On the trail of the ‘next great find’

Antiques dealers profess to the same drives and addictions as their customers — the need to search high and low, coupled with the thrill of discovery

Ral Gario, owner of Bellingham Bay Collectibles, said searching for those rare nuggets at garage sales and estate sales still gives him the thrill of the hunt, one reason he’s still in the antique business after almost 25 years.

   The way an antiques business is run can be as unique as the items in the shop. Merchandise can be found in the strangest of places for pocket change, be brought into the shop off the street or go for thousands to the highest bidder at an auction. Once on the shelf, items can take one of several paths in leaving the store with a new owner.
   Here is a look at how four Bellingham antique shops operate in the tumultuous trade of nostalgia.

Bellingham Bay Collectibles
   Ral Gario, owner of Bellingham Bay Collectibles, has been in the antiques business in Bellingham for almost 25 years. Over that time he has learned the arcane science of how to how to buy, price and sell items that most shoppers either view as junk or as their retirement nest egg — and are usually wrong on both counts.
   To gather his inventory, Gario goes to local garage and estate sales, auctions and even other antique shops, where he might buy or trade items. In addition, he uses three or four people he calls “pickers,” who know what he needs and help him round up items.
   Gario said his methods are hit-and-miss, as buying opportunities are not usually predictable. “You just buy what you like and hope other people will like it too,” he said. To decide the value of an item, Gario relies on his experience and usually uses one of the more than 200 price guides he owns.
   During a typical day at work, Gario looks for new items in the morning, and by 11 a.m. opens his shop on Holly Street. “One day you might not make any money, and the next you might make a few hundred dollars,” he said of sales.
   Of Gario’s customers, collectors make up a sizable segment.
   “Collectors are crazy, they’ll do anything to get what they want,” he said. “Collectors will always tell you what they collect, then it’s up to you to find it.”
   Gario said he is also a collector, both for his business and for himself, and the thrill still remains in finding new items. One of his recent acquisitions is large 3-foot-tall stuffed tiger, called a Studio Steiff Tiger. He said the toy is German-made, likely manufactured in the 1950s, and he paid $2 for it at a Bellingham garage sale. According to Gario, the big cat is worth big cash — about $3,000.
   “The rush is when you find something really cool for really cheap,” he said.

Off the Wall Antiques
   Inside Off the Wall Antiques, you won’t find items from a recent Fairhaven garage sale — owner Patti Lierman doesn’t buy around here. She also doesn’t price her items the same way other shops do.
   Lierman, who has been in business for about two years, goes to Europe to get her merchandise. About twice a year she attends estate sales, auctions and fairs in England, Scotland, Wales and France, looking for new items.
   As Lierman buys directly, she said, the prices she purchases items at are much lower, because several middlemen have been cut out. When buying her items, she said, she doesn’t use books to determine the value of something, but rather, just gives the items a thorough inspection, keeping an eye out for distinguishing features.
   Lierman’s pricing is also different from most shops. She said she applies a flat markup to whatever she bought an item for when pricing. This allows many items to be priced lower than their market value, making for a faster turnover of merchandise — instead of having things sit for a couple of years, she said.
   She said customers will often ask her to find certain items, even requesting specific features and dimensions. If she can find what a customer is looking for she will give them priority to buy the item.
   “I like when somebody finds what they’re looking for,” she said.

Old Town Antique Mall
   Costumes, jewelry, furniture, collectibles, linens — Old Town Antique Mall has a variety of items — but owner Claudette Job does not rummage through garage sales to fill her store.
   Job, who has been at her current location since 1992, rents out space within her store to other antiques dealers. She said there are 36 dealers with spaces under her roof.
   Dealers bring in items they find whenever they want, and Job manages the store, and makes all the sales; she then charges her sellers rent and commission on their sales.
   In choosing the sellers for her store, Job said she has to be careful; she has guidelines for the dealers as to what can be sold in the store and how it should be marked, so it is not misidentified.
   Keeping the sellers happy involves sticking to established business hours, having a clean and attractive store and getting customers in the door, said Job. She said she does all the advertising for the store, and as long as the sellers bring in items customers want, she can bring in customers to buy them.
   Although Job’s store is mostly filled with merchandise from others, she does have three spaces to herself. She said she occasionally goes to auctions and estate sales to find items, but most of what she buys people bring into the store, where she won’t let dealers buy. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t buy something,” she said.

Barleytwist Antiques
    At their Fairhaven antique shop, which specializes in American décor, owners Alfie Farrand and his wife, Barbara Collamer, essentially run two businesses under one roof.
    Collamer manages the inventory in the shop, and searches for items at garage sales, estate sales and auctions. She also buys from people who bring things in and goes on buying trips around the country.
    Farrand, however, runs a part of the business where he gets items from customers who search out him and sells them to customers he never meets — all without leaving the shop.
    Barleytwist is a registered eBay trading assistant. This means people bring in their items and the shop helps them sell them on eBay, said Farrand.
    Farrand said he helps people value their items, based on what similar items have sold for on eBay in the past. “Everyone thinks their stuff is worth a million dollars, but that’s not how pricing works,” he said.
    After establishing a price, Farrand then runs a weeklong auction on eBay and, when the online auction closes and the money is mailed, the customer keeps 70 percent of what the item sold for, while he gets a 30 percent cut for handling the auction.
    Although Farrand’s customers are responsible for their own items, he said, he needs to make sure everything is represented correctly. According to Farrand, eBay has strict rules on how to list antiques. He said antiques should be authentic, clean, functional and have a certificate of authenticity or other paperwork to be sold on eBay.
    “If they say it’s a diamond, it better be a diamond when it gets to the buyer — otherwise my reputation on eBay will be terrible,” he said.
    Transactions on eBay make up about 25 percent of Barleytwist’s business, and Farrand said he’s sold items all over the world using the online auction house.
    “We’ve sold some amazing things on eBay. We once sold a can of grease from 1925 for $400,” said Farrand. He said the buyer was apparently interested in reproducing the can’s label — not the vintage grease.

Great finds
Here are some finds long-time antique shop owner Ral Gario has made over the years:
   • 1920s Rolex watch. Bought for about $25 sold for about $500.
   • 1920s sterling presentation bowl. Bought for about $100 sold for about $1,800.
   • 1972 painting from Alaskan artist Rie Munoz. Bought for about $25. Sold for about $1,800.
New finds Gario still has in the shop:
   • An 18-carat gold Baltazar pocket watch circa 1750s — still in running condition. The back of the watch has a picture of Diana the Huntress in the nude with a rabbit and a dog. Bought with other items as part of a package deal that cost $375. The watch alone is valued at a few thousand.
   • A giant, mirror plated ballroom ball circa 1910 salvaged from the old Leopold Hotel. Bought for $20. Valued at a few thousand.


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