Florida is a great place for antiques dealers to spend the winter, but when March rolls around, Karol Atkinson gets excited about returning north. The big draw is Atlantique City, the world’s largest indoor art, antiques and collectibles fair, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary March 25-26.
Karol and her husband, Philip, have been selling at the Atlantique City show since it opened in 1986 in the historic Atlantic City Convention Hall on the Boardwalk.
“I think it’s just a special show. It has a feeling about it — quite exciting,” said Karol, from their winter residence in Bradenton, Fla.
“Atlantique City seems to attract a lot of dealers who don’t do other shows. You’ll find a lot of dealers like that because the show gets the biggest draw. The people who come there are eager. They’re looking to buy. It’s not like they just come there to goggle away a Sunday afternoon. They’re really serious people — collectors.”
The Atkinsons have specialized in antique advertising and country store items since they started selling in 1971. They witnessed firsthand the logistics problems setting up at the first show 20 years ago.
“It was very hectic and a lot of people didn’t have any concept of what was going on. I think the immensity of the event set them back. A lot of the dealers never even set up because of the confusion. There were some great things that turned up if you were in the right place at the right time,” said Atkinson.
Despite the show’s early growing pains, the Atkinsons have been regulars at Atlantique City ever since.
Karol Atkinson believes high-quality merchandise is the key to the show’s continuing success.
“I think they have kept the quality up. People know when they find something there, it’s going to be a good item you’re not going to see other places. The show attracts dealers with very unusual merchandise,” she said. “And I think it attracts many people who don’t go to other shows because of the large number of dealers and the wide expanse of items to choose from. It’s a nice crowd and they stay all day Saturday and all day Sunday.”
As a dealer, Atkinson considers having a successful show a combination of good sales and finding good items to resell.
“There are two sides to the business. It’s not only selling but also locating new merchandise. The most difficult part of the business today is replacing your merchandise,” she said.
“We get some great pieces, but they’re so difficult to find today. We’ve created our own monster. We’ve gone out and found all these great things and placed them in people’s hands and they never again come onto the market unless it’s an auction or when somebody is selling their collection. So it’s difficult to find the great pieces and be able to afford to buy them to resell,” said Atkinson.
One of those irreplaceable items was an 8-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty the Atkinsons brought to Atlantique City the year Lady Liberty was the show’s theme.
“It was in the exhibition area at the end of the hall. We offered it for sale and had several inquiries. And before the show ended, it sold,” she said.
Another challenge facing dealers like the Atkinsons is finding buyers for middle-range merchandise. “Our clientele is aging and there aren’t enough young people coming up to fill the ranks,” said Atkinson. “We don’t have enough young collectors coming up to take the lower-end stuff that everyone starts with. We find few beginning collectors in our field.”
Compounding the problem of cultivating young customers today is the high cost of collecting.
“The entry level of collecting is at such a higher plane than when we started. It’s a lot more expensive today,” said Atkinson.
After working the winter show schedule in Florida, the Atkinsons return to their Mercer, Pa., home and prepare for Atlantique City.
Customers seeking the Atkinsons’ booth, no. 1644, should look for antique advertising signs mounted on screens reaching high above the floor. “It’s very visual. It has a bright, colorful look to it,” said Atkinson. “We just try to make it attractive and have a balance.”
Among their best sellers are tobacco and coffee items and anything that pictures attractive women.
Atkinson also collects and sells black cat collectibles. Part of her collection was featured in a holiday exhibit at the October Atlantique City market, which had a Halloween theme. She said many of the items pictured in the advertising collectibles books The Cat Made Me Buy It and The Black Cat Made Me Buy It by her friends Alice Muncaster and Ellen Yanow Sawyer are from her collection.
The Atkinsons do not set sales goals when they set up at Atlantique City. “It’s a successful show when we feel we’ve had good sales and found a few new customers. That’s also important,” said Atkinson. “We’re not greedy.”
In fact, they have cut back on the number of shows they do per year to about 16 events.
“We don’t make as many long trips to do shows anymore. We used to do a show in California twice a year and we used to do Brimfield, but not anymore. We try to keep to shows closer to home,” said Atkinson.
Despite scaling back their show schedule, the Atkinsons have been able to boost sales by staying in contact with regular customers, many of whom they see at Atlantique City.
“We’ve maintained a ‘want file’ over the years and a lot of times an item will never make it to a show. We know that so-and-so is looking for a piece or collects in this general area. We’ll see something and give him a call or I’ll write to them. I do a lot of correspondence,” said Atkinson.
This does not mean, however, their choice items will already be spoken for at Atlantique City.
“That’s at the end of March. There’s no telling what treasures we’ll find before then,” she said.