations and occasionally open for auto repairs. Returns and refunds were negotiated based on the condition of the product. “Does your mother know you are returning her gift, and in such deplorable condition?” Reimbursement for shipping was by postage stamps mailed back to the customer. Credit-card charges were handwritten and phoned in for authorization. Most of us worked at least one other job outside of Garnet Hill. Our days were long, but reward in friendship and camaraderie was always high. We worked hard and played hard together. They say, “do what you love, and the money will come.” We stayed focused on people, and selling the things we loved, and we hoped other people would love our things too.

We mailed two catalogs a year, Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer. Flannel was our bastion with a queen sheet set at $63.50. We sold pure silk stockings and 100% cotton garter belts and nursing bras and pure wool peds and knee warmers and diaper covers. Customers’ body measurements were kept on file in our Rolodexes. Mrs. Atherton = 34-30-39 with inseam 31.5. Cashmina Tights size M. Prefers Black and Gray. We lived for customers, and for making lasting impressions with each and every one.

By early 1983, it is said we had $100K in the bank and we celebrated this milestone with many bottles of fine champagne. Some of the corks stayed in the ceiling of the third floor for years. With success came responsibility to people for jobs and for security, and to our customers for more and varied products. We needed plans, and investment in space and technology for growth. Our first cultural hiccup was in 1984, regarding full-time vs. part-time work. Some of us wanted more. Grant called a meeting and said (paraphrasing), “Work shouldn’t be anyone’s life. It should be balanced with fun.” The party was definitely not over. Hell, it was just the beginning!

Roles were defined and consultants were called in. We added staff, an art director, and a few real models. The town was a-buzz when news of “the Playboy Bunny” broke. Yes, a bunny and professional underwear model for Fall ’85. Our former family-album-style catalog was getting attention, and rave reviews in a small mail-order industry. We set to work adding new products, and our mailing list was growing exponentially.

Beyond our famous Slack English Flannel, some of our strongest vendors at the time were friends and Franconia College colleagues of Pegge and Grant. Gale River Sewing made our Dolman Nightgowns from bolt cloth from England. Judy and Nancy Wallace in Bethlehem owned Nanook, and sewed an extraordinary line of Children’s woolen outerwear; a two-piece red snowsuit comes to mind: pure wool, fully lined, with hand-embroidered snowflakes. Our own Tracy Storella made us infant and children’s flannel clothes, and an exquisite line of German Damask shower curtains, comforter covers, and bedskirts. Wendy McIntosh was our first drop-ship vendor, knitting us personalized wool Christmas stockings in Vermont. You can find her on Etsy today at etsy.com/people/TerrapinKnits. From Europe, we stocked Hanro and Calida from Switzerland, Italian linens, precious-fiber blankets, and cashmere-filled comforters from Germany. In 1986 we featured an Australian Drover Coat for $195, making headline news in the fashion realm. Other “newness” at the time was a set of Chinese embroidered placemats and napkins, four for $20.

Unbearable tragedy stopped us cold on Feb 1, 1985. The news spread quickly that a small, chartered plane coming from Montreal had crashed into Whitefield’s Cherry Mountain in a snowstorm. Pegge and Grant, along with the pilot and co-pilot, had perished. Our tight mountain community was stunned beyond words. We cried and held each other, and made heartbreaking phone calls to friends and vendors. We opened our arms and our doors to all who came to pay their respects to Pegge and Grant. We pledged to love their baby daughter, and to carry on their vision for Garnet Hill. Devastated, but with a mission to prevail, the spirited people engaged.

By 1986, GH was in the hands of New Hampshire owners who invested in technology, bringing in CWI order-entry software, and an 800 toll-free order line. These were exciting times, when ISPs were emerging and the Internet was being commercialized. Internally there were new positions, responsibilities, opportunities, and growth beyond our walls. We added a “phone room” on the third floor and by the end of 1990 had built and moved into a state-of-the-art warehouse in Bethlehem. Major renovations were ongoing at the main office, creating a spacious kitchen/dining room and a beautiful, open workspace for the merchants. By 1996, we had phone rooms on two floors and a booming business in Japan with full-time Japanese staff servicing calls until 2 a.m. EST.

Garnet Hill joined CBI in 1997. We packed up our warehouse, and watched our inventory hit the road in 18-wheelers bound for West Chester, Ohio. Operations would take on new meaning, and new and close relationships were to be formed with teams in NH and OH in the years to come.

In early 2000 GH won a prestigious award given by the New York Home Textiles Association for excellence in Customer Service. Twelve of us flew off to New York to attend the gala at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World, where I was honored to accept the award on behalf of the company. My acceptance speech was about change, and I referenced a tiny little book published in 1998 titled Who Moved My Cheese.

After months of hard work with a platform called BroadVision, we launched the Garnet Hill website (softly) in June of 2000. Successful, fearless, and eager for more, we went full steam ahead in late July and watched our online sales soar. Multichannel was a reality. We hadn’t given up the old electric mail opener yet, but with phone orders at 50% and Web demand increasing by the day, our world was changing dramatically.

Russ Gaitskill, our current president and CEO, joined Garnet Hill in 2001. His first day on the job was my 20th anniversary celebration, with an appropriate theme of “Three-Ring Circus.” Imagine the reception when we learned that the clown (in full costume) at the front of the line of well-wishers was none other than our new president! With vast experience in direct mail and business acumen, Russ has since navigated us through tremendous growth, and with highest regard for our roots and community. With a big heart and a green thumb, he has advanced us to this extraordinary time in our history.

Customer Service has always been a major artery in the complex physiology of Garnet Hill. It’s not surprising that the phrase “Change is good” has always been our mantra. We take great pride in our jobs, and in the winning attitude, knowledge, and agility that it takes to be the front line and the unseen face of a perpetually changing business. Social media, as multifaceted as it is, will never replace a reassuring voice to affirm and inform with kindness, truth, and humor. The industry calls them “contacts,” but they are our customers, and they are the reason we are all here. We will never take this for granted.

Someone once wisely advised that we should “face reality as it is, not as it was, or how you wish it to be.” Reality being truth, we are all inimitable pieces of this beautiful and complex tapestry of business and life called Garnet Hill. Tools and metrics have changed in my time here, the numbers have more zeros after them, and time management is no longer a matter of whether we should put the phones on hold and go skiing or finish ranking and marketing plans. We have evolved into a very big business with proportionate demands and challenges; yet the essence of Garnet Hill will always be the spirited people within these walls. I have walked into this barn thousands of times, always proud and thankful for the great history, values, and business culture that endure here, and I am ever inspired by the people, ideas, and systems that keep us moving forward. “Do what you love.”

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