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Something Old, Something New

Will online commerce put an end to Vermont antiquing?


Walk into Blue Flamingo on any given Saturday and you’re likely to find, say, a 1950s chrome and Formica dining room set or an “icon candle” for offering up tongue-in-cheek prayers to “Our Lady of the Aerobic Workout.” The vintage mixes easily with the new-and-kitschy at this pleasantly chaotic Williston Road shop. And, as at any number of small second-hand or antique stores in Vermont, the joy of browsing lies in the serendipitous find — you walk in without any particular goal and find a not-too-scratched Partridge Family album you suddenly realize you cannot live without.

Proprietor Jan Harding ensures that her selection is just the right combination of zany and practical. Other Vermont shops may offer more highbrow elderly merchandise, and group consignment shops, such as the Burlington Center for Antiques on Shelburne Road, have far more quantity and variety. But there’s one thing just about all antiquers have in common these days, regardless of their taste, size of inventory, or whether they maintain a “bricks-and-mortar” store: eBay.

Online buying and selling is, if not taking over the antiques market, certainly influencing prices and manipulating supply and demand with unprecedented speed. EBay is by far the largest — though not the only — online auction site, and in just a few years has revolutionized the sale of antiques and other used items. A casual survey of area antiquers indicates that pretty much everyone “eBays,” at least to a small degree.

With minimal computer skills, you can log on to eBay, register items for sale, browse for things to buy and make electronic bids. If an item you buy arrives in satisfactory, as-described condition — or not — you may elect to contribute to the Feedback Forum, which helps determine a seller’s “rating” on eBay and provides useful information to other potential buyers. As with conventional store or catalogue purchases, the buyer pays shipping fees, but sellers can opt to wait until the check clears to mail out the mercy.

Selling on eBay is easy as pie, though negotiating the vast site — over four million items are up this week — keeping an eye on the transactions and, not least, photographing, scanning, e-mailing, packing and shipping can be extremely time-consuming. But it obviously eliminates the considerable labor and inventory costs, and demanding schedule, of a retail store.

And so the emergence of eBay raises some worrisome questions for traditional browsers: Will online auctions spell the end of small shops in Vermont? If enough owners close, finding eBay more convenient and lucrative, will the number of antique-hungry “pickers” dwindle in the state? And will the frenetic, “everybody’s doing it” buying and selling online make it harder for professional or casual antiquers to find items at regular venues — country auctions, estate or garage sales, the Salvation Army? Although it is still too early to jump to conclusions, there is no doubt that online antiquing has changed the face of the business, probably forever.

“EBay is my life,” declares Dawn Setzer, who closed her tiny Battery Street vintage clothing store, Stage Presence, in March after less than a year. She now sells strictly on-line. This from a woman who confesses she couldn’t even send e-mail not that long ago. “I considered keeping the store going,” Setzer says, “but I forgot that I hate retail.”

Setzer realized that her niche was too specific for a relatively small market like Burlington; while she had her loyal customers, there simply weren’t enough of them able and willing to pay the price for high-quality, one-of-a-kind vintage clothing. On eBay, that spiffy Western jacket everyone admired but wouldn’t buy in Burlington could be gone in a matter of hours — often for far more money than Setzer could charge at her store.

In the South End, Three Old Bats closed its doors last week after three years in business. Virginia Winn and Kathy Valloch — there were really only two “bats” — had pioneered at the long-vacant location on Flynn Avenue next to the railroad tracks, and later attracted Upstairs Antiques to move in overhead. With the arrival of Whistlestop Antiques last fall in the newly renovated FlynnDog building across the street — and with Route 7 Antiques and Treasures just blocks away on Shelburne Road — the neighborhood truly became an antiques “destination.”

That’s why regular patrons were surprised and saddened to hear that Bats was closing, just when things were looking up. But it wasn’t quite lucrative enough for Valloch, who’s sending a child to college this year. “We were going in the right direction, but it just wasn’t going fast enough,” Winn sums up. She didn’t want to run the shop alone, so, after a closing sale, she packed up the remaining inventory and took it home. From now on, loyal customers will have to look for “vtbats” — Winn’s screen name on eBay.

Bats has done limited selling online all along, Winn says. “In any given week we probably have 20 to 30 items on eBay.” Over time she’s developed a feel for what sells best on the site — and what collects dust in the shop. “Some things are delicate, ephemeral, particularly paper things,” she says, “so we might put them directly on eBay. Fraternal organizations’ books, anything related to the Masons, Shriners, those kinds of things are very collectible. But they might sit in the store forever.”

At Upstairs Antiques, owner Dave Robbins says, “people who walk in the door are my primary customers, and every bit of merchandise is offered to them first. After a period of time, if no one seems interested, I’ll put it online.” Though he enjoys the store — and is looking for a compatible retail business to replace Three Old Bats — he understands the appeal of going on eBay: “Why have a shop when you can sell to millions of customers in the entire world?”

