Chapter 7: A Shop of Our Own

Let it not be said that insanity can’t suddenly manifest itself in a family that by all outward appearances seems quite normal. We didn’t hesitate when the opportunity to move to Texas with a considerable increase in my salary materialized. But the issue then arose as to what to do with our antique inventory, which among the larger pieces included several Victorian cylinder roll secretaries and bedroom sets, at least one mission oak living room set, a variety of country cupboards, several round oak dining room sets complete with china cabinets, bookcases, a sizeable collection of Western Pennsylvania stoneware, one or two Pennsylvania settle benches, an indeterminate number of chairs, various blanket chests, an oak roll top desk, oak file cabinets and so on and so forth. For reasons that elude me now we never contemplated simply auctioning things off in Pittsburgh and converting everything to a far more transportable pile of cold hard cash. I can’t recall motives that far back, but I suspect simple greed and an overly strong dose of optimism had taken hold. A good share of our business in Pittsburgh consisted of selling our higher end oak and Victorian pieces to dealers and auctioneers from Texas and Oklahoma, and most likely we felt that if business was that good down there, why not eliminate the middleman and become part of it. Our visits to the Austin area, moreover, convinced us that we were moving to an area that was no less hot for antiques than was Western Pennsylvania at the time. The city seemed to abound in antique shops that covered the range from turn of the century oak to American country and primitives. Surely the city could sustain another shop.

Our optimism might have been well founded, but it soon became evident that we hadn’t fully grasped the expenses associated with owning a shop. It certainly gave us an appreciation for entrepreneurs of all types across America. The first problem, of course, was moving everything and then storing it until we could find an appropriate location. My new job might be willing to meet a part of the expense of moving a household, but not the inventory of an entire antique store. I have no idea what moving costs are now, but we had enough to fill one of those large moving vans wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. And even back then that expense ran to five digits if we used a regular van line. A wholly rational person with brain in gear would have given up on the idea of hauling everything with them, but as I said, rationality was in short supply and optimism overflowing. Instead, we learned of a trucking company that hauled god-knows-what to Upstate New York from down South and would backhaul a load for a dollar a mile (plus tip for the driver). The deal was they’d pull their 18-wheeler up to the front of your house at 7AM and, whether you were finished loading or not, close the doors at 7PM and drive away, showing up at your destination in two days at 7AM that morning and giving you until 7PM to unload. Since I’m sure you’re not interested in how we hired people at both ends to load and unload, let me just say that we made the move and filled a 2-car garage, a living room and at least one bedroom in our rented house so that it was impossible to even walk thru the garage and left us with but half a house to live in. What, you never saw a living room with two secretaries, a dining set, two library tables and … oh heck, I’ve already forgotten what we stuffed in there.

The next step was finding a location for a shop and to not dawdle doing it since it wasn’t all that much fun living in a warehouse. Austin at the time was experiencing something of a technology-driven boom. Nevertheless, there remained large swaths of the downtown that hadn’t yet been gentrified and we found what seemed an appropriate location only a few blocks from the city’s central business district. Opening it, though, required a loan from the bank – there’s the security system that needed installation, an awning for the front that advertised our name, a couple of sizeable ads in regional magazines announcing our existence, and then, much to our surprise insofar as cost was concerned, the expenses of a business phone, a Yellow Page ad, insurance, utilities and so on. Seems that once you announce yourself a business as opposed to a private household, utility and insurance companies view you as a cash cow ready to be milked dry. But ok, we’d suck it up in the belief that such investments were necessary to realize the huge profits that were sure to roll in later. Later, of course, never came.

Before I get to that, though, let me tell you a few things we didn’t fully anticipate when making this leap into the world of entrepreneurship. The shop was big – I’d guess 30 feet wide by 80 or so feet deep (I’ve long since forgotten the actual dimensions and if anything these dimensions are an underestimate). It also had enormously high ceilings … upwards of 20 feet. Halfway down this otherwise cavernous room, though, was a “phony” wall made of 2 x 4s and wallboard, maybe 10 feet high, dividing the shop between display and storage. Under the assumption that “if they can’t see it, they can’t or won’t buy it,” we decided that the wall allocated too much space to storage and had to be moved back. OK, no problem there I thought … all I had to do was disconnect it from the side walls and then, inch by inch, crowbar in hand, slowly work it back. Good in theory, but something else in practice. Do you have any idea how much 30 feet by 10 feet of 2x4s and wallboard weights? Or any idea how flexible and unstable such a wall is once it’s disconnected from its supports? A smart person would add temporary supports to keep it from buckling or tipping. Well, suffering apparently from an extended brain freeze, I charged ahead without such precautions and halfway back it decided to tip over. Fortunately, I was young and fleet-a-foot, so with me jumping into the wall’s doorway, it was a scene from a Buster Keaton movie as everything crashed down around me.

Experience is a great teacher and today I know how to do that job right (step 1: think about the problem before proceeding), but I’ll be damned if I’ll ever again put myself in a situation where I’ll apply that expertise. In any event, with the security system installed, awning and sign up, wall moved, floor painted (walls were exposed brick … perfect for an antique shop), insurance paid, telephone and utilities all arranged for including some nasty deposits, ads in place in local magazines and papers, we were ready to go. And naturally enough, with all these preparations we expected a huge crush of customers when we finally opened. Alas, it was a crush that never happened. Heck, I’m not even sure anyone showed up that first day.

A long and boring opening day seemed only a minor setback, and indeed it was. Even though it soon became obvious we weren’t about to get rich, sales eventually picked up to where we could see ourselves breaking even and even paying off the debt we incurred opening the shop. Sales didn’t boom as we’d hoped since we hadn’t fully appreciated that Texas is indeed big – big enough to allow regional variations in taste. And the taste where we were wasn’t necessarily for Victorian walnut. Nevertheless, adjustments over time could be made to our inventory. In the meantime running the shop gave my wife something to do, since I learned quickly that I truly hated most things associated with owning a shop except collecting money from sales. Expenses aside, sitting there, waiting for a customer to show up, having someone come in, walk around telling me how beautiful everything was and then walk out … I had better things to do with my time. But my wife enjoyed it. She became friends with the owners of nearby shops, and over time developed a small clientele of regular customers. For her it was a social experience as much as it was a commercial one.

Her regular clientele, though, underscored the fact that we needed to revise our inventory. Yes, there was a market for cylinder roll secretaries and oak dining tables. But it was a slow market … a very slow market. Our inventory at the time was weighted heavily toward furniture, but even if people are in the market for what we had, it takes time for retail buyers to make decisions. Such inventory moved quickly when we were up north because we were in the middle of the food chain, buying at estate sales or directly from households thru our newspaper ad, and selling wholesale to dealers and auctioneers. But now we were the terminus of that chain, and since we weren’t an auction house that could sell a truckload of inventory in a day, things obviously moved much more slowly.

