“Highland Woodworking is unlike any other woodworking store I’ve ever been in on the whole planet,” Chris Schwarz told me, explaining why he thought the business and the family behind it would make an ideal contribution to this series. “It’s this wonderful, family, homey…” here he trailed off, as though in a happy dream, before resuming the narration of his reverie. “It’s just kind of overwhelming, like a candy store. If every town had a Highland, woodworking would be as popular as golf.”
Having seen pictures of the store’s façade, a drool-worthy architectural confection in century-old brick, a clay tile roof overhang supported by curly corbels, tall divided-light windows spanning nearly its entire front, I found his description almost compelling enough to plan a drive to Atlanta. Then I remembered we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
Chris discovered the place in the 1990s through the company’s black and white catalog, which they mail to a list that has grown to more than 100,000 addresses. If you know anything about Chris, you won’t be surprised to learn that he was attracted to the catalog not just by its promise of great tools, but by the warmth of its hand-drawn illustrations, a striking anachronism in the digital age. “They were one of the few people that had a full range of hand tools,” he says. “In the ’90s it was hard to find anybody who had more than one or two brands.” In fact, he adds, they had pretty much “EVERYTHING. And they were always supporting small makers, such as Independence Tool.”
It was Highland Woodworking that introduced Chris to Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, before the internet, when he called in his orders by phone. Though he still hadn’t seen the place in person, it felt familiar, largely thanks to the employee bios in the catalog. One year, Popular Woodworking assigned him to cover the International Woodworking Fair (IWF), which takes place in Atlanta. He played hooky one afternoon and made the pilgrimage. “I was speechless,” he says. “There was a suitcase on the floor; Roy Underhill was there, demonstrating. “I just couldn’t believe it. It exceeded my every expectation.”
Charmed by everything he’d seen, he got to know the owners, Chris and Sharon Bagby, and their daughters, Kelley and Molly. Their zaniness appeals to him – their willingness to do stuff “that’s off the beaten path,” as he says, proceeding to invoke a SawStop demonstration video in which Roy Underhill uses fried chicken, a good Southern staple, instead of the classic hot dog to trigger the stop. “They’re solid fried-gold people. It’s a funky neighborhood. They’re the bedrock there. The neighborhood has grown up around them.”
How could the Bagbys be so good at running a hardware store for specialty tools when neither of them was a woodworker? Jimmy Carter has taken classes at Highland Woodworking; Sam Maloof taught there. Here’s a glimpse into the business that should provide at least some clues.
Chris Bagby provided the following introduction:
“In 1974 Chris and Sharon Bagby, then recent Georgia Tech graduates, became managers of a King Hardware branch store on Piedmont Avenue in Atlanta. By coincidence, this particular King Hardware store happened to be the lone southeastern dealership for the Shopsmith combination woodworking machine. As the Bagbys worked to find ways to dramatically increase Shopsmith sales at the store, including introducing the sale of hardwood lumber, the store began to attract a growing community of woodworkers.
“In 1977 the Bagbys and their staff published a four-page woodworking newsletter they called “Wood News.” Response to it was enthusiastic. They published two more issues before deciding in the spring of 1978 to resign from King Hardware and start their own hardware store, Highland Hardware. Chris was 28. Sharon was 26.”
“At that time Shopsmith had begun opening its own retail stores nationwide and told the Bagbys they were not interested in making Highland Hardware a Shopsmith dealer. However, the couple soon connected with the Garrett Wade Company of New York, the U.S. importer of Swiss-made Inca Tools, and in 1978 began selling Inca tablesaws, bandsaws and planer-jointers. Highland Hardware became a local Atlanta retail source for Record and ECE hand planes, Marples chisels, Tyzack handsaws and many other fine woodworking tools purchased wholesale from Garrett Wade. They also continued to sell hardwood lumber and established a small millwork shop in the basement of the store.”
I spoke with Molly, 34, the younger daughter, who provided most of what follows. Both she and Kelley, who’s 10 years older, work for the business – Molly in Atlanta; Kelley, from her home in Massachusetts.
The business started out as an old-fashioned mom and pop hardware store selling the kind of stuff you need to fix a washing machine or plant flowers in a barrel – screwdrivers, nails, plumbing supplies, gardening tools. As time went on, they had more and more requests from woodworkers looking for specialized tools, so they brought in hand saws of higher quality, along with chisels, planes and more – now, as Chris Schwarz can attest, much more. Along with a full range of tools by Lie-Nielsen and some 400 distinct manufacturers, they also sell products by Festool and SawStop. Early on, when Home Depot, Lowe’s and Ace Hardware branches were proliferating across the country, selling really good woodworking tools was especially critical in setting the small, friendly store apart and giving them a competitive edge.
They moved the business to its present location (across the street from the original one) in 1984, more than doubling the store’s square footage. This time they set down roots, buying the property instead of paying rent. In 1995, just over a decade later, they did a large-scale renovation, adding 8,000 square feet of space, including a large classroom where seminars and hands-on woodworking classes are now taught. Also included in the renovation was a new shipping and receiving department, complete with loading dock and office space for management. The following year they launched their website; before long, the online business was hard to keep up with. They increased their shipping department and added more warehouse storage.
