Which little chairs came first?
It’s hard to say, exactly. Maybe they’re lurking over there, near those chairs climbing nearly two feet high, made entirely from twigs and branches. Or possibly they’re in this display case here, tucked behind a 6-inch-tall “John 3:16” mini-bench and a wee chair with angel wings flying off of its back.
Barbara Hartsfield acknowledges the irony: If you don’t start out knowing you’re collecting something, remembering which came first becomes important only in retrospect.
That’s the sensible side of her brain talking. Born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the psychiatric nurse has been with Grady Health System for 41 years, currently working at the Adult Outpatient Behavioral Health Center downtown on the edge of Woodruff Park.
Along the way, Hartsfield, 67, got two masters degrees and developed a special interest in the so-called “zero to 3” age group. In fact, it was while she was writing an article for the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing in 1991 that the other, more fanciful side of her brain suddenly spoke up.
“To get into the mood, I decided to put out some baby dolls in little chairs,” said Hartsfield. “I just fell into it.”
She picked up a couple of small chairs at a T.J. Maxx store. Later, another T.J. Maxx had different miniature chairs. So she picked those up, too.
“I got hooked,” she admits. “Why chairs, specifically? I don’t know.”
They were just there, seemingly everywhere she looked.
The following year, Hartsfield’s aunt, Verlean Floyd, moved back to Tuscaloosa from New York to care for her elderly mother, Eliza Harper. Once a month, Hartsfield would drive over from metro Atlanta to relieve Verlean for the weekend and fuss over Harper, her grandmother.
Each time she made the 500-mile round trip, she’d “reward” herself by stopping at home goods stores, crafts shops and antiques markets in pursuit of more chairs. Even now, a slightly devilish gleam comes into Hartsfield’s eye as she remembers routinely pausing to make a “You need anything?” call to Verlean from a payphone at a shopping mall on the outskirts of Tucaloosa that was home to a store where she frequently had good luck finding little chairs.
The monthly trips continued until October 2005, when Harper died at age 100. By then, Hartsfield’s search field had expanded: To other weekends first, then to other days of the week. To Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx and Ross Dress for Less. And to Big Lots and Dollar Tree Stores, where just you never knew what might turn up.
To crafts emporiums like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby, where she learned to wait until just after Christmas to scoop up chair-themed ornaments at cut-rate prices. And to sprawling arts fairs and antiques marts such as Lakewood, where dealer Prunella Johnson kept a lookout. “Anything having to do with a small chair, I knew she would like it.”
“On Saturdays I would pack a lunch and take a journey all along I-20 East or West, hitting every place,” Hartsfield recalled almost wistfully about a time before the next new chair could be merely one quick, impersonal eBay click away.
Before the idea of a museum devoted entirely to miniature chairs was barely a dream.
In search of a home
One Sunday not long after her grandmother died, Hartsfield attended the 7:30 a.m. service at Beulah Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur, as usual. Then she drove a half hour east to Stone Mountain Village. There, in a driveway next to a shuttered gift shop, she shifted to a Higher Gear.
As the size of her collection kept growing, so did Hartsfield’s desire to share it with a wider audience. She was determined to open a miniature chair museum in the little town that sits in the shadow of the famous mountain and park nearby. But every time she’d come across a building that looked promising, either it was too pricey or someone else beat her to it.
She was unaccustomed to not being able to collect something she really wanted. Over 15 years she’d managed to amass more than 3,000 little chairs, which filled her Ellenwood home and a storage unit. Each one differed in its own way, and each one adhered to her “I’ll know it when I see it” definition of “miniature” — basically, bigger than dollhouse furniture and smaller than what you’d perch a full-sized doll on. That left lots of room in between for a model-thin, 5-inch-high paper chair fashioned from a page out of Harper’s Bazaar; a grapefruit-sized armchair built with bottle caps; and 12 different-sized and shaped chairs, all made out of clothes pins.
But what good was owning the crown jewels without a crown to show them off in?
“I said, ‘I’m going to pray up a building!’” Hartsfield recalled recently, closing her eyes and extending her arms in front of her, just as she’d done it in her car that Sunday morning.
And just like that, there it was.
Well, not just like that. The first thing Hartsfield saw was a building across the street. But it turned out to be too big and instead became a store called “The Health Nut.” Which just proves God had a sense of humor to go along with His plan for Hartsfield. For it was while she was touring that first property that she looked back across Main Street and saw a sign for a second one, near where she’d been sitting in her car.
“It was right there when I needed it,” Hartsfield said.