We also quickly learned something about selling to the retail public that we hadn’t had the chance to learn when our customers were mostly other dealers. Specifically, when it comes to furniture, typically it’s the wife who does the initial exploration and discovers whatever it is that might qualify as “what we’re looking for”. But all that means is that regardless of how much she gushes over a piece, there’s no guaranteed sale there. Nine times out of ten, she wouldn’t contemplate a furniture purchase unless she’d just moved into a house other than the fully furnished one she currently occupied. Even if her enthusiasm were serious, the next step is that she and her husband or her husband alone a week or so later would drop by to measure things. If it fit in the space they planned for it, they’ll return a week or so after that to contemplate the purchase and even then the odds are it will be bought on lay-away if it’s bought at all. In other words, it can take upwards of a month to sell a piece of furniture even if you’ve found a buyer. I hasten to add here, moreover, that just because people measure things and decide it fits doesn’t mean it will fit. Take for example that six foot painted Pennsylvania settle bench we had in the shop. After a wife’s first visit the husband came in a week later to measure, whereupon a week after that they showed up with cash in hand and the proviso that I deliver the piece. No problem there, but when I got it into their home, it didn’t fit – the husband had measured the length and depth but not the height, and it just didn’t look right in front of the window they’d planned for it. And get this: The husband was a building contractor! But they loved the bench and weren’t about to cancel the sale, so instead they suggested setting it on their long front porch. As much as I wanted the sale, I had to tell them that what they were buying was a three hundred dollar bench with twelve hundred dollars of paint on it. Do you have any idea what the hot Texas sun in combination with a couple of good Texas rainstorms can do to original paint? In any event, we eventually did find a place for it in the house, but such are the travails with dealing with the retail public.

Of course, our stories don’t end there. There was, for instance, the rather sizeable woman (I’m struggling to be kind here) who sat on a rocking chair and broke it. Had to just write that one off and be grateful I didn’t get sued by someone with a piece of wood stuck you-know-where. Then there was the customer who called to ask what the back was like on a cupboard we’d taken on consignment. Because I’d moved it into the shop in the evening with my wife at home, she didn’t know what the back was like. So after all 105 pounds of her struggled to move it from the wall to check whether the backboards were nailed with cut (19th century) or extruded (20th century) nails, she was able to answer that the back was correct, whereupon whoever was on the phone said “oh, I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t plywood.” There was also the couple interested in our 1840 cherry stepback cupboard with 16 lites to the top doors, all with original glass. One of those small wavy panes, though, had cracked and the couple asked if we could replace it. I hesitated for a second since I wasn’t sure I had any 19th century glass in storage, but before I could respond they told me “Plexiglas would be ok.” Sigh!

One of our better (more profitable) sales was one of those Victorian walnut cylinder roll secretaries we’d hauled down in our initial move to Austin. But in this instance we “sold” it in a rather unconventional way. During one of those heavy Texas rains that lasts about fifteen minutes but could fill a California reservoir, the roof leaked onto the secretary, messing up the finish. OK, we had insurance, and the insurance company itself came up with a refinishing estimate that exceeded the secretary’s ticketed price. Hey, it was their estimate, not mine! So they offered us a deal: They’d reimburse us the sticker price and we’d get to keep the piece. Fantastic as far as we were concerned, although sadly the building’s owner had the roof fixed so it never happened again (do you know how easy it is to refinish walnut that’s never been painted?).

The most difficult thing for me as owner of a retail outlet was adjusting (or sometimes, wholly submerging) my tastes and the shop’s inventory to suit our clientele. To this point in our ‘hobby’, my focus had been furniture. When I ran thru a flea market or estate sale, it was the big pieces that caught my eye. Smalls – decorative accessories and collectibles – were of secondary interest. I’d been spoiled by the fact that prior to opening a shop of our own everything had been a mere hobby with minimal expenses and overhead. If I bought the wrong stuff, so what – it would sell eventually. And with our space that catered to other dealers, auctioneers and haulers, I hadn’t been disabused of my bias. Regional tastes mattered little since we were selling virtually nationally – to dealers from all corners of the country. But now with a shop of our own and wholly dependent on selling retail, I quickly learned that if you’re going to make it, you need ‘smalls’. Housewives don’t go on an afternoon antiques expedition looking for dining room or bedroom sets, oak rolltop desks or file cabinets, country stepback cupboards or pine settle benches. No one who ever entered our shop and bought, say, a painted blanket chest or oak file cabinet did so as a compulsive purchase. They’re looking for something to hang on the wall or set on a shelf. They’re looking for such things as Staffordshire china, a decorative hooked rug, an advertising tin for the kitchen or an addition to their doll collection. If their attention is drawn to furniture, more often than not it’s to a single chair or small candlestand to fill some corner of the house or they’re wondering whether a small drop leaf table would look good in back of a sofa. And they’re also looking for one other thing – inexpensive jewelry, costume jewelry with some quality to it. The other thing we learned was that people likely to visit the shop during a workday weren’t coming in to spend $1,000 or $2,000. Knock a zero off those numbers if you want to describe the budget of people who are simply poking around antique shops on a Thursday afternoon in lieu of a trip to the shopping mall.

Now you might ask: How can you survive with customers prepared to spend only one or two hundred dollars, max? The answer is: Have a client base of at least several dozen such customers who visit the shop on a regular basis. You won’t get rich; you might not even earn much in the way of profits. But you’ll at least have a shot at covering your rent and utilities. Consider again that candle store in the shopping mall paying $10 or $20 per square foot per month for its space. I haven’t checked lately, but I’ll bet they’re a tad thin on $1,000 candles and $2,000 candlesticks. Instead, they cover their expenses by selling $5, $10, $20 and $30 candles – lots of them, boxes of them. And if you can sell enough of the little suckers then, voila, profits. Take note, moreover, of the store next to or across from the candle shop. Odds are they’re selling chocolate chip cookies, children’s sneakers or jelly beans in every imaginable color and flavor. Anyone want to bet against the supposition that a cookie, sneaker or candy store that sells only $1,000 cookies, $2,000 sneakers or bags of jelly beans for $500 will not be in business very long (assuming, naturally enough, that we’re not talking about Rodeo Drive or shops that cater to Vladimir Putin’s criminal colleagues in Moscow)?

