After 100 years in the business, Portland's Hub Furniture still giving strong

PORTLAND – In 1913, two peddlers, Jewish immigrants from the same village in Russia, founded a furniture store on Congress Street, near Franklin Street.

They gave it a name that put it at the center of their world: Hub Furniture. Among their sale items was a six-piece dining room set priced at $46.50.

Today, that dining room set may be an antique somewhere, but the store is still in business, a survivor of the Great Depression, two world wars and urban renewal programs that leveled two of its stores.

Owner Sam Novick, a grandson of one of the founders, says he cherishes the store’s history and considers the business a family heirloom.

"Business and family have become synonymous terms," he says, sitting on a sofa chair — one of hundreds scattered throughout his five-story warehouse, a former chewing gum factory on Fore Street.

Hub Furniture will celebrate its 100th anniversary June 6 by throwing a "benefit bash" at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. Novick and his wife, Bette Novick, along with other sponsors, are underwriting the cost of the party, which will feature music by the Fogcutters, an 18-piece big band from Portland.

The proceeds from the $50-per-ticket event will be donated to the Preble Street Resource Center, the United Way of Greater Portland and the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.

Such a party is a fitting celebration for the Novick family, which has quietly built a reputation for being donors of money, time, energy — and furniture — to nonprofit groups in Greater Portland and individuals who are in need.

When an immigrant family or a young mother needs help furnishing an apartment, people call the Novicks.

They donated 25 rocking chairs, for example, for each of the 25 apartments at Florence House, which provides housing for homeless women, and they helped to furnish the new Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter on Preble Street.

"For better or worse for them, there is very little they will say ‘no’ to," says Emily Chaleff, executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. "It’s part and parcel of who they are. Service is part of the family ethic and the business ethic, and for them there is really no kind of separation between the business, the family and the community."

National retail chains don’t contribute to the community in the way that a locally owned business like Hub Furniture can, says Suzanne McCormick, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland.

"They are the epitome of why we want local businesses to thrive," she says.

Hub’s roots go back to Sam Novick’s grandfather, also named Sam Novick. He peddled tea in Portland neighborhoods from his horse-drawn wagon. He became friends with Max Simonds. They had grown up in the same village in a part of the Russian Empire that today is the Republic of Belarus.

Their first store, at 318 Congress St., is gone, as is the rest of the neighborhood, which was leveled in the late 1960s to make way for Franklin Arterial.

In 1923, Hub moved to 440 Congress St. In the late 1960s, that store was razed to make way for an urban renewal project.

The parcel was sold to Casco Bank. Today, Key Bank at One Monument Square is there.

From there, Hub moved to its current location at 291 Fore St.

The first three floors of the building were built in 1866 for Curtis & Son, a company that made chewing gum from spruce tree resin. The building was the world’s first major chewing gum factory.

Two floors were added to the brick building. By the 1920s, the factory was closed after the public lost interest in the bitter taste of spruce gum.

Sam Novick says the 50,000-square-foot building was relatively inexpensive because it was in a dangerous and dilapidated district. He says his father, Jack Novick, was on the leading edge of a new trend in furniture sales.

The idea was to move away from showrooms to warehouses, where a larger inventory could be stored on site.

The warehouse setting was a plus, assuring consumers that they would benefit by getting furniture at lower cost. Selling items with "warehouse pricing" is a practice that the Novicks continue today.

They haven’t put much money into the building. Exposed insulation hangs down on some of the interior walls, and the floors are unfinished.

A decade ago, the Novicks invested in some plastic food and beverage items to put on dining room and kitchen tables, and the plastic food has inadvertently become a familiar trademark of the store.

Their building is paid for, so the Novicks have a competitive advantage over newer stores in suburban locations that pay monthly leases.

Like the rest of the Old Port, the neighborhood has been completely gentrified. Sam Novick says he gets calls every month from developers who offer to buy his building. Some promise to move all of his inventory to a location in the suburbs, somewhere with more parking than the 18 spaces he has now.

Novick, 63, says he’ll never sell the building; it’s too much a part of his identity.

His 84-year-old mother, Rose Novick, who manages the company’s store on Main Street in Westbrook, enjoys her job too much to talk about retiring.

Throughout all the changes, the family has stuck with the business. The older Sam Novick died in 1945. His widow, Annie Novick, bought out the Simonds family six years later.

Their oldest son, David Novick, ran the business until his death in 1959 at the age of 42. That’s when his brother Jack Novick took over. He ran the business until he retired in 1980. He died three years ago.

Sam Novick, who joined the family firm in 1971, spends most of his time on the sales floor. Bette Novick runs the office. They work seven days a week.

Sam Novick says the business couldn’t have survived without the involvement of his wife. "We have been a team every day for decades," he says.

Their son Andrew Novick, 35, is now operations manager. He says his father often talks about the next generation.

"In my mind, he has a long way to go," he says, "and I have a hard time believing he will slow down anytime soon."

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at