Fortin Ironworks Showcases Capabilities with Vintage Marketplace
Most Columbusites have heard of Fortin Ironworks, but many aren’t familiar with the extensive capabilities of the 70 plus year-old family business. That craftsmanship is now on display at the Fortin Ironworks Vintage Marketplace and Custom Fabrication Department at 944 W. Fifth Ave. in Fifth by Northwest.
“We hear it all too often, literally every day people will come in and say, ‘You know I’ve driven by your building for 20 years and never had any idea what you all did,'” says Vice President of Retail Operations Bob Fortin. “The whole concept of this retail operation is to attract people to learn about the family business; learn about local trades.”
Sourcing from vintage flea markets, antique malls, estate sales and more, the Vintage Marketplace stocks 5,000 square feet of Fortin Ironworks originals to true vintage pieces. Bob says they take care to clearly label every piece, whether it was made in the Fortin Ironworks factory, repurposed by one of the craftsmen they employ, a genuine vintage find, or a modern reproduction so customers know exactly what they are getting.
“By marking the items Fortin Crafted or Fortin Repurposed, we’re hoping that we’ll get the customers to realize we could also custom-make other variations of that,” he says.
From signs to a coffee table made from an old propeller, the Vintage Marketplace stocks items large and small organized around various vignettes. There’s a bar/speakeasy theme, vintage nautical, vintage farmhouse and an industrial-themed area. Several of the vignettes pay tribute to the family business’ beginnings. The garage area has a replica of the company’s first overhead garage door and the door from father and founder Joseph Fortin’s ’47 pickup truck.
Returning home after WWII, Joseph married Fortin family matriarch Josephine and started the business from the garage of their home on West Third Avenue in 1946. As the business grew, they built a factory on the same site which still stands and is still home for Josephine. The couple had seven kids, all born and raised at the factory.
“I like to say we never had a backyard to play in, we had a factory to work in,” Bob says.
The family business continued to expand, outgrowing Third Avenue and some satellite buildings in the neighborhood. The opportunity to move two blocks north to West Fifth Avenue presented itself two decades ago. Originally home to Exact Weight Scale, then Columbus Hardware, Fortin Ironworks leveraged a promise to not tear down the 100 year old building take control of the facility.
Previously, a service counter and a 150 square foot waiting room had served as the “retail” side of Fortin Ironworks.
“Every job we did for the most part was a custom job,” Bob says. “People rarely saw our finished work because it was never on display. It was always on the customer’s home.”
Fortin Ironworks wanted to change that with its new location, dreaming of a facility with large displays to highlight their work with fences, gates, handrails and more. But when the time came to move in 2000, “We were literally booked too full to build our own displays,” Bob says.
He couldn’t just let their new showroom space sit empty.
A fortuitous cold call from Alabama-based outdoor furniture manufacturer Summer Classics would present a solution. Bob was impressed with the quality of Summer Classics’ work – it looked like the caliber of furniture Fortin Ironworks would build if they manufactured furniture on a regular basis.
Fortin Ironworks developed a relationship with Summer Classics, becoming a dealer and eventually filling their empty showroom. Bob felt the furniture looked lonely, though. So inspired by the styling of Summer Classics’ corporate store in Alabama, Bob began accessorizing the furniture sets, developing the aesthetic that would eventually translate to the Vintage Marketplace.
Although they had developed a retail component of Fortin Ironworks, albeit in an unexpected way, the Fifth Avenue location still had underutilized space. The family made the decision to redesign a portion of the building that was sectioned into offices, and convert it into more retail space.
It also meant that, despite a fruitful relationship, it was time to shift the focus from Summer Classics to Fortin Ironworks’ custom work. Leveraging the growing density around their facility and the thoroughfare that is West Fifth Avenue, Bob says the retail focus is now on building company awareness of Fortin Ironwork’s capabilities. They wanted to support their craftsmen and their work, also honoring the trade skills that are the backbone of the family business.
Fortin Ironworks is eager to get the community involved in their space. Bob explains that as a part of the Vintage Marketplace, they’ve set up a customer lounge. Customers can take a break from shopping, grab their laptop and work for a few hours, use it as a unique venue for a photoshoot and more. The entire lounge, which seats about 40, can also be roped off as an event space.
“We want to be more than just the factory that ships stock products,” Bob says. Fortin Ironworks wants to be a destination.
“We just want to be a very community-friendly place,” Bob says.
For more information, visit fortinironworks.com.