All of this meant that we had to alter our buying habits when traveling up north for inventory. Those summer shopping trips, in fact, were perhaps the best part of owning a shop. My pleasure wasn’t simply that we closed it for two months and I no longer had to have my wife tell me on too many evenings that no one bought anything that day (though that was a close second from my perspective). Rather, since I didn’t teach in the summer, we spent that time vacationing on Cape Cod, and visiting family in New England, upstate New York and, after our move to Texas, Western Pennsylvania. Or rather, my wife visited family. Family got to see me from time to time, but for the most part only when I wasn’t out picking antique shops, previewing some local auction or hitting whatever flea markets I could find within a half days drive. At a minimum, owning an antique shop made it a necessity to do what I truly enjoyed doing: hunting antiques and spending money. The first two weeks of our vacation were typically spent on Cape Cod, where, if you throw a rock, it most likely will either hit a restaurant or an antique shop (or both if it bounced). That’s not to say there were tremendous bargains to be found there. After all, those shops were catering to tourists (read: retail buyers with money). And don’t get me wrong: I love the ocean and the beach. I love the feel of sand between my toes and the sound of seagulls circling overhead lusting for my fried clams. But while the wife spent the day under a towel hiding from the sun while watching the kids building sand castles or fighting among themselves at the beach I got to drive around on my own poking through shops looking for a bargain. Being on the Cape, moreover, put us in striking distance of any number of auctions as well as at least one of Brimfield’s extravaganzas.

We also spent a good part of the summer in Upstate New York, visiting my wife’s twin sister. What twin sisters do if they haven’t seen each other for a year is talk, then talk more, then keep on talking – but only to each other. I sure as heck didn’t complain since that left me free to spend the day traveling back and forth between Albany and Buffalo, hitting one shop after the other. Back then, buying Americana had an interesting twist to it. When it came to country pieces, scarcity hadn’t really bit hard. What I mean by this is that dealers in New England still had a tendency to look down their noses at mid 19th century pieces – the mule chest with flame grain paint to imitate the more upscale 1840 Empire mahogany styles or the painted Pennsylvania fiddle back chairs that had been made some 40 or 50 years after their 18th century Windsor ancestors. So absent competition from dealers who sold their wares further East, mid-level Americana – painted wagon seats, painted plank seat chairs, punched tin pie safes and a 19th as opposed to 18th century chimney cupboard – could still be found at prices that left room for profit in far away Texas. All you had to do was be willing to put on the miles along NY State route 20 and its tributary roads.

Now I have to tell you that it wasn’t all milk and honey. With an open shop and significant floor space, there is the pressure to buy – to add to an inventory that had been (hopefully) depleted over the previous nine or ten months. Work and other responsibilities dictated that our summer buying trip qua vacation would be the only one we’d take over the course of a year. Ours wasn’t a shop that had existed long enough so that it could sustain itself by selling consignments from earlier customers who are upgrading their collections or who have moved to the great flea market in the sky and the kids want to get rid of the junk. But in our case if the shop was going to have anything new in it from one year to the next, then short of finding the occasional bargain at a Texas antique show or flea market, it had to be acquired during the summer. That meant there were often instances in which a purchase was made not because it was a tremendous bargain with self-evident profit potential but rather because it would simply be a nice addition to the shop. And that also meant there was always a certain level of desperation – not the sort that caused one to loose sleep at night but a tension nevertheless – to find things worth buying. To put things simply, the rented 20 foot Hertz or Ryder truck HAD to be filled when we were done.

One thing that added to the anxiety was the fact that because we were incrementally adjusting the shop’s inventory to accommodate local tastes, we were often totally in the dark as to what to pay for things. We had all the experience needed when dealing with Victorian and oak, but our experience with catering to buyers in and around Austin for country Americana was, at best, weak and virtually non-existent when it came to a wide variety of purely decorative accessories. This, naturally enough, opens the door to mistakes. But it also does something else; namely, it can make you TOO conservative, which in turn threatens to limit the quality of the things you buy. Is there money still left in that $1,500 weathervane? Are we going to get stuck with that painted farm table if we pay $1,250 for it? Should we buy that set of four painted chairs because they’re cheap or should we hold off until we can find a set of six? What can we try to sell that $300 trade sign for? Is there a market in our area for a $1,000 painted Windsor chair? I also had to understand that I was buying – or trying to buy – things that weren’t necessarily collectible, but that would appeal to people decorating their homes: Hand turned bowls, pottery, rustic primitives, inexpensive art, pantry boxes, advertising tins, and so on. How much is a housewife willing to pay for a slightly tattered but nevertheless colorful hooked rug? How much should I discount the value of a store advertising tin if it has some rust on the bottom? Is there a decorative market for betty (grease) lamps or are those of interest only to collectors (who may or may not exist in and around Austin). Does the average housewife care if a piece is English versus American? What’s easier to sell – the red painted scale or the yellow one? I can buy three painted carnival wheels at a good price, but can we sell more than one before next summer rolls around?

Clearly, in adjusting our inventory we’d taken a step back and had, in effect, returned to a school that charged tuition. And while I understand in retrospect that we should have thought about this problem beforehand, we hadn’t and of all the other problems we encountered with a shop of our own, this was perhaps the most perplexing and frustrating. Things might have been less problematical if we were closer to our sources of supply, in which case we could have proceeded more incrementally and experimentally, buying things when we learned there was a discernible market for such and adjust what we paid for the things we thought we could sell. But in our case we were totally dependent on that one summer buying trip. Yup, selling it all off at auction before we left Pittsburgh sure looked like it would have been the smart thing to do.

Now you might ask at this point: If you didn’t know what you could sell things for, why not consult any one of a half dozen available published price guides. This, then, is as good a place as any for me to offer my two cents on the value of such guides. Now don’t over-interpret what I say here because I don’t intend to totally discount the value of such guides as a source of information. Yes I use them … some of them … but one does have to treat the numbers in them with more than a few grains of salt. They can perhaps help you distinguish between a $500 and a $5,000 Windsor chair, or give you a clue as to the characteristics of, say, antique ice cream scoops that would sell to a collector for $1,000 versus one that collectors wouldn’t give you a dollar for. If you’re looking at a table full of cast iron turn of the century doorstops all priced at $80, which if any are worth buying for resale because they are scarce? Price guides, then, can alert you to whether an item is rare or common or even whether there are subtle variants of the same thing that are of markedly different value. But the mistake people often make here is to assume that numerical evaluations, because numbers are precise, offer precise information in the same way that numbers do in an algebra or physics text.

