Tapping into progressive technology for growing antiques business

Margaret Siemers has been immersed in the world of antiques for as long as she can remember. It’s that life-long appreciation for the timelessness, craftsmanship and especially the stories behind antiques that energize her now to find loving homes for these special items.

Siemers, who has operated Siemers Rafter Room on Ruby Lane (www.rubylane.com) for the past eight years, talks about the passion for antiques she gained while growing up in

Margaret Siemers of Pennsylvania takes stock of a small portion of the inventory she offers in her Ruby Lane store, Siemer's Rafter Room. (Photo courtesy Margaret Siemers)

Margaret Siemers of Pennsylvania takes stock of a small portion of the inventory she offers in her Ruby Lane store, Siemer’s Rafter Room. (Photo courtesy Margaret Siemers)

an 18th century farmhouse in central Pennsylvania, and how she is expanding her antiques business by increasing her knowledge of technology.

Antique Trader: Earlier this year you told us of your 2013 goals for your online store in your answer to our Question of the Week; are you making the progress you’d hope to with your goals thus far, and what goals did you have when you first opened Siemers Rafter Room on Ruby Lane?

Margaret Siemers: My original goal was to relieve my children from the burden of needing to deal with an inordinate amount of generational family keepsakes that had been left to me to take care of over the years. I am not talking about great-great-grandmother’s rocking chair or a Tiffany lamp, mind you — those are the things listed in the will or passed on now — what I am talking about is great-grandpa’s Winchester straight razor, or the casino dice that came from Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn located in Las Vegas in 1957. What do we do with textiles from 1890 or even a gorgeous and ornate Victorian cameo necklace that will go unworn and languish in a safety deposit box until I am gone and it is finally sold one day? No, better to find a home for these things, one where these items will be appreciated and valued for what they are than to let the next generation be faced with what to do.

To answer the other part of your question, I have only recently started to kick things up in my shop, partly because, like everything else these days, rates to keep a shop on Ruby Lane had a slight increase. However, that is not all bad. I get to increase the items in my shop from 50 items to 80 items without having to pay any additional fees for monthly upkeep by Ruby Lane.

Raising my shop’s listings also benefits me by giving me more visibility and higher placement in search engine pages when customers are looking for a particular item in Ruby Lane. This was something I wanted to do anyway, because more exposure means more clicks on a purchase button. This just gave me a little nudge in the right direction.

AT: What led you to choose an online store for your operation?

Locket-and-Dice-Close-upwebMS: As caretaker of these items, I have a duty to know when it is time to let some of it go in order to preserve the rest. And, I felt selling to collectors and others online was the best way to achieve this. I also think it would be a dishonor to my family to simply hold yard sales or send it off to an auction. Those venues have their place, mind you, but none of the personal history goes along with it. In my online shop, you get a descriptive write-up and many times you will also get information as to how the item’s owner interacted with the piece.

A recent example would be two sets of work identifications for an ordinance factory here in Pennsylvania during World War II. One set belonged to my late mother-in-law, Catherine (Achenbach) Mowery, and the other to her father, Clarence Achenbach. With each, I described how she, a Philadelphian socialite, and he, a Philadelphian businessman, came to be working on the other side of the state in a factory that made bombs during the war. The Keystone Ordinance Works Historical Society purchased the two sets of identifications, and the insight my detailed description provided about the lives of these former workers was more valuable to the Historical Society than the identifications themselves. Both identifications are currently being readied by the Historical Society to be displayed this spring in a featured part of the museum.

This is only one of the dozens of items sold that I have received positive feedback from the buyer about knowing something of the previous owner. You do not get that at a yard sale.

AT: How would you describe the category of items you sell most often? How do you come by the items you sell in your store?

MS: I sell a little bit of everything that would have been in a person’s life, but I would say the Hand-made-flax-lace-N-painted-velvet-Circa-1860webdesigner costume jewelry sells the most simply because of the sheer volume accumulated between my late mother and my late mother-in-law. I have cases of signed and unsigned pieces from the ’30s on up. I do not have as much pre-1930s, but I do have a fair amount.

My grandfather was what he called a “Gentleman’s Junk Man.” During the Great Depression, he supported his family by collecting scrap iron, copper, rags, and grease, or sometimes he would haul a junk pile away or clean out a shed for someone. Grandpa always wore a starched and pressed white shirt, tie and seasonally appropriate Fedora or straw hat. He would put on a long white touring coat when he was loading what he bought so he would stay clean and presentable for the next customer. Today, we would call him a “picker.”

He passed when I was still quite young, but I can remember listening to him talk to my older siblings. I can remember him saying, “You have to know what you’re buying and selling or you’ll get taken every time.” That has stayed with me.

I love the flea markets and farmer’s markets we have around here. These are true teaching tools for what I am trying to accomplish. As are auctions like Harr’s in Dillsburg, Pa. (Harr’s happens to be owned by the same family who has operated Harr’s drive-in theater since I was a child, one of the last of its kind in America.) I like to observe and learn there, and as I stated in another answer, I like to talk to the dealers and sellers to learn as much as I can. I do buy sometimes when an object strikes my fancy, but I am not yet into buying to resell so the occasional buy I do make is stored. Should I put something in my shop that was bought, or is on consignment from a close friend to help them make a few dollars, I clearly state that in my description.

