Renee Zelman has run Norman Furniture for decades — three of them without Norman

EDITOR'S NOTE: Renee Zelman, widow of Norman Zelman, a former Texas A&M University Cadet, passed away June 15, 2001. In her will, Renee, a University of Texas graduate and owner of Norman Furniture in Pasadena, Texas, left $200,000 to her beloved husband's alma mater, the College of Architecture at Texas A&M. The gift created the Norman and Renee Zelman Endowed Scholarship in Architecture, establishing a lasting memorial to the lifelong bond shared between an Aggie and a Longhorn. Below is their story, a love story originally published June 16, 1999 in the Houston Chronicle. It is reprinted here with permission from the Houston Chronicle.

Houston Chronicle Staff

Houston Chronicle 9/16/99
Reprinted with permission

The store's quiet, mighty quiet, when the door chimes. A customer.

"When that bell rings, I'm like Pavlov's dog," says Renee Zelman. "Will you excuse me?"

Popping up from the solid oak chair, part of a dining room set on display, Zelman speeds toward the front of her store.


The bell might chime less often these days, but after 54 years in business, Zelman says Norman Furniture is still alive and kicking — and so is she, at age 78 a testimonial to the benefits of hard work and good genes.

All these years, Zelman has bought, arranged and sold furniture for the Pasadena store she opened with her husband just after World War II. She did it with him for the first 19 years and without him after his death in 1965, a hard death from cancer of the liver. He was her best friend, she says, and in some ways, still is. Norman Zelman's name remains on the store and on its business cards; it comes up in conversation. He is gone but not forgotten.

Which is not to say this is Norman's furniture store. It may bear his name, but this is Renee 's place. She knows every corner, has touched every display, moved every piece. As a war bride, she scrimped and saved to pay for the store she envisioned would sell furniture to soldiers returning from World War II and their young families.

"I taught school during the day, coached English and math in the afternoon and worked for the telephone company at night to save money," she says. "I saved $3,174.11, and that was what put us in the furniture business."

Back then, Zelman says, Pasadena had 10,000 people and two paved streets but a lot of potential.

"Houston at that time was a fairly closed town as far as furniture was concerned. Pasadena was booming. Chemicals, chemicals.

"You could sell anything you could get your hands on in 1946," she says. "Some of those customers are still my customers, and their children and their grandchildren."

Norman Furniture debuted in what is now called old Pasadena, but was then a vibrant downtown for a budding city. The first store was one block over from the present site — and too small from the beginning.

"We were out of space the day we moved in," Zelman says, explaining the move, four years later, to the present location at the corner of Shaver and Shaw, just south of the Washburn Tunnel and north of Texas 225. Norman Furniture's new home was once the Pasadena Theater, built in 1926, and the first in the area. The Zelmans revamped the building to suit their business. When Palais Royal closed next door, the Zelmans took over that space, too, incorporating it into one big showroom.

Like many others in the aging district, the Norman Furniture building is showing its years. Tunnel traffic, a few healthy businesses, and proximity to the Harris County Courthouse Annex No. 4 and post office draw what visitors still come to the area, but thriving it isn't.

"After Norman died, I didn't even think about closing the store. People ask me why I stay in this location when everything has moved out," Zelman says.

"But I've shipped furniture all over the world, to Argentina and to Newcastle, England, and my customers are very loyal, and they bring in their friends and families, and you can't ask for better than that."

Barbara Forbus, who has known Renee Zelman since the '60s, says she started out as a customer and became a friend.

"I went in to look for furniture. Some friends had recommended her store. I have a lot of antiques and needed furniture that would match. Of course, back then they called it Early American," she laughs. "Now it's called traditional."

She's still buying furniture from Zelman; two curio cabinets were delivered in August. And occasionally, she watches the store.

"I think she is a wonderful person. She is a very giving, generous person in many, many ways and a good businesswoman. And funny. Just really funny."

Not much over 5 feet tall, Renee Zelman has a firm handshake and a steady gaze. Today she is wearing a cream blouse, black skirt, gold earrings and a No. 2 pencil stuck behind her ear.

She works the store alone, with only her 5-year-old cocker spaniel, Beau, to keep her company.

"I used to have high school boys help me in here, moving the furniture around," she says, "but now nobody wants the job.

"I used to have a delivery truck with two men who slept in the back until they needed to make a delivery.

"Then somebody stole my truck. I don't know who to send the thank-you note to. I don't have to pay for the truck, don't have to pay the insurance, don't have to pay the two men. I just call a delivery service."