To see what I mean, let’s consider the three sources of those numbers: Realized auction prices, a survey of the prices found in antique shops and “expert” opinion. Looking first at auctions, consider by way of example an Enterprise #2 coffee mill in its original paint and sporting its original decals. This is not a rare item, so data on it is pretty extensive and here’s what I learned most recently when perusing the internet to see what this item sold for at various auctions: $550, $375, $700, $475, $180, $325, $250, $200, $400, $130, $625, $1,150, $199, $810, $415 and (believe it or not) $1,525. So you tell me, what’s it worth (or, how much do you think you can sell yours for)? Don’t like this example? How about something with a bit more variation to it in terms of design, say a 19th century painted wood dome top document box. Here’s a random selection of numbers for you: $150, $325, $450, $100, $350, $80, $650, $900, $200, $120, $125, $225.   And among those I can find records for, the full range is actually $50 to $14,500.

Now any Americana collector will tell you that there’s paint and then there’s paint, there are boxes with a sloppily applied coat of grey and those wonderfully decorated and legitimately classified as superior examples of folk art. But where does the box your contemplating fall in this range and, more to the point, how representative are the one or two painted boxes you can find in any specific price guide? As anyone who has attended more than one auction can tell you, auction prices can be dictated by any number of things in addition to an item’s intrinsic or fair market value, including two stubborn and testosterone driven bidders or a snowstorm that kept nearly everyone home. Or perhaps an item was simply placed in the “wrong” auction at the wrong time. I have, for instance, five early 19th century watercolors all of the same family – the father, mother, two sisters and younger brother (Figure 7-1).  The frames suggest that they’re English in origin and what little information I can find about the artist doesn’t tell me where he worked.  English or American, they’re nice enough, but as for value, the only comparable auction record I can find by the artist is a pair of two sisters with a realized auction price of $1,500. So what’s my set of five worth? You’d think more than $1,500. Maybe or maybe not, but in my case, they were ‘hidden away’ in the middle of an auction that otherwise sold only fancy European items. I’d like to think this explains why I was able to buy my set for $500. So again, what’s my set worth? Damned if I know because I have no way of evaluating that $1,500 number. Were the bidders on that pair like the retail buyers I’d likely be dealing with or were they two Fortune 100 CEOs who pay someone $1,500 a month simply to insure that the Ph in their swimming pool is the right number? And of course, recall that three piece coin silver tea set I discuss in Chapter 5 (and Figure 5-1) in which two pieces with an estimated value of $1,200 to $1,800 sold for a bit over $28,000.

Fig. 7-1: My Watercolors; what are they worth?

While I’m on the subject of auctions and prices realized at them, take a look at the sampler in Figure 7-2.  I own it … I bought it at auction and, after premium, paid $2,300 for it. But is it a twenty three hundred dollar sampler? Frankly, I don’t think so. Now don’t get me wrong … it’s a nice enough sampler, large (22″ x 19″), ca 1817, from Connecticut and looks a bit better in person than my photograph. But it is faded, has some staining and has lost the striking presence I know it had many moons ago.  Moreover, if I encountered it at that price at a flea market or estate sale I would almost certainly have passed on it. So why did I buy it? Well, I stubbornness and a healthy dose of testosterone provide the answer. I was bidding against someone who earlier in the auction had outbid me on something else and I was damned if I’d let her have two victories!  So, see what I mean about prices realized at auctions.

Fig. 7-2: My “$2,300” Sampler

 

For another example, consider the tin trade sign for Grape Nuts cereal portrayed in Figure 7-3a.  A highly desirable sign for the collector of lithographed trade signs, she is, though, not what one would consider rare. Thus, the website www.liveauctioneers.com lists fifty three examples that have sold at auction between 2004 and 2017.  More interestingly is the range of realized prices. Excluding those with serious damage to the lithography, those prices vary between $350 and (amazingly) $7,000 where the rough distribution in realized numbers is portrayed in Figure 7-3b. So what accounts for this price range? Well surely condition matters … and matters a lot. But surely that’s not all that accounts for a range of something north of six thousand dollars. If I had to guess I’d say some deep pockets and a healthy dose of testosterone matters as well … at least for the examples that brought $4,250,  $5,000 and $7,000.  So what’s the one you just found worth that appears to be in pretty good condition … a few scratches here and there and a subtle dent to the tin somewhere? I suppose a good guess would be a number in the range of $500 to $1,000 or even up to $1,500 if you want to push things a bit with a touch of optimism. But that’s still a healthy range, and your guess is as good as mine as to what number some off the shelf price guide will report.

Fig. 7-3a: Litho on Tin Trade Sign

 

Prices realized at auction are also impacted by where a piece is sold. Take for instance the two chests in Figure 7-4. The first sold at auction in Pennsylvania (Pook & Pook) in 2016 while the second in California (Bonham’s in Los Angeles) in 2017.  Aside from color and the presence of two small pendant drops on the skirt of one of them, the two chests are essentially twins that were obviously made at about the same time (ca 1760), by the same hand and at the same place (Pennsylvania). The first chest, though, brought $10,370 whereas the second seems a steal at $3,125. So why the difference? Well, frankly, I can only speculate. One possibility is that the first chest sold retail in Pennsylvania to someone who collects Pennsylvania furniture. Collectors of that sort are far less common, if they exist at all, in Los Angeles and therefore sold to someone who simply wanted a good looking functional chest. But why didn’t some Back East dealer pounce on the bargain at Bonham’s. If retail is a five digit number, then surely a three thousand dollar price tag leaves a bit of room for profit even if one takes into account the cost of having the chest shipped back East. But let’s perform a little back of the envelope calculation. Suppose I’m an East Coast dealer contemplating the chest at Bonhams. The first thing I have to worry about is whether it has issues … replaced feet, replaced hardware, replaced crown molding, rebuilt drawers, etc.  I could ask Bonham’s for a condition report, but can I trust them to find everything that might be wrong with the piece? If I can’t, then I’d have to fly out to inspect the chest myself. That alone means I’d have to tack on something like $1,000 to cover my airfare and a couple of nights in a motel room. And if I did buy the chest, tack on another $500 to have it shipped back to me. Now looking at Bonham’s auction catalogue I see the chest is being offered with a $5,000 to $7,000 estimate. So suppose I’m an optimistic fella and operate with the assumption that I can get it for the low estimate … $5,000 … since I know the market for such pieces in California is weak at best. But Bonham’s charges a 25% buyers commission, so that $5,000 is really $6,250.  So the real cost to me of the chest is likely to be, roughly, $6,250 + $1,000 + $500 = $7,750. If I assume now that I can sell the chest for what its twin brought at Pook & Pook (lets say $10,500), that would yield me a $2,750 profit.  Not bad, huh? But that calculation assumes that the chest has no major flaws. It also assumes there are no opportunity costs such as a failure to make a sale or find a bargain back home while in Los Angeles.  Still, a potential forty five hundred dollar profit is nothing to sneeze at. But what’s the likelihood that the chest has no flaws? Suppose then that I continue in my optimistic way and assume there’s a better than even chance (say 60/40) that the chest is what I hope it is and not worth, at best, say $2,000.  If it is compromosed in some way I wouldn’t of course buy it, but I’d still incur that $1,000 airfare and motel room expense.  So my actual expected profit is  .60 x 2,750 + .40 x (-1,000) = $650.  Now, frankly, I wouldn’t mind finding a bag of twelve $50 bills on the street, but taking two or three days away from my business at home flying to California to fight LA traffic simply ain’t worth it. So much then for blindly relying on realized auction prices when evaluating a chest of this sort.

