An unnamed narrator tells of a storefront in downtown Lorain, Ohio. To people walking by, the look of the storefront space is both "irritating and melancholy." But the space was not always perceived this way. The narrator begins moving back in time, explaining that the storefront was once a pizza shop where teenage boys used to hang out and smoke cigarettes. The boys would flick their cigarettes too often, revealing to others that they were novices. Before it was a pizza shop, the storefront housed a bakery owned by a Hungarian baker who was renowned for his brioche and poppy-seed roles. Even before that, the storefront was the base of operations for a Gypsy family who decorated the windows with velvet draperies and Oriental rugs.
The idea of home goes beyond the physical structure of a building. Before the Breedloves occupied the storefront, it embodied a sense of home. The cigarette smoking boys are depicted in an endearing way, the baker arouses the pleasure of a home's kitchen, and the Gypsy family decorates the space with beautiful drapes and rugs. The people who live in a space, therefore, are responsible for creating a sense of home.
The Breedloves move into the storefront after Cholly gets out of jail for setting their previous residence on fire. They live anonymously inside of the space, lacking any connection to the community at large. The storefront is separated into different rooms with beaverboard planks: a living room, which the Breedloves refer to as the front room, a bedroom that they all share and where all of the living is done, and a kitchen. Despite the close living quarters, the family members are isolated from one other, each living in his or her "own cell of consciousness".
The Breedloves completely lack a sense of home and family. Their disconnection form one another and indifference to the condition of the storefront also lead to their disconnection from the community at large. In addition, a sense of home and family are defining factors in the way an individual is perceived by others in the community.
The narrator then focuses on the apartment's furnishings. The items in the apartment have no meaning to the Breedloves. Most items in the house have no memories attached to them. The items that do have memories associated with them produce a negative physical reaction in the Breedloves. The couch in particular is a source of pain and anger. Cholly believed the couch was new when he bought it, but it arrives with a giant rip in the upholstery. When Cholly tried to return it, the deliveryman man refused. The couch becomes a source of shame and anger for the family, leading to indifference toward the apartment as a whole. The narrator also mentions the coal stove, which seems to have a mind of its own, deciding whether or not to stay warm. No matter what, the stove always burns out in the morning.
The items in the apartment symbolize the Breedlove's lack of home and family. The couch in particular becomes a symbol of the family's situation. The rip in the upholstery connects to the perceived ugliness of the family, and also reveals the couch's cheap frame, an image that alludes to the Breedlove's frail family structure. The fact that he couldn't return the couch constantly reminds Cholly of his own powerlessness as a black man. The stove furthers this idea of powerlessness, as it operates out of the control of the family, and leaves the house cold each morning, just as they are cold to each other.