AT: You mentioned that you grew up on a large working farm in central Pennsylvania, and gained a deep appreciation for fine and old things early in life. What is one of your favorite childhood memories involving things of yesterday?

Close up of Radio, Royal Copenhagen pitcher and othersMS: My favorite childhood memory in that farmhouse (built in 1711!) was playing in what my mother called the “Summer House.” It was the first building on the land and it was even older than the main house. It was tiny compared to the main house, had one large room downstairs with a huge fireplace, and a loft above that, for sleeping. It also had strange built-in openings, on two thick windowless walls of stone. The openings were wider on the inside and tapered down to a narrow slit on the outside. There were four of them on each wall if I remember correctly. I was told these slits were used to put the barrel of a musket through to protect the family from thieves, Native Americans, bears and wild cats! Need I tell you how many times cap guns puffed smoke through those openings as my siblings and I defended it from tabby cats and yellow dogs?

AT: What are some of the more unique items you’ve sold?

MS: I would have to say a menu from The Brown Derby in Hollywood, Calif., or the tickets to the 1939 Army-Navy game. These items are ephemera, and therefore were never meant to last, but have allowed us a look at life in another time. Other than that, except for the naughty dancing girl toy called “Fatima,” my people were rather tame. Fatima was a bare-breasted harem girl that sat on a pillow and when you turned the crank she would wiggle. It was a penny toy from the ’20s.

AT: You’ve mentioned that you use Google+ as a means for connecting with collectors and potential customers; what benefits have you seen from that, and have you used other online sites to sell items in the past?

MS: I have seen nice increases in traffic to my site. Again, I have Ruby Lane to thank for that. They are invested in seeing to it that all shops have the tools they need to succeed with them. Since the Internet is directly connected to being successful, they help educate the owners of their stores on how to use it. Google+ (G+) was just another social media to me when I first heard about it, and frankly, I was having enough trouble with Facebook slowing my computer with all of their hidden apps, thus it takes forever for a page to load. (I have an older HP Pentium 4 that is a workhorse on anything else but Facebook.) My shop’s page is still on Facebook, but I have it directing everyone to my shop. I stopped posting when people I knew said they were getting spam mail from my shop’s name directing them to sites that planted malware.

Siemers Rafter Room features a little bit of everything, from a vintage Star War's Return of the Jedi t-shirt, to an old Esso old can and casino dice, to a antique pitcher. (Photo courtesy Margaret Siemers)

Siemers Rafter Room features a little bit of everything, from a vintage Star War’s Return of the Jedi t-shirt, to an old Esso old can and casino dice, to a antique pitcher. (Photo courtesy Margaret Siemers)

G+ does not slow me down at all. Now when I G+ one of the listings in my shop, it goes straight to my page as a post, much like Facebook; however, the difference is when I G+ that same item again on my Google page, it also sends it out to the Google search engine, and when other shops see my post on my page and G+ it again it gets a higher ranking in a Google search. Facebook cannot do that for me. It is easy to get other shops into your “circles,” as they call it, because everyone wants more exposure. When I see something I like in another shop, I just G+ it, and if I do that on a regular basis they do the same for me. It is a little more work for a lot more reward, and what is not good about that? You cannot stand in a store and expect people to find you unless you get the word out. The same in true on the Internet, and for me, Google+ works. Very soon I am going to start using Pinterest, which is a slightly different kind of social site where you post photos of items you want to share. Again, Ruby Lane has told its shops that people there are having success with folks going to the shop selling the item they just saw on Pinterest. And, seeing as I have access to many social sites right there in my shop, it is silly not to click on that, too.

I did sell very briefly on eBay, and decided quickly there had to be a better way to do this. I was on Etsy for about six months, but I was not getting much help when I ran into a problem. Then, I found Ruby Lane. I will be with them until I close my doors for good. Those folks honestly go above and beyond what any other site does for each of its shops. I know I owe much of the success I have to them helping me get my customers in the door.

AT: You mentioned that Siemers Rafter Room is a part-time operation at this time, but that you’re looking to operate full-time when you retire in a few years. What’s the appeal of moving to a full-time business at that time?

MS: I love doing this. I love researching things to find who made them. I love going to the local farmer’s markets and flea markets and talking to the dealers when I see a vendor with something similar to an unknown I have. Sometimes I hit gold and find out quite a bit. I also enjoy the contacts I have with them. They know that I will be buying from them one day down the road when I have sold all I need to sell here at home.

I don’t plan on sitting home and gardening all day when I retire. I plan to get out and see the country, find wonderful things and bring them back to share with all of you. It is such a thrill for me to connect something I have with someone who wants and needs it. If I can make a few dollars doing it, it only gives me more gas to go further, and more interesting people to talk to.

Besides, it is an electronic age and with a cell phone and a laptop, I never need to be far from my customers.