 

Fig. 7-4: Two Comparable Mid-18th Century Pennsylvania Chests, One at $10,000+ and the other for $3,000+

 

For yet another source of variation in realized auction prices, I have a friend whose been in the antiques business for years in Upstate New York – and not just Upstate New York, but north of Albany. Do you know what it does there in the winter? It snows. And do you know what else it does there? It snows some more. Only three kinds of people don’t own a snow blower up there: People living in apartments, infants and people who are dead. So according to my friend the best time to sell your junk at auction is in the spring when people are suffering from a long malingering case of cabin fever, and going to that first auction when the roads are finally clean enough to drive on affords an opportunity to see the sunlight and what’s new in the world. So it seems that auction records are, like the polar ice caps, at the mercy of global warming.

Now try this example: Not too long ago I listed an all-wool crazy quilt on eBay (Figure 7-5). There was nothing spectacular about it such as extensive embroidered embellishments or a date. But it did have one nice feature: It had never served as a snack for a moth – it was mint. I was, then, disappointed when it sold for only $90, but that’s how it is sometimes. In this case though I’d sold it to someone local and when she came to pick it up she decided she preferred another I had in my inventory and asked if she could cancel the sale and buy the (more expensive) alternative. No problem there, so I relisted the quilt. This time, though, it sold for $210. So, what’s the quilt’s fair market value — $90 or $210? Damned if I know.

Fig. 7-5: What’s It Worth — $90 or $210?

Here’s another example. Only recently I’d listed a wool on linen sampler dated 1848 (Figure 7-6). Now frankly, that’s a tad later than the samplers I prefer for my own collection and I also prefer those using silk rather than wool. And apparently that taste is shared by other collectors. Thus, when I first listed it on eBay as a buy-it-now-or-best-offer for $675, it sat there with nary a nibble. At the end of the week I relisted it at a reduced price of $475 and once again it went unsold. At that point I was willing to settle for getting my money back ($200) plus a small profit, so I relisted it for a third time at $275 (which, after deducting eBay and Paypal fees would leave me with an approximate profit of $40). However, shortly after the listing went up a friend came to the house, at which time I told her of my travails with the sampler – it wasn’t even accumulating watchers and looked deader than the proverbial doornail. She too sold on the internet, but on Etsy rather than eBay, and she offered to take it and give it a try there. Sure, what did I have to loose – nothing! Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going: She listed it that afternoon at $650, but immediately after doing so she tried to go back into the listing to correct for some typos and couldn’t because it had sold. In other words, it was gone in under 60 seconds!

Fig. 7-6: My 1848 Wool on Linen Sampler

Now you might conclude from this example that I should immediately abandon eBay in favor of Etsy. That, however, is the wrong inference to make. My friend has over the years developed a rather extensive client base on her website, but one that’s heavily weighted toward decorators. Her client base is thin when it comes to collectors, and non-existent when it comes to collectors of 19th century samplers if only because she’d never sold one before. Now keep in mind that the sampler in question was (1) large, (2) in reasonable condition, (3) both alphabet and pictorial, (4) none of the wool threads had faded in their bold colors, and (5) the pictorial elements included a highly desirable little girl with her pets. I’m certain, then, that it sold to someone who found the colors and theme appealing and in accordance with whatever decorating scheme they had in mind. In other words, my listings on eBay and my friend’s on Etsy were followed by two largely disjoint subsets of buyers. So now you tell me: What’s the fair market value of that sampler — $650 or something less than $275? You might say $650 since that’s what it sold for, but how relevant is that answer if either via, say, eBay or the antique shop you’re buying inventory for, you don’t have an Etsy client base of several thousand at your disposal?

One final example: Not all that long ago I listed on eBay an early 19th C Gaudy Welsh presentation mug (Figure 7-7). Not wanting to lose money on my purchase, I started the bidding at $50. And for seven days it, like the above mentioned sampler, sat there doing nothing – a few views and no watchers. Well, I guess Gaudy Welch isn’t a category about which I have much experiences and so when the auction ended and the mug went unsold, I relisted it with an opening bid of $25 – time to swallow my loss. But low and behold, almost immediately someone popped in with an opening bid, page hits soared past 100 and watchers over 20, until the price moved well past $50 – actually over $200. So what’s that mug worth – less than $50 or more than $200? Two auction records give wholly different answers.

Fig. 7-7: What’s It Really Worth? Damned If I know.

OK, so what about price guides based on a canvassing of antique shops to see what dealers are actually asking for things? Well, here the operant word is “asking”. Just because it’s ticketed at $400 doesn’t mean it will sell at that price. Indeed, the mere fact that it’s in a shop when that number was recorded means it hadn’t sold, and for all we know it will continue to sit there until the next century. Maybe the price tag is itself decades old and is irrelevant to contemporary values. I’m thinking here by way of example of those small tramp art trinket boxes that in the late ‘90s shot up in value and were hard to find for under $450 or so. But soon after prices soared, legitimately old imports from Europe (Germany in particular) began hitting the shores, driving prices back down. So was that price tag on the cute little tramp art box found by the author of some price guide written last week or a decade ago? Perhaps the dealer whose shop is being canvassed is an optimistic sort and sets prices uncommonly high, but, bowing to necessity, gives handsome discounts to regular clients. Ever see the expression on a dealer’s face when someone walks into their shop or booth at a show, picks up a piece and says simply “I’ll take this”? The look more often than not is one of stunned bewilderment that quickly transforms itself to unimaginable joy. Actually no, NOT unimaginable joy: This is antiques and not Macy’s and no one is supposed to pay sticker price. If they do, rest assured the dealer is doing all he or she can to hide their shock and delight.