What she needed was a place near a heavily-trafficked tourist attraction where visitors could come to gawk at her vast array of little chairs that nestled inside bottles or under lampshades; chairs fashioned from wrenches, horseshoes or champagne corks; chairs that did double duty as pin cushions, flowerpots, doggie dishes and toothbrush holders.
Chairs that spoke to bygone eras, such as a set that appeared ripped from a one-room schoolhouse or — likely the oldest piece in her collection — a man-reading-in-a-chair bookend made in 1935. Chairs that dared not speak their real names: Small replica commodes, some two dozen of them, serving as ashtrays, candle holders, pencil sharpeners, even, in one case, a radio.
It would be a real museum, complete with a gift shop, themed displays in every room (including the bathroom), and fueled by a delightfully infectious belief that everyone would similarly swoon for her little chairs if only they could come see them!
By the following June, Hartsfield had paid $220,000 for the circa-1850 house in Stone Mountain Village, her future museum site. Maybe she did it because she had more free time now that she wasn’t spending those long weekends in Alabama. Maybe she wasn’t so much filling a void as finding a way to share with others what it meant to deeply care about something.
But enough with the amateur psychology. What does a professional think?
“You don’t have to hear Barbara speak more than two sentences to know about her passion for and love of family,” said Dr. Jennifer Wootten, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. The medical director of the Grady Behavioral Health Clinic, she’s known Hartsfield for 20 years. “And not just her blood family. It’s also her Grady family. Her co-workers and her patients.”
A large part of Hartsfield’s work at the clinic is with patients who take Clozapine, a drug for schizophrenics resistant to treatment. Her job includes monitoring their weight, blood pressure and other vital signs, and administering injections. The work is as scientific and detail-oriented as it is heartfelt and intuitive. Hartsfield is always watching and listening to patients — some of whom she’s seen going on five years now — for issues medical instruments can’t ferret out: Who’s not eating or sleeping enough? Who’s hearing voices again? Who has housing problems?
“She connects with patients and they feel they can tell her things,” said Wootten, who discerns a connection between that type of personality and, well, you-know-what. “When someone offers you a chair, they’re offering you a respite. It’s the welcoming, ‘take a load off and let’s visit’ aspect of it.”
According to Hartsfield, though, the two worlds are completely different. She says collecting and displaying chairs is a stress buster for her.
But wait! That colorful tissue box holder in Wootten’s office at the clinic — is it actually a tiny couch?!
It is. Over the years, Hartsfield’s been known to share her miniature largess with co-workers and friends, and they’ve returned the favor. A fellow nurse brought her a chair from China. Wootten’s sister sent along a pair of black ox horn miniature chairs she’d found in Chile.
At some point, somebody threw out the question:
Why don’t you try setting a world record?
It hadn’t ever occurred to her. She was way too busy those first couple of years after buying the building to give much thought to the Guinness World Records. The wooden floors needed work, there was no insulation in the attic and she needed custom-made display cases to conform to the old house’s dimensions.
At least her financial house was in order. In 2007, Hartsfield accepted a buyout offer from Grady and used some of the money to pay for 22 handsome wooden, glass-fronted display cases. But her nursing skills were still in high demand and she quickly returned to work part time.
“I was retired for two weeks,” Hartsfield quipped.
Her new, three-day work week meant she could open the museum on Fridays and Saturdays, when Stone Mountain Village was busiest.
By 2008, Hartsfield was finally ready to think about Guinness. Having a world record would be good publicity for the museum. Besides, she admits, she was curious.
Did anyone else have as many — more — miniature chairs?
Did such a record even exist?
It did not. Guinness ended up creating a new category for Hartsfield — after she went through the painstaking and sometimes comical process of documenting her claim. Besides all being different, the chairs had to be three-dimensional. Nothing with a chair on it qualified. So much for the chair postage stamps, chair postcards and chair matchbox covers.. Not to mention the “Life Is Just A Chair of Bowl-ies” pillow, the collection of wristwatches with chairs on their faces and the chair-etched stepping stones leading up to the museum’s front door.
Also, gulp, photos were no good as proof. For years Hartsfield had been taking shots of chairs as she acquired them and carefully cataloging the photos in albums. She keeps the books — 27 of them — in a fireproof safe in her home. Five years ago, two Guinness-approved “application witnesses” came to her house to validate the literally thousands of chairs Hartsfield laid out on floors and furniture, on kitchen counter tops and exercise equipment.
