A household name: Affordable Furniture and Treasures is building a quality furniture business

Lois Thurston (left) and Gary Higgins operate Affordable Furniture and Treasurers in Dubuque. It offers new and slightly used items to decorate a home. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR

A search for the right cherry nightstand led Linda Culbertson to Affordable Furniture and Treasures in Dubuque. Now she is a long-term customer who always finds something special at this unique and locally owned furniture store.

Culbertson and her husband had moved into a condo.

“Naturally, our furniture didn’t work exactly as it did in our old home,” she said. “At my first visit to the store, I met Lois and Gary. We hit off right away … and I was thrilled with all the good-looking furniture they had to offer.”

Gary Higgins is Affordable Furniture’s owner, and his store specializes in new and slightly used furniture plus home accessories. As the main purchaser, too, Higgins acquires inventory from estates and liquidation sales. His goal is to keep cost reasonable and quality high for his customers.

“(There are) prices and styles for every budget and some very nice antique pieces, too,” Culbertson said. “I’m especially attracted to round tables, something different, sometimes vintage. They had a nice-looking curio cabinet that I use for an entry table.”

Unusual furniture not available elsewhere is what Affordable Furniture aims to offer. The business’ path from concept to storefront happened quickly.

Higgins had spent most of his professional life in farming and residential construction work. After meeting Lois Thurston, now his fiancé, he moved from Independence, Iowa, to Dubuque. She sparked the idea for the business.

The couple were holding a garage sale at Thurston’s mother’s home. Higgins said, “Seeing Lois in action cleaning and restoring furniture … (and noting) her ability not only to sell items, but actually get connected with the customer, really inspired me.”

So, in 2017, Higgins started selling furniture out of his home. It wasn’t a tiny operation. In addition to having inventory in his house, Higgins filled two garages with furniture. Word-of-mouth referrals began bringing more customers in the door.

“Lois (and I) both were holding down full-time jobs, and this was just supposed to be an extra form of income, but it totally went into a different direction and ended up consuming most of my time,” said Higgins. “I started telling Lois that it was time to open a store and think big.”

In a span of a year, Higgins and Thurston quit their jobs and moved Affordable Furniture into retail space in the Plaza 20 shopping center. It was a calculated risk based on customer interest and growth potential shown by past sales made at home.

Like with many new businesses, Higgins admitted there were some sleepless nights. They had to work at maintaining confidence and developing their business plan, which included advancing advertising beyond customer referrals.

Higgins said, “Our customer service, affordability, and quality take our message far … but continuous branding and awareness into the public’s mind and eye is essential.”

During Culbertson’s condo redecorating, she saw that Affordable Furniture was one of the few local stores offering new and used options. She remains a big fan. When Higgins posts his latest acquisitions on Facebook, Culbertson eagerly views them and shares with others.

To select the inventory, Higgins said, “Quality is the most important rule we stand by. A lot of furniture today is made of man-made pressed wood, particle board, cardboard, glue and staples, yet the price for this poor quality has skyrocketed to the customer from the big box stores.”

Affordable Furniture’s inventory features products made from solid wood and other quality materials. The selection includes furniture for all rooms in the house, including chairs, sofas, end tables, entertainment centers, china cabinets, desks, bookshelves and bedroom sets.

Customers come from throughout the tri-states and beyond, including Madison, Wis.; Rock Island, Ill.; and Burlington, Iowa. Higgins and Thurston get to know many of them and count customers as friends.

The business remains family operated and has seven employees. Higgins is involved in most aspects of the business, including delivery to customers. Thurston manages sales, design and merchandising.

“She enjoys displaying, arranging and coordinating inventory … and is the key to outstanding customer service that keeps our customers returning and spreading the news. Together, our teamwork has made the business very successful,” said Higgins.

Since opening, Affordable Furniture has procured some distinctive pieces to sell. This included a twisted driftwood sofa table and a Thomas Edison phonograph dated in the 1800s.

“Inventory is always changing. Lois does an awesome job going over every piece to be sure it’s clean and in good condition,” said Culbertson. Recently, she purchased a ram statue that reminded her of high school at Dubuque Senior, and her husband bought a vintage magazine rack to display history books.

The growing inventory and customer interest prompted Affordable Furniture to move in 2019 just across their parking lot into space about four times the size of their initial spot. They plan to continue adding inventory to meet customer needs.

“The demand for quality furniture is overwhelming,” Higgins said. “It is a super great feeling when we know that we truly helped (customers) with their needs. It’s a joy that keeps us moving forward.”