The tourists on the main drag in downtown Occoquan are taking a break, resting a few minutes in a variety of rocking chairs, before pulling themselves out into the heat to head to the next knickknack shop.
The rest was provided by one of Occoquan's mainstays--Brown's Wood Stuff.
There is a rocking chair made of tree limbs in the window and that gift-shop smell inside. The employees readily tell you if you don't find what you want, you can take a two-mile trek to the Brown's Wood Stuff showroom in Woodbridge. They are sure to have the rocking chair, dining room table, bed or desk you're looking for. If not, let them know what you want. They can order it.
The Occoquan store, which opened Sept. 1, 1979, is just one of four that John Brown and his wife own throughout the area. With other shops in Woodbridge, Old Town Manassas and Warrenton, Brown said the key to this mom-and-pop's success has been quality, what he calls "Mercedes furniture at Chevrolet prices."
Brown didn't start out in furniture. He was living in Dale City and working as an auditor with the General Accounting Office.
But then his brother, Roger, bought land and a farmhouse in Tennessee in the early 1970s. Soon, John Brown was spending his vacations and weekends helping his brother restore the house.
Once the house was done, Roger Brown built a woodworking shop and started making furniture to fill the house. Neighbors saw the chairs, cabinets and tables and started ordering pieces for themselves.
The orders didn't slow down.
One day, Roger Brown called his brother to tell him he was going to give up engineering and start making furniture full time.
That was John Brown's opening.
Brown and his wife, Janice, decided to open a store in this area and sell his brother's furniture. "Occoquan is where we wanted to be. The charm, warmth, we just love it," John Brown said. "We just loved the town, the history. When we considered opening a store, that's the only place we considered."
When the store opened, it was one of the first retail shops in Occoquan.
According to Brown, who would not elaborate on the company's finances, the overhead and rent for the first store--which at first was stocked solely with his brother's furniture--was low. From day one, that store has been profitable, he said. The secret to the company's success, Brown said, was that "we started small and grew slowly."
For the first few years, Brown kept his job with the GAO while his wife took care of most of the business.
Brown finally quit his government job in 1983. He had been promoted to a senior executive service grade and would have to put in more hours. Meanwhile, the store was taking off. If Brown kept the new job, he knew he wouldn't be able to help his wife with the store.
John and Janice Brown are partners in three of the stores. John Brown and his brother-in law, George Olafson, became partners at the Warrenton store, which opened in 1988 at Olafson's suggestion.
Brown's Wood Stuff now has about 100 vendors, including Roger Brown, who has his own shop in Greene County, Tenn., called Roger Brown's Heirlooms and Wood.
Other suppliers for Brown's Wood Stuff range from Amish and Mennonite woodworkers to famous brand-name furniture makers such as Nichols and Stone, Hitchcock and Richardson Bros.
Although he wouldn't release sales figures, John Brown said financing for the new stores hasn't been very risky. "We're conservative, from the old school," Brown said. "We just take what we would make at one store and put it back in to the business."
Brown's second store, in Woodbridge, opened about 13 years ago. The Warrenton location has been open for 10 years. This year, Brown's Wood Stuff opened an outlet in Old Town Manassas.
The Browns decided to open a store in Manassas because "space was starting to fill up," Brown said. He had his eye on Old Town since they became a "Main Street community in 1986," he said.
Brown particularly likes the Manassas location because "Old Town has the same nostalgia" as Occoquan, he said.
Each store does well, Brown said, refusing to say which shop pulls in the most sales. The Occoquan store has become more of a variety store, selling not only furniture but also candles and other arts and crafts. The Woodbridge store is primarily furniture, and the Warrenton and Manassas stores are also a mixture of furniture and accessories.
The Woodbridge store has the largest floor space, at 5,000 square feet. The other three measure about 4,000 square feet each.
Brown's Wood Stuff has gained customers the old-fashioned way, its owner said. "Friend telling friend, co-worker telling co-worker," Brown said.
And it doesn't hurt that the area is a little transient. Brown said he will get customers who just moved to the area from San Diego and were told by a military family who had just moved from Quantico to the West Coast to come to Brown's before they buy any new furniture.
Brown's customers also include second generations--adults who years ago were running around the store are now dragging their children to the store while they make their first-home furniture purchases, he said.
The Browns' three daughters, now grown, have all worked in the stores. When the Occoquan shop opened in 1979, the youngest daughter, Jennifer, was 3. Today she has a 3-year-old herself. "The family aspect is still big," Brown said.
Will there be any more Brown's Wood Stuff stores? "I think we're very pleased with what we have and will stay where we are right now," Brown said.
CAPTION: Brown's Wood Stuff was one of the first retail shops in Occoquan. The store's success has allowed John Brown and his wife, Janice, to expand the business.
CAPTION: John Brown, in his Woodbridge site, said the key to the success of his four furniture stores has been quality, what he calls "Mercedes furniture at Chevrolet prices."