“They were everywhere. Everywhere,” Dr. B.P. Vidanagama, a psychiatrist and former Grady co-worker who was one of the witnesses, laughingly recalled.
The official record stands at 3,000 miniature chairs, although Hartsfield says she had more than that, even back then. Not that she’s really counting anymore. Or planning another go at it. If someone else comes along and breaks her world record, that’s OK with her. She’s already gotten the “validation” she wanted.
And besides, she’s got a museum to run now.
Come on in, y’all
Officially, it’s called the Collectible & Antique Chair Gallery. Hartsfield doesn’t keep attendance figures, but since the museum first opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2009, some 200 people have signed a guest book in the gift shop/lobby.
Admission is $5. down from $10, initially. But the museum’s budget isn’t dependent on admission fees, Hartsfield said. Still, she’s not just sitting around waiting for folks to show up. This is her self-declared “Year of Marketing.” She’s joined two museum organizations and gotten write-ups in Antiques Trader magazine and TravelandLeisure.com. And she’s constantly coming up with catchy promotional phrases:
“Chairs With a Different Purpose.”
“A Unique Leisure Attraction.”
“You Must See It to Believe It.”
As if on cue one Friday in late summer, the front door swung open to admit Stone Mountain residents Molly and John Titus. They’d only recently learned of the museum’s existence; now, they leaned in close to study the displays that Hartsfield organized according to themes — most notably, holidays.
It starts with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a room on one side of the small house and proceeds pretty much chronologically through Thanksgiving and Christmas to the other side of the building. With just one slight hiccup: Not wanting to “mix witchcraft and Jesus,” Hartsfield moved Halloween into the first room, where it’s close to Memorial Day and as far away from Easter and Christmas as possible.
In a third room filled with displays devoted to Western- and jungle-themed chairs, to chair-shaped cookie jars and teapots, and to more than 100 sets of chair salt-and-pepper shakers, the Tituses lingered in front of a case containing nothing but chairs in bottles: Jugs and gallon jars, straight-backed chairs and rockers, woven seats and popsicle-stick legs. And the smallest chair in the place, standing a mere 1-1/2-inches “tall” inside of a 2-1/4-inch bottle.
The chairs-in-bottles are probably her favorites, Hartsfield admitted with the slightly guilty look of a mother singling out one of her brood as more special than the rest. Those, and the dozens and dozens of chair ornaments hanging on the Christmas tree that stays decorated year round in a corner of the museum.
That somehow seems apt. For if every day doesn’t feel like Christmas around Hartsfield, it’s pretty darned close. With an endlessly curious and nimble mind that’s always acquiring new knowledge about things like museum design and marketing and business strategy, she’s hardly child-like. But her high-spirited belief that the next wonderful gift — or little chair — is always just waiting to be found is downright infectious.
After spending just a little time at her museum, you find yourself nodding that of course that mirror you’re idly staring into is actually a little chair. Even after leaving, it’s not uncommon to find yourself believing every Kleenex holder or pepper shaker that exists in the “outside” world is chair-shaped. Or it should be.
It’s also possible to feel slightly envious. Not of Hartsfield’s chairs, her museum or even her world record. But rather, of what it all adds up to together: Passion.
“A passion is something that lights her up when she talks about it,” Dr. Wootten observed. “It gives her life meaning and purpose, but it doesn’t take over her life.”
But maybe someday ...
“I put money, energy and time into it and now I’m going to enjoy the results,” Hartsfield said after the Tituses departed, museum fliers in their hands and her cheerful exhortation to “Come again, and bring a friend!” trailing them out the door.
“People tell me they’re going to come on by, and I say, ‘Take your time.’
“‘I’ll be here.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Reporter Jill Vejnoska first heard about the little chair museum when owner Barbara Hartsfield sent her an email several years ago. Other emails periodically followed whenever a particularly interesting new chair arrived or something else happened that Hartsfield considered newsworthy. Finally, one Friday this summer, Vejnoska decided to go check it out in hopes of writing a “fun little article.” But as soon as she started talking to Hartsfield, she knew there was a bigger, richer story to tell.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
About the reporter
Jill Vejnoska has worked for the AJC for 20 years, covering everything from sports and politics to television and food. Some of the stories she’s covered include Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign and synchronized swimming at the Olympics. She is a native of Westfield, N.J.
About the photographer
Brant Sanderlin has more than 20 years’ experience as a photojournalist, including 14 at the AJC. He shoots a variety of assignments, including front-line action during the Iraqi war, sporting events, breaking news and human interest stories. He grew up on the family farm in eastern North Carolina.