I started my antiques business in 1989, gradually drawing away from the bar and restaurant career that I’d been involved in since the mid 70’s. I’d landed a job as sous-chef, then moved on to my own kitchen in North Beach, SF. After moving from the city I worked as bartender/manager in a bowling alley that was reputed to be the toughest bar in the county.
I often tell of the time, at a party, when a big Marine-type heard me say just that—that I worked at the toughest bar in the county.
“Yeah, where?” he said, probably expecting me to mention one of two biker bars (I’d worked one of those, as well.)
When I told him, he said: “That Place! Fuck! I forgot about that place.”
I kept at it until deciding that the antiques sideline needed my full-time attention. Until then, the careers had overlapped. In 1995, I finally thought I could make more by selling things I’d bought than by working behind a bar. Momma X had a good, steady career in book production, so that enabled us to gamble with a situation that could be feast today, famine tomorrow.
Of course, this wasn’t a decision I’d pulled from the ether (or other, darker places) it was rather an extension of my motis operendi, so to speak. I never had the resources to be a serious hobbyist in any field, so I had had to create businesses. For instance, my professional cooking career had a genesis in my interest in good food. I still do the lion’s share of cooking around the X household.
In 1990, I started with a tiny space in an antiques mall in a local town known for its plethora of antique stores. The little burg still draws tourists from all over the SF bay area and beyond. But to really hit the focused market, a dealer has to exhibit at the shows and antique fairs. People don’t go to shows without money in their pockets. In a tourist town, the malls can attract lots of ‘looky-loos’.
The shows themselves range from local down-and-out flea markets to sky’s-the-limit antique fairs. If a dealer has a reputable name and offers a more sophisticated inventory, they can have the opportunity to do the higher end shows, many of which at that time had long waiting lists for purveyors. The best shows tend to be invitation only.
Over a period of fourteen years, I increased my geographical range, from venues in the SF bay area, to southern California and Nevada. Every year, I took a three-week road trip, driving first to a fair in Pasadena, then on to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the annual Ethnographic Show, which draws top dealers from around the world.
But most shows take place on weekends; I was getting older, not as enamored with a life on the road. So I opened a small gallery near a local community college in 2000.
And that’s about how it went in the 90’s. I stayed at the gallery, doing just selected shows, and my business grew. I can’t say it prospered, but the money coming in eventually overtook what was being spent. Although, as I intimated, the income was not what one would call dependable.
What that business did (and still does, albeit in a greatly reduced capacity) was to introduce me to the esoteric ways of the world. As many of you know from my previous post “Shelf Life” (which happened to be the last post here on OGG for 2013) I deal in ancient and tribal art from all over the world. Yes, I’ll pick up a more contemporary piece that catches my eye from time to time, though ancient and ethnographic are the fields I am known for.
And a grand field it is. Objects enable us to investigate how other cultures lived, what they considered important, and to compare the information in depth, in turn revealing differences among us over the ages, and what we have in common.
If this sounds like a scenario where huge amounts of money were involved, you’d be mistaken. I started on a shoestring and couldn’t even think about going into that business today. Back in the 90’s the US still had a vibrant middle class. The lower to middle range was my bread and butter. I never sold an object over $10,000. In fact, the vast majority of my sales were from $50-$1,000. Many of those pieces could change the atmosphere of a room. Ordinary people could and did afford to buy a rare and beautiful object for their home. Antique shows were packed with people.
Back then, (in fact, even now) I could sell you an interesting 2,000 year-old coin, amulet or bead for $10. Of course, for that money you won’t get the best coin or bead, but the fact remains that almost everybody could afford an ancient sculpture, which is, in fact, what an ancient coin is.
Now, twenty to twenty-five years later, our middle class has just about dried up. Nobody but the rich can afford the luxury of such beautiful and esoteric items, and the privileged desire only the best. This is a microcosm of the entire economy, which at the top level is booming. In the art world, for example, multimillion-dollar sales are common, while less popular artists go hungry. It’s a slippery slope, to use the cliché.
This inequity speaks to the larger loss of our quality of life since then. The current generation is the first in our lifetime who isn’t looking forward to a better world.
Back in the early 90’s I also began a novel. On a word processor. Not an erotic work, but a ‘last man on earth’ scenario. I guess I had maybe 50,000 words written when it became apparent how much I liked writing dialog in the few flashbacks.
Dialog is difficult when you’re dealing with the last man on earth. Guess I could have made him bonkers. I think the piece is around here somewhere on a floppy disk.