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The Virtue of Vice

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If you're seeking wildly distinctive furniture you can't find at IKEA or Levin's, you may be able to find just the thing in ... Millvale?

While the Allegheny River hamlet just outside the city is more likely to make headlines for flooding, one of the Pittsburgh area's best-kept style secrets has maintained a flashy presence on North Avenue since 1934.

Sitting pretty: Brett Berkman - BRIAN KALDORF

"Let Jerry Modernize Your Home," reads the sign, festooned with nesting bluebirds, over the entrance of Jerry Kitman Fine Furniture.

The neon that used to illuminate the sign -- promising living rooms, dinettes, dining rooms, accessories and bedrooms -- has gone dark. But inside, it's an oasis of color and curves, angles and ice. If you're looking to turn your den into the set of Miami Vice, this is the place. Here's where you can find the pieces that will add the "wow" factor to your home: a deep crimson couch that's all angles with a chair to match, skinny-backed dining-room chairs composed of buttons of turquoise velvet, a wildly sexy chaise longue whose curves are complemented by square pillows.

The furniture is grouped into ever-changing setups by Judy Berkman, Jerry Kitman's daughter. Proud to be part of a third-generation, family-owned shop, Berkman runs the store with her son, Brett Berkman.

"Our motto has always been, 'If it's different, we have it,'" says Judy Berkman, who does all the buying at furniture shows in Las Vegas and High Point, N.C. "We don't do imports," she says. "We believe in the United States."

Ornamental glass globe sculpture, offset with custom painting - BRIAN KALDORF
  • Brian Kaldorf
  • Ornamental glass globe sculpture, offset with custom painting

The aesthetic of the store's selection, she says, is contemporary, with a bit of Florida condo thrown in. "We've always had contemporary," she says, although she acknowledges, "I guess contemporary looked a little different in 1934."

The store itself looked different in the early days, too, when Berkman would bring her baby dolls to play in the big, split-level space. Back then, "We didn't have vignettes," she says, referring to displays that group the furniture into scenes. "It looked like a typical furniture store."

Today, however, the furnishings are arranged to suggest cozy sitting rooms or swank home bars. "We try to make the store look like your house," Berkman says. That's assuming, of course, your house has low platform beds, mirrored wall hangings and a centerpiece of crystal stalagmites gleaming atop a glass-topped table.

"She has this way of pulling stuff together," says Nan Cohen, a friend and customer of Berkman's who hosts a radio show, Home Solutions, on KQV. "It must all click in her brain. I bought a sofa, she moves the pillows and it looks like it's totally redone!" Cohen raves about a mirror hanging on a wall in the store: It's got a tessellated pattern of squares and rectangles, and Berkman's hung it on the diagonal.

"She has the eye," chimes in Brett Berkman.

Your next living room, in red suede - BRIAN KALDORF

"I have a flair," Judy Berkman allows. "I know when a pillow's out of place. If you're gonna do it, do it right." She says that while customers' choices are ultimately their own, "If it's not going to look right, I'm not going to tell you to get it. If somebody likes something and it's wrong, I'm not afraid to tell them." But, she says, "I can't tell you to sit on a green sofa if you hate green. It's your house." On the other hand, if the sofa you love is in hated green, never fear -- you can customize the fabric to your liking.

The store has always placed a lot of emphasis on customer service, Berkman says. "I enjoy people coming in to the store and talking to them." She says the store does a lot of repeat business: "First house, second house, divorced house," she says with a laugh. "People really appreciate the store caring about them. When I pull out an old card that someone bought here before, it's a good accomplishment, like you've made contact."

Berkman says the store attracts a wide range of customers, young and old -- though at a few hundred bucks for a centerpiece to up to a few thousand for a couch, she doesn't do much trade with college kids furnishing their party pit.

"We have a lot of senior citizens," she says. "It amazes me how much older people like contemporary. It's people that want their rooms to stand out from the ordinary. Everybody doesn't want the same gold floral sofa."

Metal candleholder - BRIAN KALDORF

Customer loyalty became obvious during the most recent flood, when the store's entire stock was destroyed. "Customers called to see if they could help, if we were back in business, if there was anything they could do."

If you've never heard of Kitman Fine Furniture, there's a reason. The store's customer base is a tight network, and advertising has mostly been through word of mouth (though lately it has purchased some billboard space around the city). The store doesn't even have a Web site, because Berkman thinks the human touch is far too important in furnishing a home. "I'm not really an Internet person," she says.

"This is one of those secrets of Pittsburgh," says Cohen. "I'm always talking about all the neat little things about Pittsburgh."

So why keep it in Millvale?

"I guess Millvale is off the beaten path," Berkman acknowledges. "We don't do any business in Millvale, but we never did.

"We are a good kept secret."

 

Jerry Kitman Fine Furniture. 220 North Ave., Millvale. 412-821-1311. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. every day, and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.

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