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Claudia Myers column: Can I sell you this lovely piece of junk?

Next to selling stuff, my favorite thing is finding out about stuff.

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Claudia Myers
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DULUTH — I love to sell stuff. Old stuff, mostly. I love finding an “orphan” something and fixing it up like new or better and then selling it to a new home. I buy antique kimonos and obis and make pillows and table runners. I buy old wooden boxes and line them with gorgeous quilting fabric. I buy old prints and paintings online and find frames at Goodwill or Savers and reframe them. Combinations of broken jewelry become your new favorite piece. I’m a resurrector.

It all started with my mother — she was an antique dealer, too. Actually, she was a "picker." Being a "picker" means you are the one that finds the treasures and sells them to the "real" dealers with the fancy brick and mortar businesses, who come to your basement to buy their inventory. At least, that's the way it used to be, in 1949.

My mother would take herself off in the 1936 Ford, out into the countryside to see if she could find any “treasures”. She would come home with a trunkful of items of dubious value, where-upon my Dad ALWAYS said the same thing. "Another trunkful of JUNK?” He never really "got" the looking-for-treasure-thing. But, he was a good guy and put up wall after wall of shelving in our basement so that she could set up her little shop.

Nowadays, we dealers are also the pickers. We get up at 5 a.m. to go to estate sales, sit in our cars while it's still dark and wait in carefully monitored order. Somebody makes and hands out “pre-numbers” so that when the sale opens, you can enter in an orderly fashion and not like the screaming women in Zorba the Greek, swarming upon the bereaved household to claim the "left-behinds." We visit Goodwill and Savers and the Salvation Army stores, looking for that item we know to be a valuable something. You don't always have to know what it is, but you have to recognize that it is something. I can remember my mom, sitting at the kitchen table, late into the night, surrounded by her antique reference books, doing the research. I still have her loupe that she used to look for that all-important mark or signature that turned a nothing piece of give-away glass into a signed piece of Steuben. The problem being that, in my mother's day, cut glass bowls, hand-painted china and silver sugar compotes were coveted. Now, you can't give them away as door prizes on bingo night. People want things from their childhood that they can use: orange Tupperware and Smurf juice glasses. Pie birds.

When I rented my first booth, my overwhelming urge was to wallpaper it. Evidently, it isn’t something on page one of “The Antique Dealer’s Handbook of Dos and Don’t-Evens” because, as I found out later, it really shouted “newbie” to the other dealers. Probably didn’t help that it was 3-inch-wide black and white stripes instead of a bucolic all-over repeating print with cows. “Very French,” I thought. “Very strange,” the other dealers thought. Why would you go to all that trouble when you are just going to cover it all up with things for sale? Which is the very next thing I did.

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One of the other dealers in the shop where I have my booth is a long-time friend, someone whose judgment I trust, so I felt secure in asking him a question that had been keeping me up at night. Namely, “Now that I’ve signed a year’s lease on this booth space to sell antiques, what happens if I run out of antiques to sell?” His reply? “Never happens. Things show up.” And they do.

One thing I’ve learned is to try and sell things that I like. One, it’s much easier to be enthusiastic when talking with a customer, if you like what you are trying to sell. Two, if that item doesn’t sell and sits grumpily on the shelf for a year or two, at least if it’s something you like, you can take it home and keep it. Three, it’s more fun to look for something you like, when stocking your shop, than looking for something just because a customer asked for it. And you know, if you run home and buy six pie birds online, just because a customer was looking for them that day, you know that pie bird collector will never be back, again. So you’re stuck with six pie birds.

So, here we are, it’s Saturday afternoon at the antique shop. I’m tidying up my booth when a sweet-looking, older lady comes in to ask about the Scandinavian glass in my case. I spend some time yammering on about the vase she seemed interested in. But, when I pause to take a breath, she jumps in with, "Oh, my dear, I’m really not buying anymore, but I have one just like it. I wanted to know how much it’s worth. Thank you, it was lovely talking to you." And off she goes. Well, humph! But, really, after I stopped to think, it was lovely. I got to be the “authority” and tell her everything I knew about that vase. And she was kind enough to listen to me chatter on. Works for me. Because, next to selling stuff, my favorite thing is finding out about stuff.

Next time: How much is it worth and what is it, anyway?

Read more from Claudia Myers
I didn’t know anything about quilts except I had heard some women talking about having made quilts as teenagers and entering them into the State Fair.

Related Topics: FAMILY
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at the College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.
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