Fig 7-8: Was $450, now $175

For one last possibility with respect to the numbers given in price guides based on a canvass of antique shops, one shouldn’t exclude the possibility that the dealer who priced a specific item hasn’t the foggiest idea what the item is worth and picked a number based on what they paid for the piece (which itself can be a random number) or a number gleaned from some other price guide. This leads us to wonder whether price guides can become self-fulfilling prophecies and yield short-term speculative bubbles (and if you don’t believe in such bubbles consider the insane prices initially paid for cookie jars once owned by Andy Warhol. Try selling those jars now). One also has to consider human nature when a dealer doesn’t know precisely what they can sell something for. No one wants to think they pocketed a mere $100 when they could have reaped $1,000, in which case uncertainty generally leads dealers to err on the upside of possibilities under the theory that if someone shows interest but hesitates, you can always step in to say “ahhh, for special friends of Rick’s ….” (what, you never watched Casablanca?).

There’s something else to be considered about prices gleaned from shops. They can change quickly and dramatically. I’m thinking here of someone I know who, like me, scourers the flea markets intensely. He has a fantastic eye and frequently enough make a find that any antique shop in the area would be delighted to take on consignment. The problem is that he suffers absolute anguish if initially at least his latest find sells for anything but top dollar. As a consequence, what he does consign can often languish in a shop for years. Nevertheless, given his record of great finds, dealers are tolerant of his admittedly greedy expectations. Those expectations, though, typically decline precipitously after a year or two, so if anything of his catches your fancy, the best strategy is to sit tight and wait for the inevitable slashing of prices. I’ve actually witnessed one item that began with a price tag in excess of $20,000 sell a few years later for roughly one third that number. But now suppose that you’ve canvassed shops that are repositories of his consignments in preparing your own price guide. The question, then, is at what stage did you record sticker prices. A price guide won’t tell you this, but the number you record can differ from what it was or what it will be by a factor of two, three and perhaps even four.

One thing you’ll rarely see in a price guide regardless of the source of its data, and only imperfectly seen in an auction house’s listing of things, is a condition report. Has the paint decorated document box been touched up; has the portrait been restored (and if so, how extensive is the restoration); does the coffee mill still work as originally intended or was its interior parts removed because it was once made into a lamp; did replacing the hardware yield new holes in drawer fronts; how severe is the fading of the silk threads to a sampler; and so on. You might learn that a highboy is “together by association” (i.e., the top originally sat on a base other than the one it’s on now) or that a painting has been relined (what else was done to it at that time?). But what’s the precise meaning of “imperfections” when applied to a chest of drawers? Well, I’ll tell you – it can mean anything from the underside glue blocks being replaced (a minor issue) to having the entire base remade last week. There is, after all, a reason why auction houses uniformly advertise their sales with the proviso that everything is being sold “where is, as is” or, equivalently, “all property is sold as is and all implied warranties of merchantability and fitness are excluded,” which is a nice lawyerly way of saying that the auction house is not responsible for a damned thing and that you pays your money and takes your chances. More to the point now, don’t expect a price guide to do more research into the items included in it than an auction house did. People write price guides after canvassing antique shops for two reasons: (1) they like to poke around antique shops and be treated as honored exalted guests and (2) they want to make money selling their guides. Extensive condition reports are not prerequisite to achieving either of these goals.

But price guides that offer assessments based on condition can be of little help too. A guide that I’ve often found useful in terms of alerting me to rare as opposed to common Currie and Ives prints is Robert Kipp’s Curriers’s Price Guide to Currier & Ives Prints. But the numbers contained therein are quite explicitly for prints “in very good condition.” So what of prints with flaws? How much should one discount for the seemingly inevitable problems that impact mere paper? Well, here’s an example, although not an answer to my question. Figure 7-9 shows the complete small folio American Homestead set. Kipp’s guide suggests a value of roughly $2,000 for the set. But that’s for a perfect set, which this isn’t. The Summer image has a torn corner as well as a tear that goes an inch into the image. Less obvious is a subtle toning stain to the Autumn image along with a rice grain sized abrasion. So again, what’s this set worth? Damned if I know, but I can say that when listed on eBay for an opening bid of $450 it went unsold.

 

Fig. 7-9: Currier & Ives American Homestead Set in Less-than-perfect Condition

Recently I encountered an even more dramatic example of the disconnect between price guides and realized auction prices. And although this again uses Kipp’s price guide as my foil, it applies generally. Now keep in mind that I to this day use Kipp’s guide, but not as a way to learn what I think I might be able to sell a piece for but rather as a way to learn which C&I prints are the rare and highly sought after ones. In this instance it was seeing the image of the print Home to Thanksgiving. I’d never encountered that image before so I checked Kipp’s guide and my eyes nearly fell out of my head when I saw the number $12,000. Woah, was I about to hit the big time, since I seriously doubted it would be priced at even one tenth that number at an estate sale.  But there was another problem: C&I prints have been reproduced extensively and I had no idea what the original looked like. Well, here it is in Figure 7-10 as found on www.liveauctioneers.com. And what I did learn was the the one at the sale was a repro … it didn’t match the original around the outer boundary of the image. Damn.  But I also learned something else. I don’t know where Kipp got the number 12,000 but the most expensive one that was recorded as sold did so for $4,250. At least three hadn’t sold with estimated ranges of $3000-4000, $4000-6000 and $7000-9000. So clearly its an important image, but don’t bet on selling it for even half of the price guide’s estimate of value.

Fig. 7-10: Currier & Ives Print …. and a Good One!

