The following was published originally, in shorter form, in Allegany Magazine, Cumberland, Md., Feb.-March 2007. Copyright © 2007 by Mary Meehan. A few shops described in this article have closed; see note below.
Joy of the Hunt: Antique Dealers at Work
Rebecca McClarran works two jobs in Cumberland, one of them as a part-time antique dealer who specializes in vintage jewelry. When she goes on vacation, does she collapse? Do anything but work? Well, not quite. Actually, she goes antiquing. "I love going into other areas and going into their antique shops and comparing prices," she said, and finding "what's popular and what they're selling." She likes to talk with other dealers and to see regional differences in antiques. On a New Orleans trip, for example, she saw "a lot of French--and more froufrou kind of pieces than we sell here."
Glenn Fitzgerald, whose shop is in Keyser, W. Va., is another dealer who can't stay away from antiques. He acknowledged that "anytime I go on vacation, then, of course, I'm always on the look." Like many dealers, he also buys and sells on eBay, the Internet giant. But that "takes away from the fun of it," he remarked. He finds it more enjoyable to be "looking through the stores" and "just finding stuff." Most dealers say that buying is the best part of their work; yet most can't buy all the time because they have to tend their shops. James Schute, who co-owns a Cumberland store with his sister, has the ideal situation, because "she likes to sell, and I like to buy."
Antique-dealing, like many lines of work, is much harder than it appears to outsiders. It involves lifting, hauling, cleaning, polishing, sometimes repairing or refinishing--plus research, display, restocking, advertising, bookkeeping, and running the shop. Patricia Maddy, a major Cumberland dealer, remarked: "The fun and excitement is buying; and after that, it's all work." She added that it's "an exciting business," but "very hard, and you can get very tired." With eight showrooms and three garages full of antiques, much of it furniture, Maddy has reason to be tired. She said that "you have to have a true, true passion for this business and for the people." She looks forward to shop visitors from all over the United States as well as countries such as Guatemala, Colombia, and France. Every week, she said, "there is a new, exciting person to meet."
Maddy is helped by her "love of what was and isn't anymore"--and also by her husband Charles, who did the wiring and plumbing for her shop while working his own full-time job. "He loves history," she said, and is a great help on buying trips. While other women complain that their husbands often refuse to stop at antique shops, hers "pulls in every single one of 'em."
Dealers view eBay's perpetual online auction as a mixed blessing for their business, citing its downward pressure on prices as a negative factor. Douglas Quade, a Cumberland dealer, commented that Depression Glass used to be "a good mover; but now on eBay they're almost giving it away." But eBay is "a double-edged sword," since someone may buy an item from his shop because they "think maybe they can turn it around for more money" on eBay. Alan Stullenbarger of Lonaconing, who sells on eBay and other online sites, noted that "we shipped 5,000 packages" last year. He said a dealer may pay a low price for an item in this area, but get a high price from someone on eBay because the item is rare where they live. But he also noted the downside of "a lot of fees associated with selling on eBay."
Jim Schute and his sister rent shop space to other dealers, taking over the selling chore for them. But Schute said many dealers have "decided they'd rather do it on eBay than pay the rent." On the other hand, Schute also sells on eBay, so "it's a mixed bag."
Several dealers suggested that eBay buyers should be cautious. "You're not sure what you're getting," said Carolyn Neely, a Cumberland dealer. Maddy reported that sometimes an item is not what the seller says it is, "and it's also chipped, or it comes broken." While eBay tries to resolve such problems (see ebay.com/help), dealers feel the problems provide one reason why collectors should also look in shops. There is "nothing like hands-on inspection," said Debbie Klotz, a longtime Grantsville dealer whose mother is a dealer as well. She also mentioned "the rapport we have with our good customers," including a customers' wish list. "We call people when we get in what they are looking for, and they really appreciate that," she said.
How about the popular PBS television program, "Antiques Roadshow"? Most dealers say it raises too high the expectations of people who stop by their shops to sell them things. "The Roadshow is in another world, as far as I'm concerned," Jim Schute remarked. He said their prices "are so out of whack" that "you can't compare it to this area." Patricia Maddy said Roadshow staff look for "the rare and unusual, and that's all they show." And Alan Stullenbarger suggested that the program creates a syndrome of "my item is worth a million dollars." But he had advice for those who believe they have rare items: "don't throw 'em away; have 'em checked out first"; and be sure to get "several opinions."
The Roadshow is a personal favorite of some dealers. "I think it's great. I love it.... It's fun to watch," said Carolyn Neely. Becky McClarran counts it among the "great, great places to learn." And Maddy stressed that there's "an excitement about it" adding that it has "brought more people into buying, but also more into selling."
Where do dealers do their best buying? Most rely largely on estates, auctions, or both. When buying from a house, Jim Schute may make an offer on all the contents or just choose the best items; it all depends on what the owner wants. "If I have to buy it all, I do," he said. Sometimes, instead, he sets up an auction for the owner. Alan Stullenbarger buys mainly at auctions, which he finds by checking the web site AuctionZip. (If you go to auctionzip.com and type in your zip code, it will gives you the coming auctions within a radius you specify, from 30 to 500 miles.)
Some dealers buy at yard sales, too. Becky McClarran laughed when she admitted that "I don't like getting up that early." But she said yard sales are "fun to do" and that she has "found some great, great deals" there. Others, though, find them too time-consuming and realize some people don't really mean it when they advertise "No Early Birds." Jim Schute recalled being first in line and waiting half an hour to buy an icebox--only to find that "they had sold it the night before." But while he no longer goes to yard sales himself, some people shop those sales and resell items to him.
Besides greater competition, today's antique dealers face a changing customer base. One dealer remarked that older people "are more the purists; they want the real McCoy." But many younger people want "the look" of an antique and "don't really care if it was made a month ago." He said some prefer reproductions, since they cost much less than antiques. Or at least they should cost much less. McClarran said that at the Fort Cumberland Emporium, a cooperative where she has space, "We are very honest about what's reproduction and what's antiques." Outside the local area, though, she has been in shops "where I know things are reproductions, and they have antique prices."
Area dealers are always looking for "the real McCoy"--not just to make a dollar, but because they love antiques and the history they represent. Doug Quade wishes each piece could tell him "where it came from and the lives it touched." And Becky McClarran spoke for all when she said, "I love the hunt."
Some Antique Shops in Western Maryland and Nearby
A couple of shops listed here have reproductions or gifts in addition to antiques. The list was updated most recently in July 2009. We're sorry to report that, due to the recession and/or retirements, several shops featured above have closed. Please patronize dealers who are hanging in there!
A Black Cat Two Antiques, 752 Greene St., Cumberland, Md., (301) 724-2006 (usually by appointment only)
Blue Moon Antiques, 165 Main St., Grantsville, Md., (301) 895-3529
Cabin Fever Antiques & Collectibles, 17 E. Liberty St., Oakland, Md., (301) 334-5630
Fort Cumberland Emporium, 55 Baltimore St., Cumberland, Md., (301) 722-4500
Old House Country Treasures, 76 S. Mineral St. (Route #220), Keyser, W. Va., (304) 788-2482
Red House School Antiques, 3039 Garrett Hwy. (Route #219), south of Oakland and just south of the intersection of Route #219 & Route #50--near village of Redhouse, Md., (301) 334-2800