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How Cooperative Are You?

The antiques business is filled with characters. It seems to appeal to people with eclectic tastes and individualistic temperaments. I have met very few boring dealers or serious collectors.  Not many people start up in this business early in life.  Most of us come to it after having gone through earlier job or career cycles.  Retirees are common in the trade.  There are a lot of part-timers supplementing their primary income.  Auctioneers are a whole subspecies of their own.

At one time I was in two different antique mall cooperatives. The personalities involved were interesting and sometimes challenging. A co-op is a weird assembly, a sort of  team effort but with the understanding that every man is in it for himself. At both places there was a requirement to work at the establishment for two days each month. I found the experience was good research into buyers habits and desires yet some dealers chose to pay other coop members to stand-in for them.

One co-op was in a large, drafty, former milking barn. Winter days found us huddled around the woodstove giving the place the ambienceof an old country store. The social interaction was great and we really got to know each other.  I heard stories of people from many walks of life.  I knew a guy who was an aide de camp to a general in WWII.  He was still in the army during the Bay of pigs incident in Cuba.  There were people who experienced the great depression.  We could learn a thing or two from those folks now.

In the other mall we had good heat and a tight insulated building.  we also had some old timers who knew there way around the business pretty well.  There was a husband and wife who were retired and sold antiques both to supplement income and as a way to stay active and engaged in the community.  He had been a music teacher at the local high school and she was a former District Justice.  They were both well read and didn’t lack culture.  He was a distinguished gentleman who seemed to be constantly in search of the “perfect Manhattan.”  They knew everybody and their kin for miles around and were a better guide to local history than any book was.  In his younger days he ran with some fellows who learned the trade by going “on the knock.”  Their guide to finding antiques was to look for old houses with lace curtains.  Nine times out of ten there would be an old woman living there and it could be well worth the trouble to stop and inquire if she had any old furniture she wanted to get rid of or a garage or attic needing to be cleaned out.

Most of the old guys I knew who had that kind of chutzpah had a barn stuffed to the rafters with good old stuff to sell.  While most dealers put a lot of effort into presenting a neat display of there wares in the particular booth they rented.  Some of these guys created a studied disorder that created an impression of clutter to draw buyers into the idea of finding special treasure amongst the obvious junk.  Some people seem to like something more if they “discovered” it.  The most successful dealer I knew operated this way.  Just keep things messy enough to make people feel that they are in terra incognita and hang up a 10% off sign and the world will beat a path to your door.  It always seemed to work with the tourists from New York.  and we loved New Yorkers.  But that’s another story.

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