It might seem, of course, that despite such examples, you should have greater confidence in the numbers provided by experts since it avoids the insanity that can rear its head at an auction, the inaccuracies of descriptions found in auction catalogues or price tags, or the optimism or even ignorance that can dictate pricing in an antique shop. But even here beware of two somewhat sinister possibilities. The first is the guide authored by a collector of the things being evaluated, where there is the self-evident incentive to evaluate things so as to encourage keeping prices a tad inflated. Who, after all, wants to spend years collecting something, only to then put out a price guide that potentially denigrates the monetary value of one’s own collection? The second possibility is the price guide written by someone who, as a dealer, specializes in whatever is being assessed. Now let’s give that person the benefit of the doubt and suppose they are scrupulously honest and objective in their assessments. The problem here is that such a guide is unlikely to be written by your average run-of-the-mill dealer operating out of an antique cooperative, a flea market or with a shop in some marginal rent neighborhood (i.e., 99.9% of all antiques dealers).   More than likely they operate at or near the top of the food chain and deal with collectors for whom $5,000 or $10,000 is pocket change. Do you really think the prices with which they are familiar will be anything near what us ordinary folk can, will or should pay and what 99.9% of all dealers can sell things for? From time to time I enjoy perusing the websites of dealers who specialize in such things as needlework samplers, clocks, burl wood artifacts, quilts, weathervanes, stoneware, folk art, 19th century lithographs and so on. I do, after all, like to see what the “good stuff” looks like – the stuff that can sometimes be legitimately classified as “museum quality.” Now I may not be a genius but I am smart enough to know that the prices I see are not one’s I’m likely to realize if I tried to sell a comparable item. First, I don’t have the clientele that’s available to those dealers. This is not jealousy on my part. After all, to develop such a clientele requires a considerable investment. First, you need a shop in a suitable location where someone driving up in their Bentley or Mercedes doesn’t have to worry about leaving the shop only to find the tires missing from their car. Second, you need to be able to set yourself up periodically at one or more of the big high-end antique shows and in the process suck up a ten thousand dollar hit (or more) to your expense account. Making that kind of investment means, of course, that you have your own deep pockets since you can cover your expenses only by having an inventory of things that carry five and six digit price tags. Finally, you need to somehow establish a reputation for being supremely knowledgeable about what it is your selling – a reputation that can only be earned over decades. Indeed, even if I had access to one or more of their deep-pocket clients, those clients would most likely (and quite legitimately) prefer buying from them rather than me. Such dealers are not only selling what’s listed on their websites or on display in their shops, they’re also providing a guarantee that what’s being sold is, based on their expertise, what it’s advertised as being – a guarantee backed up by their interest in protecting their reputations. So speaking for myself, if such an expert/dealer says that something is worth $X, and if for me “value” is what I can sell it for, then I’m likely to take than number and divide by 2 or even 3 (and most likely try to wholesale it to one of those dealers).

There is one thing a price guide, regardless of the source of its numbers, cannot tell you: If offered for sale at the appraised value, how long will it take to sell. They don’t offer this number because no one truly knows the answer to this aside from saying, the lower the number the faster it will disappear from one’s inventory. Once again, let me turn to the example of eBay. When I list things there I generally start things off with an opening bid below what I paid for an item. If I’ve decided to sell something and don’t want it added to my hoarder pile, I want it gone ASAP even if I occasionally (generally around 20 percent of the time) take a loss. Now even though I don’t proceed as some do by beginning all their auctions, regardless of intrinsic value, at 99 cents, but I come close and it virtually guarantees that what I list will sell the first time I list it. In contrast to my approach is that of a friend’s who, not wanting to take a chance on a loss unless it becomes fully apparent that he paid too much of a piece, will list things with what he judges to be a bargain or at least fair opening bid. Now in his case it’s not uncommon for him to have to relist an item two, three or even four times before it sells or before has to appreciably lower the opening bid. Thus, while I might sell a quilt the first time around for, say, between $100 to $150, an identical one in his listings might sell for between $150 to $200. But in his case it might take a month or two of listing and relisting to achieve that outcome. So again, what’s the fair market price of the quilt? The answer of course depends on how fast you want something to go poof.

One final comment about guides whose values are based on expert opinions. Imagine yourself being an expert in some category of things and that I’ve come to probe your brain while preparing a guide of my own. Now consider the alternative questions I might ask in soliciting values from you: What do you think X is worth? What would you sell X for in your shop? What do you think X would sell for at auction in your neck of the woods? If someone didn’t have your clientele, what do you think they could sell X for? And, in line with what I’ve just said, what price would guarantee a quick sale of X? If you suspect that each of these questions is likely to yield a different number, which question should I ask in preparing my price guide? See the problem?

Now after I’ve said all of this, you might ask: Do I ever consult price guides? The answer is a decided and shamelessly stated Yes! As I stated above, I do enjoy perusing the websites of established dealers, if only to drool. But established dealers also provide information and not simply numbers – after all, what good is their expertise if they can’t display it somehow by conveying to you at least a part of what they know? Also, the world is also full of things about which I have no idea as to value, approximate or otherwise or where knowledge of what I have is thin at best. Earlier I cited the example of the Currier and Ives large folio lithograph Port of New York that came in two versions. Quite frankly, until I began poking around on the internet at realized auction prices, I had no idea there were two versions and that one was more sought after than the other. A price guide authored by an expert in the field will alert me to the existence of two versions of this lithograph. Price guides, especially those written by specialists, along with dealer websites also taught me not only to distinguish between 18th and 19th century brass candlesticks, but also to appreciate the radical differences in pricing. The list goes on, and includes learning that 19th century theorems on paper typically sell for considerably less than their counterparts on velvet, and I regularly consult the completed auctions on eBay to see what something I just picked up at the flea market has recently sold for (if only to see if there’s reason to believe I made yet another mistake or absconded with a potential bargain). I also have to accept the fact that, in theory at least, price guides issued by acknowledged experts can drive a market and make the prices they publish self-fulfilling numbers. If a specialized guide deemed definitive for whatever reason states that X’s value is Y and if, in response, all dealers who are trying to sell an X set their prices at Y, then at least in the short run (i.e., before other Xs start entering the market in response to an published appraised value) Y becomes X’s market value.

OK, so much for price guides. Now back to our shop. One thing became immediately apparent after our first year, and that was that regardless of how successful we might have been in our summer buying, we couldn’t make a go of it unless we also set up at some of the local shows – Austin, San Antonio, Fredericksburg and of course Round Top. At the time, Round Top was a relatively small operation, perhaps no more than 100 dealers. It hadn’t yet expanded to mimic Brimfield. But doing it and the other shows within driving distance was essential not only to supplement buying and selling opportunities, but also to develop a customer base. I can’t tell you the number of times, when doing a show in Austin just across the Colorado River, we’d meet people who had no idea that our shop, less than a mile away, existed. And doing a show was about the cheapest form of advertising there is. Ever price a ¼ page ad in one of those slick regional magazines that cater to people looking for decorating ideas? Once you finish with the requisite professional photography and layout design, the cost of that ad can easily run to four digits. A local civic auditorium show, on the other hand, costs a fraction of that and more than likely far more people will learn of your existence than from any serialized ad.

