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Berger Brothers celebrates 100 years of furniture sales

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By Ken Mammarella

In 1919, Mike Berger’s grandmother began retailing, mostly furniture, but really “anything that she could get her hands on to make a buck” to support her family of 15 living above her Wilmington store.

Berger Bros. today sells new and used office furniture, with a bit of repair work.

Mike is the only Berger there, and it’s the last such area firm. “There’s nobody else in this town that does what we do,” he said, rattling off competitors – and friends – he has known in 55 years in office furniture. He continued with factors that led to their demise: They tied too closely to the DuPont Co. as a client. They failed to adapt to the arrival of big-box stores. They didn’t develop a niche.

Berger Bros.’ niche is full service (“We deliver. We set it up. All you have to do is sit down and go to work.”) and big discounts on quality used items, which is 60 percent of revenue. For example: A table, with cherry inlay and Duncan Phyfe legs, is $2,500 new, but he has a used one for $395. And he has a four-drawer file cabinet for $125 that’s sturdier than the $399 model from a big-box store.

Mary Ciociola has been a customer for three decades, first at Chapman Auto and now as controller of Concordville (Pennsylvania) Nissan & Subaru. “Mike has always been so helpful, say by finding something maybe not so new at a great price,” she said, “and his customer service is unbelievable.” The dealership used Berger Bros. to furnish the new Subaru operations, which includes 100 chairs, 25 file cabinets, 25 lockers and leather furniture for the office of owners Peter and Stuart Lustgarten.

Used furniture comes from companies redecorating, downsizing or going out of business. “I get two or three calls a day” from people wanting to sell their office furniture. “So sad. I want to cry,” he said.

Elizabeth and Samuel Berger started selling at Third and Walnut streets in downtown Wilmington and later moved operations four blocks west. At various points over a century in business, the family owned 75 percent of the buildings on Market Street between Second and Fourth streets and warehouses with 100,000 square feet of space on what is now prime Wilmington Riverfront land, he said.

Berger Bros. – Mike’s father Martin and uncle Herman – moved from Wilmington 15 years ago, to cater to customers concerned about parking and security. Mike rents 30,000 square feet in Merchant’s Square in Edgemoor, with hundreds of items filling the space. Another move is on the way, because that section of the shopping center is being torn down and rebuilt, with the developers also proposing a day care and restaurant nearby. He said earlier this month that he was looking for a new location.

Mike wonders about the business’ future: His four daughters live in Florida, and his extended family isn’t involved. At 75, he plans to keep working. After all, his father worked until he was 86.

Martin Berger died while dining out on Oct. 28, 2006, the day after Mike Berger went out on a blind date with Nancy Titone. She later started helping out two days a week and now works full time at Berger Bros., which employs six people and one dog (Molly, Berger’s mini golden doodle).

“I keep him straight,” said Titone, who does not have a job title. She encourages him to do more online, but it’s a tough sell. “Mike is not computer-literate,” she said. “We print emails out for him.”

He does use a cellphone to send out photos of new (to him) merchandise, which in this area tends to be what he calls “the lawyer style,” meaning traditional lines, not contemporary.

Berger Bros. travels throughout the region to buy and sell furniture. “If it pays well, I’ll go anywhere,” he said. Delaware’s lack of a sales tax entices out-of-state customers who pick up their furniture, and Berger’s lifetime in Delaware has also generated business.

For example: Jill Berger, Matt Titone and Ashley Biden were all preschool classmates. So Joe Biden outfitted his post-vice-president office with a table desk, conference table and fireplace equipment, all from Berger Bros.

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