Antiques: a labour of love
Walking into Steve’s secondhand and antique store is like walking into Ollivander’s Wand Shop in Diagon Alley. Sure, you feel like Harry Potter as you stumble into this massive pile of clutter and wood and old radios and things that can only be called contraptions with forgotten functions.
Matter of Time is Steve’s baby, his secondhand, vintage and antique store on Jones Avenue in East York. Ever since his 11-year-old self laid eyes on his first rusty, iron-hinged trunk in a back alley near Moss Park apartments, all things old, odd and rare have subtly fascinated him. He gets a regular stream of customers throughout the day, looking for everything from antique radios to brass doorknobs.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen cockroaches in my life,” he said, smiling at the memory of his first ‘antique.’ “We dumped these uniforms out and oh, it was just horrible. But the trunk was so interesting because it had oak, it had wood, it had leather, it had also interesting iron hinges and strips.”
His store smells like Grandma’s old closet: musty and warm. While breathing in the smell, you know there’s human DNA floating in the air from all the hands that have brushed against the old green barber’s chair, the box of emergency buttons from the 1940s, the orange Pennsylvania Dutch vase with a hand-painted flower on the side.
That smell is time and people, and the intimate relationships the two have created over the past couple of centuries.
But the antique market is not what it used to be. With the rise in vintage becoming trendy again, with Halloween costumes from the ‘60s being worn as everyday clothing and hipsters buying used furniture to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s a surprise to see that business at antique and vintage stores is going down.
Mart Van Vliet owns and runs an antique store called Mermaid Antiques in Elora, Ontario. He opened it in 1994, after he and a friend dabbled in antique sales as a hobby. He said that his most profitable year began when he moved away from antiques towards reproductions from Thailand.
The market is changing, according to Van Vliet, and not for the better.
“Our parents are living longer and downloading their stuff to us as they downsize,” he explained. “So people over 45 have too much stuff and people under have stuff from Ikea.”
This trend is similar to the ‘50s. People had chrome and glossy new furniture. They took pride in how modern their décor was. Rustic wasn’t in style, and vintage today was cutting edge back then.
Until a few years ago, Van Vliet couldn’t stock antiques fast enough.
“Every Friday night I would buy one truckload of furniture and by next Friday [it would] be gone,” he explained. “Now I bring pieces in and they sit for months. China and glass, you can’t even give it away.”
Canada’s antique market is not as big as down south, since it’s a relevantly young country. Toronto has 28 members listed in the Canadian Antique Dealers Association, with many more going unlisted or classified as nostalgia shops or pawnshops.
“I can’t speak to what’s going on in people’s brains,” Van Vliet said about current trends in furniture. “I think it’s all about the aesthetic of the house. This is the stuff of people’s lives so they have to decorate with it.”
Sandy Neilly, founder and editor of the Wayback Times, a bi-monthly publication about the antiques and collectibles world, disagrees with the notion that antique stores are slowly becoming irrelevant. Given the growing trend in green living and recycling everything from old radios to five-and-dime-store cups, she finds that Douglas Coupland’s Generation A is more enthusiastic about reusing objects of the past.
Sandy and her husband Peter adopted the Wayback Times in 2006. They publish six issues each year and they host the annual Wankworth antiques show. They also own their own antiques store called Meadow Creek Barns, located in Hastings, Ontario.
“Actually, we feel that antique stores are more relevant now than ever with the need and desire to recycle,” she said from experience. “We’re starting to see a tremendous increase in nostalgia sales and many younger people appear to be the buyers.”
We do know of many young dealers as opposed to shop owners. In fact, Bradley Higgins of Prince Edward County is only 14!”
Neilly finds that people at antique shows and auctions range from the casual young urban couples shopping for household items with function to serious collectors with a nose for unique original items.
“Between these two groups is the most typical buyer, the person who loves antiques and enjoys browsing at shows,” she continued. “Usually this kind of buyer is looking for a specific item, something to bring character and life to a room.”
Gloria Amos, the owner of a Queen Street West store The Painted Table, finds that her shop ends up as a community drop-in center most of the time. She lives on a farmhouse in Georgetown, and drives forty minutes each way to set up shop downtown every day.
“The people that you saw today, these are all customers that have become like friends,” she said, folding an old blanket in the back of her shop, where a retro ‘60s style bedroom was set up.
Amos has had her store for seven years on Queen Street West. She was recently notified by her landlord of a $500 rent increase, on top of her $800 monthly rent. She finds that the city is not very friendly to small business owners, particularly secondhand and antique-store owners.
“I think more people are actually getting out of [antiques] just because of rent, because [of] the demographics,” she said. “Young people are really not so much into antiques.”
Residential rental increases are tightly controlled by the city. The increase was capped in 2011 this year at 0.75 per cent, the lowest increase it’s ever been.
But, commercial rental increases are left to the owner’s wishes.
“If you’re going to do that and you’re going to tell me that small businesses are the backbone of the economy of Ontario, you got to do something at the other end to protect them,” Amos said. “For me, profit is not a dirty word. But greed certainly is.”
Apart from uncontrolled rental increases, secondhand antique-store owners also have to contend with the city’s ambiguous classification for their types of business.
A registered secondhand goods store must pay a $700 licensing fee every year, whereas an antiques store don’t pay anything.
“[The city] classifies antiques as anything over 100 years old,” Amos said, speaking of an incident where the city sent someone to her store to check. “They went away scratching their heads.”
This is because in the antiques business, it is hard to only sell items that are over 100 years old. Amos’s store has more than its fair share of used goods from the past 50 years.
Before she dove into her antiques passion, Amos worked in the corporate world, for Barrymore Carpets. After a slightly hostile merger, she left to travel around the world with her husband Jeffrey. She was 36.
“I’ve collected since I was 16,” she said. “I used to go to auctions, then I stopped. I traveled with my husband. And I came back here when I was 50, from India.”
Then Jeffrey got sick with cancer and died.
“I was like ‘Okay, I’m a middle-aged woman, totally afraid of getting emotionally and financially stuck’ because there’s no life insurance, we spent all our money in airfare,” she recalled.
She had been a free spirit for too long, she said. She knew she couldn’t go back to working at a desk.
Unlike Steve, who has been in the business since the late ‘70s, Amos was a newcomer to the business of buying and restoring antiques. She opened her store against the advice of her closest friends. Today, it is going strong but she sees problems in the future. The decreasing value of antiques is hitting the industry hard.
“A pine blanket box could command $600,” she said. “You’re lucky if you can get $300 for one now.”
Technology has affected the way old things move around the globe. Neilly points out the importance of the Internet revolution in the evolution of the antiques industry.
“Online auctions like eBay flushed out all of the collectibles that, until then, had to be searched out by means of physical travel, letters and phone calls,” she explained. “It literally changed the entire structure of the antiques and collectibles market.”
“Antiquing is the ultimate form of recycling and how can you beat that in this day and age?” she added.
By Maryam Musharaf Shah