Fast-forward thirty years, and the quintessential notion of an antiques dealer has undergone a massive make-over. Not just in the sense of image changing inventory, but from the ground-level up. No longer are antiques shops filled with brown wood, and men of academia representing a certain age. Instead, you're just as likely to encounter young hipsters handily working on upcycling old furniture into vibrantly painted colors slated for a showroom floor.
For many in the business this change seems almost implausible. The long-standing image of the bespectacled antiquarian hovering over a magnifying glass in a musty old antique shop, has persisted for so long that it's virtually become enshrined as decorative arts lore, and a somewhat de facto representation of the antiques business itself.
However, as with any industry, change is bound to happen. Just ask Ahmed Patel, a second-generation antiques dealer from Boston who recalls taking over his father's business fifteen years ago. "I'd pretty much worked alongside him my whole life," says Patel, "but when I finally took the reins, I knew it was going to be a changing of the guard, in virtually every sense of the word." Patel remembers telling his father they should maybe try some new ideas, as shop sales of old European classics had begun to falter by the turn of the century. "He was reticent to change," says the younger Patel, "He just wanted to believe it was a temporary downturn."
The elder Patel was not the only dealer during this period to express such resistance. Janet Hawkes, a now retired antiques dealer from New England, recalls how she thought the exact same thing in 2000. "I simply attributed our lack of sales in early American furniture to the dot-com bust of the time, but in reality, it just never came back," says Hawkes.
Patel thinks that much of his father's resistance to change was due in large part to the consistency that the antiques trade had witnessed over the last forty years. "He definitely had a few ups-and-downs in that time, but for the most part it always came back - and usually to the same type of items."
Later that same year, while hunting down inventory, the younger Hawkes started adding vintage garden furniture on the side, doing a light refurb where necessary, and placing it outside the storefront in the mornings during the summer months. "It was all I could do to keep pace," says Sarah, "by the late afternoon, it was usually sold - especially on sunny days."
When Patel took over his father's business in 2004, he began to implement new changes almost immediately. "The first thing I actually did was to open up a wall and put in some windows to bring more light into the shop," says Patel, "The next order of business was to start buying inventory based on what people from my generation were collecting."
Patel says it wasn't hard to see that stainless steel influenced themes in the kitchen were leading to mid-century modern décor. "I was literally buying it by the truckload for $20 to $50 back then. Often times on a Sunday I could travel the neighborhoods and find enough free curbside inventory to last a month." Sales were brisk according to Patel, and within a few years he could barely keep up with demand. "It was definitely the right decision for the time," he says.
Today, Patel and most other dealers in his neighborhood all carry a very similar stock and inventory of MCM and vintage themed pieces, which Patel says he finds worrying. "It's not like my fathers' generation anymore, where we can sit and rest knowing what's popular today, will probably last a lifetime - it won't." Patel thinks the antiques business is just like any other retail business now, "Unfortunately, we're going to be subject to the whims of popular trends and change like everyone else - whether we like it or not - so we're probably best to start adapting now..."
- A.I.A. Staff Writers
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