Doing shows, though, did have a consequence we were largely unaware of at the time; namely, it precluded us from becoming true collectors of anything. Shows were more than mere advertising for the shop – they were also a way to meet the costs of operating that shop. And that in turn meant bringing to the show those things we might otherwise have collected but thought we could sell. If I’d picked up one or two nicely painted document boxes, a sampler and/or a collection of early toys, they didn’t languish in our shop or at home – they were taken to the next show. The nicely painted Pembroke table, tiger maple day bed and just about the best multi-drawer cobbler’s bench I ever saw never made it into our house – they were sold and sold quickly at one show or another. Looking around the house now, I have to look hard to find anything that’s left over from our Texas years. There’s our kitchen farm table (which as I recall we traded for at one of the shows), a painted corner cupboard, a painted Pennsylvania mirror and a Hudson River school painting of a fishing scene. I think that’s it. In other words, we collected virtually nothing and when we did take those summer shopping expeditions, we bought nothing with the idea of collecting it.

Before I continue, though, I have to tell you our “Motel Story” (can’t figure out where else to stick it in this discourse) that arose on one of those buying expeditions. We (wife, three kids and me) were driving south between Vermont and New York before heading west to visit the sister-in-law. We were, naturally enough, scrimping on expenses (a dollar saved on motels is another dollar to be spent on inventory), and a dealer at one of the shops we visited told us about a motel down the road that catered to antiques dealers and charged only (as I recall) $15 per night. Now as long ago as that was, fifteen bucks was a bargain basement price to say the least. Motel 6 didn’t stand a chance. So we headed there, and didn’t get to it until dark. But as I drove up, I had a hard time believing it could offer a bargain. The main building was one of those large 2-story New England colonial style homes with a columned front porch that begged to be furnished with the best 18th century Americana money could buy. But we were there, it was late and I figured what the hell, lets see what they have. Yes, they had a cabin out back for us, and leading me around in a pitch black night, we came to a small cabin by a lake that was but a small step up from outhouse-sized. OK, we could live with that for a night provided only that the beds were clean – we were heading out at first light and only needed a roof over our heads. Heck, as I recall we’d just spent the last two or three nights sleeping in our van at Brimfield, and the cabin was indeed only $15 as promised. I parked the van in back of the cabin and we all hunkered down to sleep – sorta. For almost the entire night there was a continual and brutal downpour that made sleeping problematical. But the roof didn’t leak, so $15 still seemed like a great deal. The surprise came when we got up in the morning. The rain had ended, but when I went to open the front door I found that the front third of the cabin floor, which sloped in the direction of the lake, was an inch or two under water. In fact, the water had risen so that literally half the cabin was now in the lake. It’s when I got outside that I realized how lucky we’d been. Insofar as I could tell, the cabin wasn’t connected, bolted, posted or whatever down to anything – it was merely set on cinder blocks. Add another three or four inches of water and it, with us inside, might have floated away (though I doubt it would have been very seaworthy). Our biggest stroke of luck, however, was my wholly random decision to park the van in the back of the cabin as opposed to alongside it. If it had been parked alongside there was a fair chance the water would be up past the doors. Such are the vicissitudes of the antiques business.

But now comes the “fun” part with having an antique shop – economic recessions. We’ve all become adjusted, I guess, to crude oil prices dancing between $40 and $100/barrel, but in 1986 the price of oil fell through the floor to numbers like $10/barrel. While perhaps the rest of the country celebrated, the Texas economy was hit hard. Oil drilling companies were sealing their wells with cement since it wasn’t worth the cost of pumping the stuff out, and for students attending the University of Texas at Austin it suddenly made more economic sense to buy a newly built condo than to rent a dormitory room on campus. On flights into the city, what greeted you out the window were acres of half-developed housing complexes. You could see the roads and an occasional foundation, but damned if anyone was building anything. Recessions, though, can be creepy crawly things, hitting businesses of one type first and then the next and then the next. And in this parade of falling dominoes, the first to go are shops selling antiques. Lets face it, antiques are for the most part luxury goods and not anything anyone truly needs. Antiques are food for the soul, but the stomach comes first. Need a bed? Why buy a 4-poster tiger maple rope bed that requires a custom made mattress? Go instead to a mattress store and they’ll probably throw in a metal frame for free with the purchase of a box spring and mattress. Need a dresser? Try those discount furniture stores selling particle-board-some-assembly-required pieces. That Philadelphia Chippendale mahogany chest can wait until things pick up. Need a kitchen table and have only pennies to spend? Head to an estate sale or try the Salvation Army, since if you throw a tablecloth over it, who knows what it really looks like? And if you’re hanging in there worried about job security, the last thing you need is a painted 19th century bowl for the coffee table, another piece of decorated stoneware or a $1,500 or $2,000 early 19th century needlepoint sampler.

So it should come as no surprise that in a recession not only are antique shops the first domino to fall, but they’re also the last to rise back up when the economy turns around. After three years, the shop had finally begun to show progress financially. At least that’s what we thought when heading off for our summer buying expedition. But there we were at the end of that summer returning with a truckload of goodies, only to see our sales fall off a cliff. I don’t know what the actual percentage was in our monthly decline of sales, but it was evident that the shop was about to become one hell of a tax write off. Meeting expenses became a fantasy and doing any of the regional antique shows was merely an exercise in talking to other dealers about the disappearance of business. How optimistic can one be about selling antiques when one of the dealers down the aisle from you is a recently unemployed VP of a local bank that had just gone belly up?

We may have erred in the first place in thinking we wanted to own an antique shop when moving to Texas, but I wasn’t about to compound that error by swallowing a stream of red ink trying to keep the shop open while the only expanding business in the area was selling signs that read “for lease”, “for rent” and “going out of business”. Clearly, our best strategy was to simply close up. Unfortunately, we had a lease on our space that still had a year or two to run. Once again, the gods stepped in to save us. There was a party catering company next door that had been lusting after our space for use as storage for upwards of a year, and they readily agreed to take over our lease and let us off the hook. Now in general, I’ve determined that the gods are a cranky sort, prone only to doing a small occasional favor to alert you to their existence. But this time they decided we were one of the anointed few. When the catering company went to the owner of the building to transfer the lease, they decided to simply tear ours up and write a wholly new contract. So we were out of it 100%, with no liability whatsoever. Fantastic. But like I said, we were merely the first domino to fall. Six months later the catering company went belly up. I have no idea what happened to their lease.

With the shop now closed we did something that we should have done from the very beginning – we loaded up all our larger pieces (except for what we wanted or needed to keep for ourselves), hauled them up to Dallas, and sold everything at auction. Initially we planned on limiting ourselves to doing shows since that incurred no ongoing overhead expenses and gave us (or really, me) something to do on summer vacations. However, before we had the chance to implement that plan, the opportunity arose for us to move west, to California. Fortunately, this time there was no need for me to find another mattress company to move our belongings. So, with a sour taste still in our mouths from the collapse of our antique shop, off we headed – three kids, two dogs and a cat.

 

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