The latest craze in society is to run an antique shop.
Almost every week fresh shops for the sale of curios are opening in London and provincial centres. And it is no exaggeration to state that certain clever managers and buyers who started with a tiny room somewhere in London, are now making a regular profit of thousands a year. Of course, every antique dealer is not so fortunate - success depends greatly on personal skill in buying the right thing, and on the strong personality that builds up a business by attracting the right sort of clients.
The "antique" business is largely a matter of personality. Trade lies solely among the " upper " and " moneyed " classes, and clients like to drop in to a pleasant shop in the afternoon, talk to a charming, cultured woman or man, idly inspect the stock to see if there is anything new or remarkable, and in the end purchase something worth several pounds. Or, if their first visit does not lead to a purchase, they probably follow it up with a second, third, and fourth, ultimately proving valuable customers. But it all depends on the favourable impression made by the shop and its owners.
Among the aristocracy antiques have become a veritable mania, and several ladies and gentlemen in society have been cute enough to realise what a gold mine lies in the sale of antiques, and also to realise that it is easy for them to make use of it, since the trade lies entirely among people who are their personal friends and acquaintances. If the truth were known, more than half the curio shops in Mayfair and elsewhere are run by members of the aristocracy, trading under an assumed name.
It is useless to deny that the starting of an antique business is expensive. It needs capital, partly for buying stock, but chiefly for rent and running expenses. Stock has to be bought to a certain extent ; but many good businesses of this kind have been started with borrowed stock. One dealer is almost always willing to lend to another, on the chance of sale, for which he gives a small commission. So, in starting a business, it is possible to go round to various other shops and borrow stock for show ; also, the beginner has some idea of her possible clients
- people who have promised to come - and the trend of their taste in antiques. If she cannot purchase sufficient stock she is perfectly safe in borrowing, securing things likely to please her patrons and which she has been unable to purchase. That is really the only way to ensure a change of stock, as the sale of antiques is not sufficiently rapid to make an appreciable difference in a large stock in a short time.
The choice of locality is important, in London - shops that appeal to the " smart set " must be very central : the streets off Mayfair, Sloane Street, Bond Street, Gros-venor Square, and other well-known localities are the best; and though the rents are expensive, the clientele that comes to such a position balances matters.
Some dealers put a lot of stuff in their window ; some put only one vase, or chair, or screen. Good taste is essential in arranging things so that one object sets off another ; and by cleverly combining a piece of pottery and a table a double sale is often effected.
The great thing in running an antique shop is never to appear anxious to sell, and never to appear anxious to receive money for articles sold. The people who can afford to buy antiques do not expect to pay ready money - in fact, they never do. A year's credit is always expected, sometimes more, but the money very seldom becomes a " bad debt." Such customers deal for years on end, and continue to run up bills ; so that the money which is coming in to an antique dealer this year is for goods sold twelve or sixteen months ago. It is useless to fight against this "credit " system, as it is the only way antique shops can be run.
The only ready-money trade is done with other dealers. At certain seasons of the year antique shops live on each other - that is to say, dealers go round, buying whatever they can, and paying for it in cash. A huge trade within a trade is being done by antique dealers among themselves, which is a very good thing, as it keeps shops open and flourishing which might otherwise have to close. Of course, dealers expect a reduction in price, and get it. Since they pay ready money, this is well worth while, for the profits on antiques are big, prices being made even higher than they should be because of the long credit given.
Customers are very exacting, and soon tire of a shop which has, apparently, no novelties. Therefore it behoves a skilful dealer to be always on the qui vive to pick up things that are likely to appeal to valuable customers. For instance, a little while ago a wealthy man went into his favourite dealer's shop and said he was looking out for half a dozen chairs of a certain type, for which he was willing to give a good price. The dealer had none, but said that he would do his best to find some by the following week. However, he had no luck at sales, and ultimately went to a' small dealer, in whose shop he found the very things he wanted ! These were lent to him, priced at a sum allowing for commission on the sale. The following week the customer returned, was delighted with the chairs, and bought them. Thus, business was done, and a valuable customer pleased, who might otherwise have gone elsewhere permanently, and the other dealer disposed of goods that might have remained in his shop, unsold, for months. The great idea in antique dealing is to keep customers and to make sales - whether of actual or borrowed stock.
The attendance at sales is an interesting and important branch of antique work. These take place in town and all over England. Lists are sent to dealers some time in advance, so that they can arrange to be present if there is anything for sale that they think useful. It is wise for a firm to number two members - one to do the buying and dealing with other dealers, and the other to look after the shop, keep the books - no mean task - and attend to customers. The buyer needs a wide knowledge of antiques ; but the partner in the shop need have no great knowledge to start with. It is easily acquired as time goes on; indeed, many an expert on antiques has gained her knowledge solely through constantly working in a good shop, and reading up books on old china, etc. The articles on the " Romance of Old China" in Every Woman's Encyclopaedia would be of great assistance.
Big sales are valuable to a certain extent, but prices are always higher. The wise buyer is he who keeps his eyes open for small sales, where bargains may often be found.
A little tour round country cottages in search of china and brass often repays the labour and expense, as many a good piece ' may still be acquired in this way by the buyer with a wide knowledge of the subject. Certain Oriental goods are often bought and shipped direct from China, Japan, and India. Friends living abroad are often able to do business with dealers, choose likely goods, and have them sent straight to a shop. Many dealers are now making a speciality of Oriental antiquities; one shop, particularly, made a profit of nearly £4,000 last year solely from Oriental goods.
Apart from London, a big trade is done in antiques all over the country, especially by ladies. Stratford-on-avon and Canterbury are particularly big centres for this sort of work, and even in small villages ladies frequently run businesses of this kind, often in their own houses. Many ladies start an antique shop with their own treasures, which may or may not be sold, but form the basis of a stock for show, which is the most important feature of the trade. In order to succeed as a dealer in curios, acquire enough capital to keep afloat for two years, get together an attractive and varied stock, add to it as often as possible, and make prices as high as possible without being exorbitant.