Devilish dilemma: Pick up what you pay for

When Needful Things, the used-furniture and collectibles shop on West Main Street, opened in the mid-'90s, I was charmed by the name. I knew it came from a Stephen King book about a similar shop that was run by the devil.

I also knew the place had to be a bit idiosyncratic, as it doesn't have a telephone– which meant that when Needful Things customer Robin Stafford emailed me about a dispute she was having with the shop, I knew I'd be interviewing the owner, Jack Lord, in person.

But first, Stafford's story. In June, she bought two leather chairs from Lord for $150 and said she'd return to pick them up. Lord asked that she do that within two weeks. But "things kept coming up," Stafford wrote in her email, "namely that my three children were always with me, and I don't have room for the chairs when they're in the car." Then Stafford and her family went on vacation.

"When we got back, there was an unfriendly message on voice mail asking me to get the chairs." (Perhaps Lord's aversion to telephones only applies to incoming calls.) On August 6, about six weeks after the purchase, Stafford's husband went to the shop and was told by Lord that he had sold the chairs to someone else and, she claims, that he wouldn't refund the $150.

While Lord was willing to issue store credit, Stafford wanted her money back. So she went to the shop and claims that Lord was "incredibly rude," refused again to return her money, and "suggested that she check with other stores in town" to learn their policies.

"I asked where the sign was about the policy, and he pointed to a small, handwritten" sign, she wrote, "taped inside a 3 1/2 x 5 picture frame that was anything but obvious."

She later dropped a letter off at the shop, asking for $125; she would be willing to forfeit $25 and consider it a "handling fee." A week later, having heard nothing from Lord, she contacted me.

I began by calling two similar businesses, Circa and 2nd Wind, to see how they handle unclaimed furniture. Circa owner Jackie Binder says that she's never had the situation arise, but that she'd "probably just give a refund" for the same amount, unless she'd ended up selling the item for less than the customer had paid.

Pat Millen, co-owner of 2nd Wind, once waited between six months and a year for a customer to return before she reluctantly sold the furniture. Although she would have returned the money in full, the original buyer never reappeared. (When I called, coincidentally, she was again– for only the second time in 2nd Wind's history– trying to get a customer to pick up his merchandise; for six months the store has been waiting for the man to claim furniture he paid almost $1,000 for.)

When I visited Needful Things, I asked Lord if his policy was posted anywhere, and he pointed to a sign on the wall that states, in big letters, that unclaimed merchandise will be subject to resale after 30 days. He also showed me the small notice Stafford saw, which was almost completely obscured by the merchandise around it on a counter. Stafford claims that the wall sign wasn't there when she went in.

Lord and Stafford have known each other for several years; Stafford used to work for Terracottage before it left West Main Street for Belmont (and was renamed Two French Hens). Because of Stafford's background in the field, Lord believes she should have realized what a problem storage is for such stores and simply claimed the chairs within two weeks.

Lord told me that, after receiving Stafford's letter, he mailed her a check for $125. When she didn't receive it, he paid her in cash.

I asked Lord why he doesn't have a phone, and his answer was simple: "I don't want one." When I suggested that perhaps being accessible by phone would make situations such as Stafford's easier to resolve, however, he refused to budge.

Finally, I asked why he had named his business after a store owned by the devil. He laughed and replied, "I'm only a minor demon." Well, that's a relief.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902