Hard Work, Hardwood, Good Business
By: Grant Robinson
Photo: Grant Robinson
Brent Coursey doesn’t look like a man who makes a living selling wood.
Sixty-one years have left Coursey with chiseled wrinkles and deep blue eyes glazed slightly red from decades of rising before the sun.
Yet his clothing seems to have come from a dVanderbilt University fraternity brother’s closet. Khaki pants and a button up blue collar shirt are kept casual with a two tone blue rain jacket and a gray tweed hat with “GOLF” stitched in big bold letters.
For a company that started on whim 20 years ago, Woodstock Vintage Lumber is now one of South’s largest suppliers of old growth wood. Coursey’s rise to success in the reclaimed lumber business is an unusual tale of grit, luck and money.
Today, Woodstock Vintage Lumber, located at 464 Chestnut St., sees a steady flow of foot traffic. The showroom is covered floor to ceiling with different styles of wood paneling. Most surfaces have been sanded and sealed to showcase the wood’s original luster, but one wall is made up of the Nashville favorite rough-hewn lumber that looks as if it was taken straight from a barn on placed on an interior wall. Depending on when you stop by, you may or may not see Coursey’s prized 1970s Harley Davidson he recently restored.
Stepping inside of the break room reveals a little more about Coursey’s personality. The unending array of wide plank paneling continues, but antique Volkswagen Van ads and Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey show prints decorate this room. The live-edge table and coffee mugs hung on the wall makes the room feel like a cozy cabin. But there was a time when reclaimed lumber wasn’t even a blip on Coursey’s radar.
Decades before nearly every trendy joint in Nashville had some form of reclaimed wood, a middle aged, disgruntled Brent Coursey quit his job under Nashville restaurant mogul Jody Faison. He realized he was not meant to be working for someone else, so he decided to take his hobby of restoring vintage Volkswagens full time.
Coursey was delivering a bugeye sprite he had restored when he passed a neighbor demolishing a house built in the 1920s.
“They mentioned that they were tearing this house down and there was $2,500 left in the tear down. I said well I’ll do it cause that was exactly the number that I needed to give my wife every month,” Coursey said.
It wasn’t long into his new project that Coursey that another opportunity came knocking.
“A guy drove by and said ‘I’ll give you $500 for those floor joists’,” Coursey said. That was the day he first learned about heart pine.
Heart pine comes from the dense center of longleaf pine. Longleaf pine forest once covered an estimated 90 million acres in the Southeast. The trees grew up to around 150 feet tall over the course of several hundred years, according to the USDA’s Southern Research Station.
By the 1920s, most of the forest had been logged to clear land for development and the lumber used for everything ship building and wharfs to bridges, houses and factories. The popularity of the hardwood continued long after supplies dwindled, creating a market for hardwood reclamation.
The man that bought the floor joists from Coursey became his short-term business partner.
“He said ‘Why don’t you come help me? I’m going out to the Franklin Factory and take out beams and we’re going to sell them to Matt Bright. We’re going to get them cut with a wood mizer.’ So I did that and we got our first floor of heart pine,” Coursey said.
Just like that, Coursey found himself in the reclaimed lumber business.
It wasn’t long before his personal investment far surpassed his partners and Coursey set up shop independently in Peytonsville.
“I had a Dooley pickup that I took over from a boy that owed $3,000 on and a wife that I had to answer to,” Coursey said. “So with that Dooley and that responsibility to get that money in I just stayed at it and stayed at it and stayed at it.”
While in Peytonsville, Coursey landed a load of lumber that put him on the map.
“The Nashville train shed came down and I made a play for that and got all that wood,” Coursey said.
The deal landed Coursey 600 beams of the national historic landmark.
“They started bringing it out to Peytonsville back and forth. I wasn’t zoned properly for that kind of stuff,” Coursey said. “It was supposed to be kind of a backyard type of shop. Well, it got way too big too quick.”
Since Coursey’s “big coming out” with the Union Train shed in 2001 and subsequent relocation to South Nashville, Woodstock Vintage Lumber has grown into one of the South’s go-to lumberyards for both raw antique hardwood and hand crafted finished products.
With four Middle Tennessee counties among the 100 fastest growing counties in the country and revived urban cultural centers popping up all over the place, Woodstock Vintage Lumber has been busy meeting demand. Woodstock builder Daren Gallman’s work order is consistently several projects long.
“Things are just moving through the shop like crazy,” Gallman said. “It just keeps on hammering. It never slows down.”
Coursey’s business is fueled largely by people half his age. Dozens of hip hangouts in areas like 12 South and The Gulch use Woodstock product. In 12 South alone, Burger Up, Josephine, Sloco, Epice, Green Pea Salon, Serendipity and Imogene and Willie all display product from Woodstock Vintage Lumber.
Coursey’s mark on the establishments he works with is not just the wood he supplies, but the businessman has a knack for getting his company’s name immortalized on menus. Burger Up serves a Woodstock burger and Lockeland Table and Five Points Pizza both serve a different pizza called the Woodstock and Woodstock Classic, respectively.
When Coursey started Woodstock Vintage lumber nearly 20 years ago, there was no way to predict Nashville’s explosion in popularity among millennials or that the culture they are drawn to features giving new life to anything from their grandfather’s generation.
Nashville’s evolving market has even reached the lumberyard’s neighborhood. Woodstock Vintage Lumber’s south Nashville neighborhood, just across the tracks from what’s left of Greer Stadium, is one of the fastest gentrifying areas in the city.
Wedgewood – Houston is following in the steps of East Nashville, Germantown, The Gulch, and Sylvan Park, and Coursey seems to be in the right place at the right time once again.
“I didn’t buy in this part of town with any big vision about how it was going to go forward. But after 10 or 12 years here, where hookers were walking down the street and I was scared to stay at night, there’s girls running with their dogs,” Coursey said. “Just the most miraculous turn around of a neighborhood you’ll ever see.”
Always game for a new project, Coursey and his wife Barbara are capitalizing on that “miraculous turn around” by developing at 42 unit residential complex at the borders of the Wedgewood – Houston and Chestnut Hill communities. In keeping with the trend, the complex will feature reclaimed hardwood flooring and decorative paneling that contributes to a warehouse feel.
“I’m in the best part of town,” Coursey said. “What I liked turned cool. My old cars, my old buildings, restoring just kind of hit. And people, young kids brought that back.”
Coursey has come a long way since his first demolition turned reclaimed lumber gig.
“There was never a plan,” Coursey said. “I was just trying to hang on, man. I was just trying to bring some money to the table. I didn’t know I was going to create a pretty good sized business out of this, I was just a guy who knew he couldn’t work for anybody.”
The man who knew he couldn’t work for anybody seems to know how to make things work for him.
“It still kind of freaks me out that people come in and buy this old wood. It’s the most amazing thing really,” Coursey said. “It’s just unbelievable the amount of business we have now. From the way we started it was a whisper. It was just me and a truck.”