Brits and pieces: Antique malls, UK style

You say mall, we say centre

In UK, “mall” suggests a large arcade, usually with separate shops and galleries on several levels. So, lesson one – look for antiques centres – see, we can’t even spell that correctly …

Two types in UK

There are two types of antiques malls in UK. The first evolve from the bottom up. An enthusiast or part-time dealer moves into a shop and defrays overheads and labor costs by letting cabinets, window space or floorspace for a flat rental, or on commission, or a couple of days’ work. Or a mixture of all three. The others are run by businessmen, landlords. The premises are purpose-fitted on opening. A tiny department store, if you like. Income is generated from cabinet and floor rental, commission or both. Assistants tend to be directly employed staff, rather than dealers helping out.

Which is better?

Hard to say. Dealers are more hands-on and tend to be more selective in deciding who can have space. Landlords, though less selective, adopt a far more professional approach to marketing, customer service, corporate identity and promotion on the Internet. Inevitably, the best examples of each are dealers with good business heads and landlords with a genuine feel for their product.

Two good examples – first the dealer

Jane and Paul Richards were teachers in junior school. Planning a family, they decided that Jane’s departure from the classroom into an antiques mall wouldn’t only afford them more flexibility with their time, it was also a natural extension of her part-time dealings in collectable ceramics.
In 1998 they acquired four storeys of dereliction which had been many things over the centuries – including a church. Jane’s shop opened in part of the building and soon attracted 35 other dealers into cabinets and useable space.

The extra income helped the Richards’ develop and utilise the whole building on an incremental basis. All four floors were in use by 2003, complete with café and three storeys were extended in 2005. Heanor Antiques Centre, Derbyshire, now has all the appearance of being a purpose built retail store.

In 2005 the decline in interest in “brown furniture” reduced the number of takers of floorspace. Unlike some, Jane’s response wasn’t to pad out the space with repro white furniture and interior décor, but to increase the number of cabinets, including a gallery of 70 dedicated to crafts. Then a gallery of contemporary art and, most recently, a photographic studio.

Jane Richards makes no apologies for the fact that Heanor is predominantly collectible oriented. That, she maintains, is where the growth truly is. With 270 dealers, mainly part-timers, there is a predictably eclectic mix of displays – with some specialists in the usual fields of antiquities, books, ceramics, costume jewellery, glass, kitchenalia, vintage fashion, militaria, clocks, dolls and toys. Fifteen display furniture.

The businessman

Rob Miller took charge of Hemswell Antiques Centre in 2000, his parents having opened it in 1986. It had once been a military airfield, long abandoned by the Royal Air Force. The mall is split between three large H-shaped two-storey buildings, with around 300 exhibitors evenly spread among them.

Rob Miller has another business elsewhere on the site. Apart from the mall and restaurant, he runs a door-to-door distribution service of 50,000 frozen meals per week, predominantly on behalf of the local council’s services to senior citizens. A consummate businessman, he knows which business does what and when, down to the penny, down to the square foot.

The breadth of exhibits

Hemswell Antiques Centre displays everything you might expect to see at a provincial antiques centre. Quality too – fine antique furniture, long case clocks, barometers, fine light fittings, ceramics, bronzes, upper-end jewellery. Rob Miller keeps and circulates a wants list, often putting together large single consignments by drawing from the vast quantity of stock to hand.

Heanor and Hemswell

Although the two malls are totally unrelated, they have a lot in common. Heanor is run by a dealer-turned-businesswoman and Hemswell by a businessman-turned-dealer. They are among the largest in UK and benefit from large quantities of visitors from Japan, Korea, Italy and USA during and around the week of the two 2,000+ exhibitor shows at nearby Swinderby and Newark. Hemswell has late night opening to accommodate the demand.

Differences in UK

Mike Pennington is proprietor of one mall in St Augustine, Fla., and another in Macon, Ga. He also runs – a small travel company taking a dozen or so US buyers round the shows at Swinderby and Newark and a selection of tried and tested malls, including Heanor and Hemswell. “Your centres and our malls have more similarities than differences. You certainly have more of them than we do. You have more small items in cabinets, in US malls we tend to work more by floorspace.

“A year ago, it was the quantity of goods on offer that was the real pull. General price levels weren’t that far apart, with the notable exception of furniture, which is so much cheaper in UK. But the dollar has gained around 40 percent since then – now it’s a different scene altogether.”

Ivor Hughes is a UK based dealer in French antiques and decorative art. He is widely published in the UK, US and Australian antiques and lifestyle press.