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Can Antiques Survive on Main Street?

Small, independent businesses in towns across America are once again feeling the effects of a changing economic climate brought about by a confluence of challenges. This past June in an MSNBC interview, Vice President Kamala Harris claimed, “Sadly, during the course of the pandemic, one-third of our small businesses have closed.” Unfortunately, many long-time Main Street staple businesses, such as antique shops, are included in these casualties.

Last month, the Ramona Antique Fair, a 35-dealer, 7,000 SF shop located on Main Street in downtown Ramona, California, announced that it would be closing its doors on August 31 after 26 years in business. Owners Laura and Bob Lyman said they’ve been struggling to keep the doors open but the combination of inflation, changing buying habits, overhead costs, and the temporary pandemic shutdown has convinced them it doesn’t make financial sense to keep the business running. “One of the primary challenges in recent months has been the rising costs of everything, including essentials,” said Bob Lyman. “People are spending their money on gas and groceries. This is discretionary spending. Right now, consumers have to go without antiques because they have to take care of their families.”

The Lymans are not alone when it comes to taking a cold hard look at the continued viability of their business, especially when faced with rising operating costs and escalating downtown rents. For some, the answer is to close and take early retirement or try and find a buyer. Others have chosen to relocate their shop and use the move as an opportunity to downsize their square footage and better align their business with new revenue realities.

The owners of Black Shutter Antique Center, who have been an integral part of Leesburg, Virginia’s historic district for 20 years, will be closing their doors on Main Street and moving their business west to Stephens City, Virginia, near Winchester, where they will continue to sell antiques but on a much smaller scale.  The Antique Emporium in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin, will be relocating and downsizing its store of 35 years from 20,000 to about 1,900-square feet.  According to owners Hugh and Marcella Passow, their new location will be more of a small gallery than the vast museum of oddities that it is now.

Still others, new and long-established antique shops – are doubling down on the allure of Main Street, and re-imagining their retail space and town to ride the nostalgic, retro vibe that is making Main Street hip again for both young people and families.

Just this past weekend, the owner of Nostalgia Antiques & Collectibles in Providence, Rhode Island, shared with me that his building’s property taxes rose by almost $8,000 in the past year, a large part of which will be absorbed by an increase in his rent. Acknowledging this type of increase will certainly have an impact, he seems confident in the storefront appeal of his 200-vendor shop that offers something for everyone, including a strong vintage clothing selection with dressing rooms. His hope does not seem misplaced – when we were there, the shop was filled with young people looking through the racks, sipping specially-blended ice coffee purchased down the block.

Before the sprawl of suburban malls and the rise of Borders and Barnes & Noble in the 90s, small, independently owned candy stores, independent bookshops, antique shops, record stores, diners, stationery stores, ice cream parlors, specialty markets, gift shops, and other small businesses, from clothing boutiques to hardware stores, dominated and defined a town’s downtown business district and the culture and economic health of its community. Heading into the 21st century, that same appeal turned Main Streets into tourist destinations across the country. And, antique shops could be found on almost every corner. They were a Main Street staple business and an attraction in their own right for antiques and collectors in search of new haunts. Then everything changed, once again.

It can be said that the first decade of the 21st century was transitional for many long-time small business owners struggling to adjust, accommodate, and figure out how to profit from a growing consumer preference for online shopping and hanging out at the mall. And then came the recession. For many, the end of the decade would also mark the end of their business, leaving many Main Street storefronts empty for the first time in a long time, and Main Street’s appeal, dwindling.

Although many of the businesses we associate with the idealized version of the Main Street of our youth did not survive the first decade of the 21st century, our memories, like antiques, live on, carrying nostalgia in their wake. In an effort to rethink and revitalize their Main Street, town planning commissions and Chambers of Commerce looked to their past for answers to their future. This revisioning has led to a “Buy Local” movement in towns across America that once again puts local businesses first, and opens the door for new, nostalgia-based businesses that place the customer experience over the sales transaction.

Strolling the streets of downtown after enjoying a meal, walking in and out of specialty stores looking at unique and eclectic items, and then enjoying an ice cream cone while sitting on a bench people-watching is Main Street’s enduring appeal, and that’s the vibe and emotional connection towns and owners of new nostalgia-based businesses such as record stores, candy emporiums, ice cream parlors, comic book stores, booksellers, vintage shops, art galleries, and the many other businesses that once made Main Street a destination for locals and tourists, are looking to recreate. Their nostalgic/retro appeal attracts both a new generation of consumers whose retail experience was shaped by malls and Amazon, and a generation that still fondly remembers the experience of sifting through racks of albums and comic books, leafing through the pages of the newest released books, and coming across something unexpected for their collection. Here, once again, antique shops are right at home on Main Street.

Once again, however, Main Street businesses are being challenged, this time by COVID recovery, escalating Main Street rents to cover revitalization efforts, and now an impending recession. Some may choose to close, sell, downsize or relocate. Others, however, will choose to reassess what they sell by what sells, reimagine their space, and expand sales to a marketplace that shops beyond their physical location as a way to ride out this next storm.

What keeps Main Street alive – through pandemics and recessions – is the vision, creativity, and entrepreneurship of the people, businesses, and community that give it life. In that regard, I am cognizant of change in the downtown antiques trade as shop owners redesign their space to speak to buyer trends and interests, yet eternally optimistic that antique shops on Main Street, like the goods they sell, are here to stay.