Diane Mastrull: Tables, chairs and cabinets are his babies

Posted: August 28, 2012

Stephen Procida filled two hours explaining his love of carpentry - a passion, he said, fed by the thrill of turning middle-of-the-night ideas into creations that "wow" customers.

His "babies" is how the South Jersey furniture-maker referred to the tables, cabinets and chairs he coaxes from planks of pine and spruce. He gets "emotional" when they leave his Washington Township store, Capture the Southwest, Procida said.

Then came the shocking confession about high school woodshop.

"Wasn't interested in it at all," Procida blurted. "Couldn't wait til basketball practice."

That was a long time ago. Now 51, the Overbrook High School alum still plays roundball to keep fit. But he came around to deciding his wood-handling skills were a better bet for keeping gainfully employed.

Wood-handling and one other entrepreneurial essential: adaptability, which Procida has in abundance.

It explains the homemade tiki bars, decorated surfboards and artificial palm trees set up outside his store and workshop along the Black Horse Pike. You know, the one where Southwest designs - as in cacti and steer heads - have helped Procida develop a profitable following for 20 years.

So what's with the tiki bars?

"I'm not the norm," he said with a shrug, sitting among his eclectic offerings. "And I wear that proudly."

He should be wearing a permanent intravenous line that supplies a constant drip of Red Bull.

For the most part, Procida is a one-man operation - making what he sells (except the Native American jewelry that fills a long glass case), running the register and searching for new sales opportunities.

Among his fruitful sales calls was Platt's Beach House Furnishings in Somers Point, where a three-year-old relationship now has Procida projecting that his beach-related line, Capture the Seashore, will wind up overtaking his Southwest division in time.

He is, after all, located much closer to beaches than desert. Not that that influenced him when he got into the furniture-making business in 1992 after working with a brother in road construction, commercial building insulation and as a dance-club disc jockey. Like I said: Adaptability.

Procida said his Southwest inspiration came while strolling through a local shopping mall and seeing a store that carried Southwest art and artifacts.

Not long after that, he booked a trip to Arizona, where he spent seven days meeting crafts people, art-gallery operators and wholesalers - and attending a retailing seminar.

Back home, he started out on the flea-market circuit, then graduated to a 600-square-foot store in Medford. The big time - from an exposure perspective - would come in 1994 when he moved to the heavily traveled Black Horse Pike in Turnersville, about three miles north of his current Sicklerville store. Fed up with shipping costs and items arriving broken from Arizona, Procida started making much of his inventory in 2003.

Five years later, his website, www.captureCTS.com, caught the eye of a woman in charge of finding furnishings for a scene in the 2008 season finale of Law & Order Criminal Intent. Procida was hired to make an armoire, a sofa table, cocktail and end tables, and a rug hanger for the show, which aired in August of that year.

"It was awesome," he said of his television debut. "It was like a feather in the cap after all the hard work and years."

When local newspapers wrote about it, Procida saw even more new faces in his store - a welcome business boost at a time of nationwide economic struggle.

Also weighing on Procida was his $900,000 purchase that year of the Sicklerville property that he had been renting since 2001. It was largely motivated as a defensive move against a retail development proposed for land behind his workshop and showroom that Procida feared would threaten his prime Black Horse Pike exposure.

What followed after that purchase was a terrifying 20 percent drop in Procida's sales that lasted about two years - a loss he attributes to the flagging economy and the chill it put on consumer spending.

That's when he got the idea to add beach-related furnishings to his stock. It was premised on the belief that "there has to be something different I can start to show passersby [to demonstrate] it's not just what they've thought."

So up went the fake palm trees and about as fast as you can say, "Surf's up!," so too went Procida's sales. "It was a resurgence of business, which was overwhelming," he recalled.

Celeste Platt admits considering it "strange" when Procida walked into her family's 64-year-old, beach-oriented store a few years ago, introduced himself as the proprietor of a business that makes Southwest-style furniture, and asked whether she would be interested in carrying some of his creations.

"I said to him, 'Are you kidding?' " Platt recalled in an interview last week. "I said, We're strictly beach house.' "

Procida persisted, saying he "can make tables that look like the boardwalk and look like they belong at the beach," Platt said. He invited her to his store to see some of what he was talking about.

She made the trip with her husband, David, whose father, the late David Platt Sr., founded the family business in 1948 in Ocean City and later moved it to Somers Point.

Now Platt's is ordering 30 to 40 pieces a month from Procida who, with Celeste Platt, has come up with designs that have proven to be popular sellers, including tables made to look like fish and sand dollars. They are in weathered beach hues instead of Capture the Southwest's more traditional turquoise and terra cotta. Adaptability.

Business is up 20 percent thanks to the beach line, Procida said.

So does he intend to change the sign out front that says Capture the Southwest? That's one adaptation he's not yet ready to make.

"This business has been built on that name," Procida said.

Diane Mastrull:

Steve Procida talks about the inspiration for his Capture the Southwest furniture store. Watch a video at philly.com/business

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or @mastrud on Twitter.

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