Things Antique Store Employees Won’t Tell You

One of my jobs is in an antique store.

I won’t tell you which one.

I will, however, share a few things I’ve learned on the job.

  • Antique malls are a bit different from stores run by one dealer. Traditionally, one dealer has a storefront filled with their own wares. Antique malls, however, group dozens – and in some cases over 100 – different dealers in one building. The dealers all rent individual booths (which may vary in size) and the store is run by a small staff. Sometimes, the employees are also dealers in the same mall (some malls require dealers to work a few days a week). The dealers fill their booths with whatever they’re selling, the mall sells it and takes a small commission (and usually a monthly rent payment that can vary based on booth size), and the dealer gets the rest. For smaller-scale dealers, renting a booth in a mall is much more practical and economical than leasing a storefront, getting all the permits for a brick-and-mortar store, and keeping it staffed all day.
  • Cleanliness is going to vary. Especially in a mall. Some antique stores clean and dust everything daily. Some are less strict about cleaning. In antique malls, the dealer might be responsible for cleaning their own booths and there may not be a set schedule.
  • In any case, it’s a good idea to clean anything old when you bring it home. I once went through an entire bottle of wood cleaner/conditioner removing dirt and residue (possibly old nicotine buildup from someone’s home bar?) from a giant pair of Philippine carved utensils. They’d looked reasonably clean to the naked eye. Trust me, they weren’t.
  • Speaking of which, watch out for nicotine stains. Back in the day, more people smoked, and they had fewer qualms about doing so indoors. Nicotine sticks to things and often isn’t removable. It’s especially unkind to anything porous, i.e. fabric and paper. Those giant utensils polished up nicely, but the vintage lithograph gifted to me long ago by an elderly neighbor is always going to be stained beige because she chain-smoked all her life. (And it’s still in the original frame. If tobacco smoke can get through metal and glass, don’t count on being able to remove it from much else.)
  • We’re paranoid about bugs. I hasten to add that actually seeing bugs is pretty rare. But you just never know. So we’re well-prepared with every bug spray and bug deterrent on the market, just in case.
  • Condition may vary, so inspect carefully before you buy. Most antique stores don’t accept returns for any reason. Recently, I noticed that two different dealers at the same antique mall had near-identical ceramic whiskey decanters for sale. The one in good condition was priced $8 lower than the chipped one. Go figure.
  • Mothball odor still exists. And no, you can’t get rid of it. Where I live, no one has used mothballs in decades. It’s too warm for wool. My mother once learned, the hard way, that the stench of mothballs never goes away (she tried everything and wound up donating the item). Give furniture a sniff before you buy it. And if you’re buying online, ask the dealer to confirm that there are NO funny odors. By the way, mothballs are toxic.
  • Where do the dealers get this stuff? Could be anywhere. Dealers might be collectors liquidating their assets. They might be slowly selling a late relative’s things or slowly downsizing their things as they age. They might buy all the best stuff from area garage sales, fix it up, and sell it. They might be in the estate-sale business and selling leftover items. Ask ten different dealers and you may get ten different answers.
  • Speaking of dealers, they come and go. Some dealers – especially if they’re doing well – stay put for years. I know of one who has sold from the same mall booth for 20 years (really). Others will be gone in three months. Keep that in mind if you know of a great booth off the beaten path. No matter how good the stuff is, if the dealer can’t sell it, they may have to close up shop.
  • Locked cases are a necessity. Some people will steal from anywhere, including an antique store. Small valuable items – jewelry, coins, vintage cameras, rare books – are typically locked in cases by dealers to deter theft. (Cases also protect fragile items from breakage.) We know not everyone likes having to fetch an employee to unlock a case. However, those cases need to stay locked to protect the merchandise.
  • Please be careful with breakable items. The dealer loses money on anything you break, and in a well-stocked store or booth, getting every last broken bit of glass or ceramic is harder than it looks. (I worked in a housewares store for a while and cleaned up a LOT of broken items. The displays were so large and heavy that we couldn’t really move them to vacuum up the last few bits lurking underneath.)
  • On a related note, PLEASE ask for help with anything large, heavy, fragile, or above your head. We’re used to dealing with this stuff, we know what needs to be handled with care, we know where the ladder is and how to use it safely, and we know where that ceramic figural lamp is plugged in. It’s okay to ask for help – and for safety’s sake, we’d prefer it.
  • The dealers set pricing, and discount policies vary. Not all dealers are willing to discount items, especially for someone who is only buying one or two things. You can ask, but the dealer may or may not not be willing to budge. At an antique mall, it varies. Some dealers will have sales or specials, others won’t. Some dealers are willing to negotiate, others will be firm on pricing. Not every dealer will be reachable by phone – many of them also have day jobs. Some ask the mall employees not to contact them at all. Bottom line? Be respectful and please don’t argue with the staff. They don’t get to choose dealer policies and they don’t set the pricing.
  • Working in an antique store can be hazardous to your budget. I have a tiny budget and a tiny living space…and I still can’t stop myself from thinking “oh, I like that…and I like that…and I like that too.” But so far I’ve only bought about $50 worth of antiques at work, so I think I’m doing pretty well.

Got any tips I’ve missed? Please share them in the comments!

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