She closes the store between Christmas and New Year's. If she has an appointment or other business to attend to, friends like Forbus fill in for her.

At Norman Furniture, Zelman does it all. She's the buyer, the mover, the sales manager. When the store's quiet, she does bookkeeping, rearranges, cleans.

"I work," she says. "I was out there pulling weeds and sweating this morning, and this turkey comes out of the Pasadena Citizen (across the street) and says, `You need some help?' I ask him how much he'd charge and he says $45. I said, `More like $5.' He said, `You need to come up some,' and I said, `Do you hear me groaning?' He went on then."

She laughs. She says she stays strong and fit because she does her own housework, her own yardwork, and moves furniture. She says she believes men and women have the same muscles if they use them.

"I never thought I could do something because I was a woman, or that I couldn't do it because I was a woman. You know what I mean?"

Longevity runs in her family - her mother retired at age 85 after 55 years as a sales clerk at the Smart Shop. She died at 95. Zelman says she intends to keep busy.

"I like to bake; I have a reputation for my Italian cream cake. I garden. I make my own clothes for the most part. I socialize some."

She volunteers at the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research on Mondays (when the furniture store is closed). She's learning Spanish. When her customers have their first baby, she knits them a little sweater. The second baby gets a tam. The third, matching shoes. ("After that," she says, "they're on their own.")

Sometimes, customers ask her when she is going to retire.

"I tell them, when my customers make me. . . . I don't want to be idle. I don't have time to be idle. When they plant me, I am going to have plenty of time to be idle."

She loves furniture, and she loves selling.

Cruising the showroom floor, she shows off dovetailed construction, fabric stripes that line up on cushions and sofas that don't sag when you sit on them.

She points to chairs and tables as she walks, labeling them solid oak, solid pine, solid cherry. That recliner? "The mechanism is guaranteed for the life of the furniture."

She points to empty spots in the showroom and says, "Prosperity."

She says customers come back because she sells quality.

"You don't see any junk. My furniture never shows up in garage sales. It's passed down from one generation to another."

She buys to please women shoppers, she says, looking for things like seat pads that reverse, dressers with pullout jewelry drawers, coffee tables with ingenious lift-up tops that become serving tables for eating in the living room ("sold!").

"See this?" she asks, standing by a smallish table. Turns out, it features a top that lifts to reveal game boards and pieces; the top itself flips over for "an instant craps or card table. And then when the preacher comes to see you (she flips the gaming top out of sight), you serve him a cup of tea."

Bill McCoy, president of Pasadena's Chamber of Commerce, calls Zelman "a lady of character."

"I've known her for about 10 years and go down every now and then, and she tells me all about Pasadena."

He says there's a plaque in his office from when the local chamber became a member of the U.S. Chamber in 1946, the same year the Zelmans opened Norman Furniture. He reckons the couple had something to do with that.

Though he never got to meet Norman, he values Renee Zelman and her opinion, he says.

"She's ready to tell you what she has on her mind, and that is why I like her so much. She may disagree with you, but she will still be there when you need her.

"She's just a Pasadena treasure. She sits among fine furniture."

Renee and Norman met as students. He was studying architecture at Texas A&M; she was a University of Texas pre-med student with a triple major of English, math and history.

"But then," she says, "Norman came along my sophomore year in his Aggie boots and talked me out of medical school. I married him when I graduated from college."

A large portrait of a young and lovely Zelman in her wedding dress ("$25 at Sakowitz") dominates a small office at Norman Furniture. There are also photos of Norman, in his uniform, later in a suit - a nice-looking gentleman with intelligent eyes and a man's shoulders.

"He was a big man," she says. "He was 6 feet 3 inches, 225 pounds. I bet he didn't weigh as much as I did when he died."

Zelman says she nursed Norman the whole time he was in the hospital, moving a bed into his room. Customers ran the store.

"And when Norman died eight months later, I came back to work."

Climbing the stairs to show off the furniture in the store's balcony area, Zelman pauses on the landing halfway up. She remembers it all as if it were yesterday, and her husband is never far from her thoughts.

She and Norman were best friends, she says, and she misses him and his sense of humor. They had no children. They were married 22 years. "Not long enough."

From there on the landing, she can see most of the showroom, the furnishings, the displays, the business. She looks it over before continuing up the stairs. On the wall behind her is a pie-sized electric clock with the words "Buy It Now/Norman Furniture" circling its face. She says the clock dates to the beginning - 1946. She says it just keeps on going.

Like her.

- The End -

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