Even if you haven't seen Marc Brown's notorious commercials on late-night television, there's no missing his eight-story empire at East 21st and Payne. A giant sign announces "Norton Furniture." Right next to it is an even bigger profile of Brown himself.
The weird humor and trippy quality of Brown's commercials have left many Clevelanders, as well as the internet community, wondering if he is for real. While Brown is just as quirky in real life as he is on TV (yes, he actually talks like that), the 35-year furniture store veteran is first and foremost a businessman, and a good one.
"I'm a brand," he says proudly. "When you think of Norton Furniture, you think of me. It's what I always wanted."
As a child, Brown dreamed of becoming a movie star. But his career ambitions changed after he accompanied his father, an electric razor salesman, on door-to-door sales calls.
"We used to go to Middletown," Brown recalls. "There were a lot of poor people there who didn't even have electricity, but my father would convince them to buy electric razors. He'd say, 'Don't you want to be the first one with an electric razor?' I used to watch him, and I couldn't believe how he could do it."
After his father opened the family furniture store at its current location, Marc helped out part-time. After graduating from Cleveland State, he found his inner salesman and began to turn Norton Furniture into the institution it is today.
One of the biggest draws to Norton has been Brown's willingness to extend credit to people who may be down on their luck or struggling financially. But that doesn't mean anyone is playing him for a fool. Brown insists that he can judge people's character just by looking at them and observing their body language. "Nonverbal communication is more powerful," he says.
Still, it's his showmanship that has made Brown and his store the stuff of legend.
Making commercials gave him a chance to realize his childhood fantasies of being a screen star. His early efforts already highlighted his offbeat sense of humor, featuring him in conversation with giant plaster statues, and people in silly costumes jumping out of couches.
The results were dramatic. So many new customers came in that Brown says it was like his business was suddenly "taking steroids." That prompted him to add even more characters and plotlines to his commercials, and eventually build an in-store set for filming. The new set improved the production values, but the humor stayed the same (Brown's personal favorite, titled "You Stink!", features a farting man).
Brown's sense of playfulness is evident in his store as well. Along with the usual maze of armchairs and couches, customers will find about 30 life-size statues of everything from farmers to alligators to cartoon elephants in red overalls. Originally from the Philippines, they have become a trademark of the store. Brown says he gets offers for them all the time, but he bought them for a reason.
"Children love the mannequins and bring their parents to my store," he says. "And with every purchase, we take their picture. You know, buying furniture is not that much fun. We try to make it a little more interesting, a little more glamorous."
Nearly every bit of wall space on the ground floor is covered with Polaroids of happy customers. Brown estimates that he has taken more than 50,000 of these photos over the past 12 years, trying to make his buyers feel special and showing potential customers that Norton Furniture must be a nice place.
Brown also works hard at maintaining customer loyalty. Even though he is no longer involved with day-to-day sales, he spends about two hours on the phone every day calling old customers and trying to get them back to the store. He's also proud to note that many current and former employees are customers.
Although he's been at it for quite a while, the self-described Emperor of Norton Furniture has no plans to slow down. "I could do this until I'm 90," he says. "I still work 45 or 50 hours a week, but it's not hard. It's fun."
And behind the wacky façade, Brown takes inspiration from a surprising source.
"The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived in the 1600s, said that life is pain but once in a while you're going to start laughing," he says. "You laugh, and you forget about the pain. He wasn't that far off. So I try to make people laugh. It makes their lives a little nicer."
To watch some of Marc Brown's commercials, go to: youtube.com/user/nortonbrown.