He escaped rat race so you can, too
A manager left the office behind to create Adirondack chairs, the perfect place to recapture the lost art of doing practically nothing.
By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published February 3, 2006
SOUTH TAMPA - Don't ask David Bowles about the history of the Adirondack chair.
He just builds them.
"I've seen people literally come to blows - or close to it - over the origins," he says, laughing.
At 47, Bowles, an advertising executive turned furniture builder, is something of an aficionado of the classic 1900s wooden lawn chair, which traces its roots to an early resort in New York's Adirondack Forest Preserve.
For those unfamiliar with the painted outdoor chair popular with homeowners from Maine to Miami, Adirondacks are typically built from wide planks and sport comfortably wide armrests, perfect for a cocktail or glass of iced tea.
Traditional models feature high fanned backs, slanted seats and a design that looks a little like a lumbering shorebird about to lift into flight.
"When they're designed right, they're very comfortable," he says.
Bowles began building the chairs for family members and friends as a hobby years ago because he wanted a couple for his Guernsey Estates yard and couldn't find them anywhere.
Now he builds them for lanais, decks and patios all over the Tampa Bay area at his business, the Backyard Connection, at 3517 S Manhattan Ave.
"It wasn't really a plan to ever start building them for a living," he recalls. "I just liked them."
Bowles used to work long hours for a national advertising firm that represented large liquor and tobacco companies. He supervised more than 100 employees across the United States and rarely had a day off.
One morning, he says, he woke up and "realized that my daughter had graduated from USF, gotten married, and I didn't need to make the same kind of money any more."
About the same time, he noticed an 800-square-foot shop for lease along Manhattan Avenue in South Tampa. He decided to quit his job, rent the space and pursue his true passion: an Adirondack chair building business. He also envisioned the shop - nestled on a large, pine-tree edged corner lot - as a workshop and a backdrop for tropical plants and garden decor.
"My friends all thought I was crazy to give up such a high-paying job," he remembers. "I gave myself one year to make a go of it. Well, here I am today, and making a good living, too."
The yellow building, with its big awnings and quirky signs advertising the distance to Key West (256 miles) or touting a line from the country song Some Beach is easy to miss along a stretch of Manhattan dense with small businesses.
"I've had people tell me that they drove by a dozen times before they stopped in," he says.
Once they buy, they're hooked, in part because of the reasonable prices (you can walk away with a chair for $120 stained in any color you want, including seaside blues and greens).
"His standard chair is the most comfortable you'll ever sit in," says Maria May, a repeat customer, who owns a car detail shop on S Howard Avenue. "They're stained, weatherproof and just beautiful. I love them."
Bowles carries a complete line of Adirondacks that he builds in his open-air carpentry studio. His hand-built furniture line features Adirondacks of all shapes and sizes, including the classic chair, an Adirondack shaped like a fish, a rocker, a flat-seater (for the creaky boned who can't stand the slanted seats) and a highly architectural round-backed version. He has even designed tall Adirondack-style bar stools and outdoor dining sets.
"I sell the most of the standard Adirondacks by far - probably 10 to one to everything else," he says.
He also sells small matching tables and ottoman stools for $30 and $40 apiece.
His clients include Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fishermen on the Alafia River who have spotted them on the docks of waterfront homes, owners of beach houses and regular working folks.
"They're really popular in coastal areas from the Northeast to the Southeast," he says.
Bowles rises at dawn each morning to comb area lumberyards for good pressure-treated wood, which he uses to build his chairs.
"I spend three hours every morning looking for clean, straight wood, and I really enjoy it."
The original version of the chair was designed in 1903 by Thomas Lee, the owner of the Westport Mountain Spring in Westport, N.Y., according to many sources. The story goes that Lee wanted a comfortable chair to lounge in at his summer home and later shared the idea with a carpenter friend, who patented the chair in 1904 without Lee's permission. Bowles typically builds about 10 to 12 chairs a week during busy times, usually in the spring and summer.
His chairs share space with crafts made by local artisans as well as neighbors, including an artist who makes ceramic-inlaid stepping stones and a policeman who distributes small, elegant fountains.
The shop sells bundles of firewood in the chilly months as well as wind chimes, handmade birdhouses, drawer pulls, glazed pots, even pet headstones. He also sells easy-care tropical plants and hand-built trellises, some of which are painted with shabby chic flowers by an artist friend.
"I sell a little bit of this and a little bit of that," he says.
On a balmy Florida day in January, he wears shorts and athletic shoes to work and a T-shirt declaring "Captain Morgan for President."
"It is what it is," he says of his business. "I'm selling outdoor furniture. Sure, it's not air-conditioned here, and some days it gets a little toasty. But I wouldn't trade it for being cooped up in an office. A lot of people want to do what I've done: step out of the rat race."