“Before long,” Chris Bagby continues,
“Highland Hardware published its own small tool catalog as the company evolved to become an importer of fine tools in its own right, and began to develop a wide following nationwide with a reputation as a leader in woodworking education, offering weekend classes throughout the year. In 1992, the company decided to merge the newsletter into the catalog and thereafter began publishing three catalogs a year. “Wood News” as a separate entity was no more, until 2005 when it was resurrected on the web as Wood News Online , where it continues to be published monthly.”
(You can read the 1981-82 catalog here, thanks to John Cashman, who sent me this document.)
Molly shared one of Sharon’s memories of working at the cash register. “She looks up and sees a man with an earpiece and sunglasses and gets a little worried. And then she looks to the left of him and sees it’s Jimmy Carter!”
Chris adds another Carter story:
“Back in the early ‘80s when we were still hand applying labels to our annual tool catalog mailings ourselves, Kelley [who was only about 6 or 7 at the time] came to the one with President Carter’s name and address on it. On a whim she wrote him a little note and stuck it in the catalog. A few days later she received a personally handwritten reply from Mr. Carter, thanking her for the note. We framed it and I think it is still hanging on the wall at Sharon’s house.”
President Carter first visited the store in March 1981, a couple of months after he left office, adds Chris.
“He arrived with a dozen Secret Service agents and shopped for some glue, a book and a few other things. While touring our store, he saw where we taught woodworking classes in the basement. He told me that if we were ever able to host Tage Frid for a seminar, he would like to attend.
“The next day I wrote to Mr. Frid (whom I did not know personally) and told him that President Carter would like to come to Highland to attend a class taught by him. Mr. Frid was interested, and indeed came to Atlanta to teach a weekend seminar that Mr. Carter attended on both days. As part of the event we arranged for us all to have dinner together at a nearby restaurant.
“Tage Frid went on to teach a seminar at Highland every year for 11 years. He and President Carter remained friends until Frid’s death in 2004.”
Today, Highland Woodworking employs about 20 people, most of whom live in Atlanta or the greater metro area. Three work in shipping. Sharon, says her daughter, is a “jack of all trades”; she dabbles in almost every aspect of operating the business, including purchasing, receiving, accounting and answering the phones. Several managers run all aspects of the website, SEO, catalog production, marketing and social media. A products manager searches out new stuff at conferences and tool shows, and orders stock from vendors. A dozen or so, most of them part-time, work the sales floor helping customers, showing them how to use tools, answering the phone, taking orders and providing technical support.
That’s a lot of employees for a mom and pop business. I asked Molly why they stay. “It’s a very laid-back work environment,” she answers. “My parents kind of just run the store in their own management style, and I think that has helped [with] employee retention, because it’s not super-corporate, not super-reliant on ‘human resources’ and a strict schedule with meetings and everything.” They provide full-time employees with health insurance.
Chris, Kelley and Molly share the marketing. All work remotely much of the time. Though Molly now lives in Atlanta, she used to work from Queens in New York City. Chris dials in from wherever he happens to be. (It might well be a spot along the Appalachian Trail, which he has hiked three times.)
Highland Woodworking holds tent sales and promotional events to celebrate anniversaries; these sound more like giant parties than the usual stuffy corporate affair. The most recent was in 2018, when they toasted their 40th year in business. Molly produced the event, bringing in Nick Offerman and Tom Lie-Nielsen to join Roy Underhill, who’s based closer by. The trio proved a big draw. “We weren’t expecting as big of a crowd as we got with Nick Offerman,” she says. Nick was there to sign copies of his latest book “Good Clean Fun.” “It was a very steady crowd to come meet him, the whole day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.”
One of the company’s strengths since its inception has been classes in a variety of woodworking skills. “Part of the reason we have so many staff on the sales floor is we want to be able to answer your woodworking questions,” Molly notes. “Our staff have the knowledge to be able to answer whatever question you ask about.” She mentions Phil Colson as an example; he started working for them in 1985 (he’s also Molly’s godfather, which says something about how close this family is with its employees) and teaches woodturning in addition to his other work at the store.
Sharon and Chris tried to retire – she in 1994, he in 1998. They also got divorced in 1994. But when the economy crashed in 2008 and the store took a hit, both came out of retirement to get the place running again. Says Molly: “they haven’t had time to retire since.” They’re great friends and work well together.
With the onset of the pandemic, they closed the retail storefront. Most of the business, even before, came from online sales, which have only increased, rivaling the pace during most years’ holiday rush. To save local customers the delay and cost of shipping, they offer curbside pickup. Unable to run classes in-store, they’re moving at least temporarily to an online model. (You can learn more here.)
“We’re blessed to have attracted a core group of longtime employees who know their stuff and enjoy sharing what they know about any of the tools we sell, in person during normal times and otherwise by phone,” adds Chris.
Of our 18 current staff members, 12 have been with us for over 20 years each. Phil and Sidney have both worked here since 1985. Only one of our current employees has been here less than 5 years. For all that they faithfully contribute, our employees are the main reason we have been fortunate enough to attract generations of loyal customers from all over the country since 1978. We are very grateful.”
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.