Harding, who is in her third retail space in five years, has been selling on eBay, too, for about three years. When she closed her Battery Street shop last year for health reasons, she upped the business online. Harding admits her present six-month-old store — suffering from a lack of walk-ins at the heavily trafficked corner of Williston and Hinesburg roads — is surviving week-to-week. But unlike Setzer, she loves retail, and isn’t crazy about virtual vintage — she’s online only about a day and a half per week, Harding estimates. At the six-year-old Hartland Antiques Center, a shop with about 40 consignment dealers, co-owner Dawn Roberge does some selling online for her dealers and sometimes for neighbors. “But people like to come in and look at things,” she says. “On eBay you really have to know what you want — there’s too much to look at.” The Hartland center benefits, too, from what Roberge calls “an antiques route” up from Quechee and Woodstock. The area has several large group shops, she explains.

“Antique buyers are attracted to dusters of stores,” notes Carl Lobel, owner of the 25-year-old Warren Antiques. “If the stores are 50 miles apart, they won’t go.” Lobel suggests this might become a problem in Vermont for small shops that require too much driving between them — and don’t have enough to buy, anyway. “Serious buyers are coming up from New York or Pennsylvania,” he suggests, “and looking to fill up a truck, not buy a pair of funky sunglasses.”

Since his out-of-the-way shop has always catered to the serious buyer, transitioning to the worldwide market of eBay was not difficult for Lobel. “I’ve sold to Japan and Europe since the ’70s,” he says. “The Internet allows me to sell internationally quicker and cheaper. But it has no effect on my antique business [in the store].”Though some antiquers do, Lobel has no interest in selling furniture or other large items online — because of the hassle of packing and shipping, size makes a difference. On eBay, he’s all about toys — pre-1960 toys as well as newer action-figure collectibles. Lobel believes the vast majority of transactions online are “smalls” — the antiquers’ term for items that can fit in a 24-by-36-inch box, or smaller.

“My advice to these antique dealers is to get in now,” Lobel continues, “because the way eBay has worked is, in the beginning there was a greater supply than demand. The prices were very low, and you could score some tremendous bargains. In 1999 the demand began to exceed supply, and in 2000 the supply is starting to overwhelm demand.” With everyone jumping on the eBay bandwagon, Lobel cautions, “it crowds out your stuff. If you’re just selling things with a $50 value and they could buy it from 100 other vendors, chances are ... they’ll choose the person selling for $48.”

According to area antiquers, dealers mostly sell, not buy, on eBay — for starters, the prices are generally too high for resale. And even trained dealers can be taken in by items not as nice, or as old, as their pixilatecl photos suggest. Harding admits she’s been fooled — like that “Art Deco” fountain that turned out to be tawdry, new and made in China.

Blue Flamingo customer Brian Wilkins has seen worse. A former antiques dealer himself, Wilkins is disabled as a result of an accident and now runs a quilting business at his South Burlington home. He looks mostly for old sewing machines on eBay. Or used to, before the last purchase arrived not only broken but with a bag of Burger King food crawling with maggots. That did it. “The last six things I got on eBay were smashed and destroyed,” he gripes, “and I’ve lost about $800 in smalls — when it says ‘chipped’ or ‘crazed,’ it really is. I’ve stopped completely, I’ve been taken so badly on eBay.”Like any business, eBay is no better or worse than the people who operate it, but the majority of transactions must be satisfactory or it wouldn’t be so popular.

Despite a couple of disappointments, Harding says she and her “significant other” have found some wonderful items on eBay in mint condition. On the selling side, Lobel touts the 18-inch plastic, “really disgusting” Alien figure he sold for $500. And Setzer is pretty tickled about that 25-cent hat she found at the Salvation Army and sold for $300 online. “Of course, those stories are few and far between,” she concedes, “but even if you pay $1 or $2 and sell for $10, in retail that’s a hell of a mark-up.”

The bottom line is, serious dealers, or even casual sellers, will not last long on eBay if they’re unscrupulous. With millions of attentive “eyeballs” on the site daily, word travels fast. Naive buyers, though, could still be ripped off at least once. Despite fears of its hegemony in the market, eBay may not turn out to be the “big box” that drives small antique businesses under. Just as some shoppers would rather look, touch and try on before buying, many antiquers prefer to keep shop — even if they use eBay on the side. Setzer has a theory: “There will be people interested in having shops who say, ‘I’m not going on eBay, even though I know about it,’ and they’ll end up basing their shops’ prices on eBay,” she says. “Maybe they’ll even come down in price, and attract ‘eBayers’ in.”

Dave Robbins of Upstairs Antiques is one such owner. He’s sold only about 15 to 25 items on eBay, he estimates, and is adamant about the virtues of human interaction. “I’d rather talk to people and make a little less money than sit down and do e-commerce,” he says. “Over the internet this conversation would take hours. There’s absolutely no substitute for eye contact.”