August 21 – Happy Birthday John Torani

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John Torani in middle, John Morrell on left and Vito Torani on right.

During the first ten-to-twelve years of my life, feeling hard cold linoleum beneath the soles of my bare feet was part of the waking-up process. Even though Amsterdam was known as the Rug City, most of the floors in the upstairs’ and downstairs’ flats in Amsterdam’s West End were covered with that less expensive hardened linseed oil or resin based material. Your Dad had to have had a really decent job or a good connection with one of the big bosses in an Amsterdam rug mill back then for you to have your toes meet warmer and toastier  tufted carpet when your Mom yelled “Time to wake up” on a cold winter school day morning.

But today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant knew a revolution in floor covering was coming when he returned to Amsterdam from military service during World War II. New materials and new manufacturing processes were driving the square foot cost of carpeting down to a point where most everyone could afford it. Between the 1950s and ’60s, carpeting went from being the preferred floor covering in just the formal rooms of the well-to-do, to just about every room of every house in every neighborhood in town. Most of the square yards laid here in Amsterdam were purchased from Carpetland.

John Torani’s parents came to Amsterdam from Pisciotta in Southern Italy at the beginning of the 20th Century. He attended Amsterdam schools and like so many before him, started working in an Amsterdam rug mill until called to duty in WWII. It was after returning to Amsterdam that the idea of opening a store in Amsterdam to sell carpets. Partnering with his brother Vito and brother-in-law, John Morrell, he opened the very first version of Carpetland in a storefront on Forbes Street. Their business model back then was more focused on cleaning carpets than selling them but there was no doubt that a retail carpet store located within a few city blocks from the biggest producer of carpeting in the World made lots of sense.

Torani moved the store to its landmark 411 West Main Street location in 1949 and quickly began expanding that site with acquisitions of neighboring houses and new construction. From the outside, the store’s patchwork profile was probably the weirdest looking retail location in the city but it was inside that mattered and Torani and his partners made sure customer’s got royal treatment as soon as the walked through the front door. Also thriving was the company’s contracting business. Carpetland was selling and installing thousands of square yards of its products via successful bidding on new private and government and government construction and renovation projects.

In 1969, Carpetland added a brand new showroom dedicated strictly to carpeting so that they could use the old selling space to showcase all the other types of floor coverings the business was selling by then. In March of 1971, the store celebrated its 25thanniversary with a multi-page explosion of full page ads in the Amsterdam Recorder and over 3,000 people showed up to the week-long, prize-giveaway-filled event. At the same time, John Torani announced that he and his partners had purchased the old Stanton-Ouderkirk Warehouse site located several blocks east of the existing store on West Main Street at the foot of Pearl Street. Torani told the Recorder that within five years the new acquisition would be transformed into “the finest showroom in the area.” That never happened.

Instead, in 1971 John Torani opened up a new Carpetland location in Saratoga Springs. The firm also brought in the next generations of the Torani and Morrell families to help manage their expanding business. But nationally, carpet sales began declining and an economic recession in the US helped hasten its fall. By then the carpet making portion of Amsterdam’s rug industry had long since moved elsewhere and Carpetland saw its local business decline as well. The Amsterdam location remained open until Hurricane Irene put the store six feet under water in 2011.

Amsterdam is no longer called the Rug City but that portion of West Main Street still gets a high volume of traffic going east and west on Route 5. The flooding problem appears to have been rectified as well. Will another entrepreneur like John Torani come along and see an opportunity for that area? You never know.

 

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