The Glamorous Life of an Antiques Dealer

Lea Wait, here. (You couldn’t guess by the title above?) I’ve been an antique print dealer since 1977. Before that, in the 1950s and 60s, as a child, I helped my grandmother (or at least tried to help her) with her antique doll and toy business.

Van, Packed for show

Van, Packed for show

Yes — shades of Maggie Summer, the antique print dealer in my Shadows Antique Print series, and Gussie White, her best friend, who deals in dolls and toys.

Although my great-grandfather, who was also an antique dealer, had a shop on Beacon Hill in Boston, neither my grandmother nor my mother and I (we worked together in my business) ever had shops. Yes; we’d sell by appointment out of our homes. (I still do that. Or via telephone/email/snail mail contacts.) But most of our business was, and is, done at antique shows. (The first time I ever earned money, I was about eleven and was paid fifty cents to booth sit at the an antiques show in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, so a dealer in glassware could take a dinner break. I saved that fifty cent piece for years.)

Barn, Pre-Show (Dawn)

Barn, Pre-Show (Dawn)

Ten years ago my husband and I did about a dozen shows a year, from New Jersey to Maine. But the antique business changed, and so did we. Now I write full-time and he paints. We don’t have the time to do the shows we used to. But we’re still members of the Maine Antique Dealers’ Association, and we do one show each summer: their one-day show at Round Top Farm in Damariscotta, Maine.

I’ve written about antique shows — Maggie does a show (an outdoor show in a nor’easter) in Shadows of a Down East Summer. She runs a show in

Vans arriving at show grounds

Vans arriving at show grounds

Shadows at the Spring Show. And Shadows at the Fair, the first book in the series, takes place entirely over one weekend, at a show.

Today I thought I’d give you an idea of what “doing a show” means to dealers.

I started preparing for last week’s show 3 days ahead. I sorted through our inventory, selected what we would take to display on our tables and in our floor easel, and what we would hang on the portable walls we’d take with us. Then I checked to make sure everything was priced (correctly!) and printed out new signs for about fifty prints that had been in a special exhibit last year and needed to be re-signed. I checked on-line for current prices for several of the prints we hadn’t taken out lately, or ever, and were going to hang. I made sure we had change for our cash box, an optimistic stack of sales slips, enough bags for sold items, and current business cards.

MAD Supplied Breakfast

MAD Supplied Breakfast

The day before the show we packed our van. Walls and easels and a box of my books first. Then portfolios and framed items. On top, wire and wooden racks, table covers, cash box, “bag of bags” for sold items, small picture or book stands, and tools.

The morning of the show we set the alarm for 4. We had household chores to take care of, and then we headed out. By a little after 5:30 in the morning we were at the show location. About 70 dealers were doing this show. Most of them had booths outside in tents provided by MADA, or outside in their own tents or … just outside on the grass. Since (like Maggie) we don’t do outside shows, our booth was in the barn. The tables we’d pre-ordered with our booth rent were waiting for us in our space. Other than the tables dealers had ordered, the (beautiful) barn was empty.

One side of our booth

One side of our booth

It didn’t stay that way long. Vans and trucks started rolling in. High school students looking to earn extra money by portering for dealers wandered around. Everyone tried to get their vehicles as close as possible to their booth location. As soon as one van emptied its owner moved it so another could fill its space.

At this show, the wonderful staff of the Maine Antique Digest (nationally, one of the best trade publications) set up a coffee, tea, juice and donuts station to welcome dealers. Refreshments were supplied by MAD.

People exchanged greetings as they carried in heavy furniture, paintings, trade signs, boxes of books and china, maritime antiques, rugs and linens … all sorts of antiques. But now wasn’t the time for long discussions. Now was the time to set up.

Bob, awaiting customers

Bob, awaiting customers

By 8:00 most dealers had everything in place and began roaming the show grounds, searching for pre-show bargains. Inventory items changed hands, and were re-priced and placed in different booths. Customers were “let in” at 9:00.

The morning was, typically, very busy .. crowds of people looking, looking, commenting, and, we all hoped, buying.

Lunch? No free lunch. Some dealers brought their own. But the Damariscotta River Grill provided a chef and two servers to sell hot dogs, lobster rolls, chicken or vegetarian sandwiches. Customers ate at picnic tables under a tent. Dealers took their lunches back to their booths.

Customers!

Customers!

Winslow Homer Engravings?

Winslow Homer Engravings?

By 2:00 the crowds had thinned out. Dealers started chatting with each other, discussing recent shows and auctions (good? better than last year? a total bust?) and their personal lives. (Daughter married? New baby? Husband having surgery? Retired from ‘day job’?) Everyone was tired. Some had gotten up at midnight and then driven two to four hours to get to the show. Others, like us, were luckier: we lived locally.

Fish, Anyone?

Fish, Anyone?

Pack-out began at 4:00. By 5:00 most dealers had filled their vans .. hopefully with fewer items than they’d brought in the morning … and headed out.

Now, all that was left was to unpack everything, do the accounts, and talk about whether to do the show again next year ….

See you there?

About MCWriTers

Kate Flora is the author or co-author of fifteen books, including her Joe Burgess police procedural series, her Thea Kozak series, two true crimes, a stand-alone suspense and a memoir, as well as many short stories. Her books have been Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Derringer finalists. She’s twice won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction and won the 2015 Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction. She divides her time between Maine and Massachusetts. Flora is a former international president of Sisters in Crime.
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5 Responses to The Glamorous Life of an Antiques Dealer

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    This was so interesting. I can’t imagine doing all that preparation throughout the season–it would definitely be a full time job! That barn looks beautiful.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Liz, you’re right on both counts. Acquiring an inventory (and keeping it up to date) is a major job. And that barn IS beautiful! It was built to resemble the inside of a ship.

  3. Gram says:

    I’d love to visit that show. Maybe next year. 🙂

  4. Cynthia Blain says:

    I have not been able to do any of this kind of “shopping” for a few years now due to physical disabilities and after reading this blog, it had me dreaming of going to one more someday. (highly unlikely, but I still live with hope.). Thank you for giving me a little trip down memory lane.

    Cynthia Blain
    Massachusetts

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Gram and Cynthia — I hope you’re both able to attend shows soon! (Some shows are handicapped accessible, Cynthia — but not all. Unfortunately. Check before you go!

    o

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