Arkansas: Antique shops remain permanent fixtures in the Natural Statea

Travelers touring Arkansas for antiques will quickly sense permanence among dealers doing business there. Most of the residents of Eureka Springs, one of the state’s top attractions, cannot remember anything but an antique shop occupying the storefront at 190 Spring St.

This is due to Mary Ellen Sheard, who opened Crystal Gardens Antiques 29 years ago. She bought the property from three maiden sisters, who ran an antique shop called Old English Galleries for about 20 years. Sheard’s inventory reflects the beauty of this preserved Victorian-era town: an abundance of fine china, crystal, art pottery, jewelry, furniture and a large selection of restored electric lighting, including ceiling fixtures.  “Eureka Springs is a good place to do business. It has its ups and downs like everyplace else, I guess,” said Sheard, who attributed a slower third quarter to unusually hot summer weather.

“I love what I’m doing. I’ve met wonderful people and have made a lot of friends from all over the United States. I’m just happy here,” said Shear, who lives in the upstairs apartment of the 105-year-old building.
Marty and Elise Roenigk had lived in Connecticut 30 years before discovering Eureka Springs in the mid-1990s when they were exploring places to retire. Today they are active as owners of two historic hotels. They are also dealers in antique mechanical music machine, doing business as Mechantiques. Visitors to Eureka Springs can see and hear several of their vintage music makers at the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, and at their 1901 Gavioli Chapel, a popular venue for weddings.

“One of the nice things is when you come here to buy antiques it’s also a great old resort town,” said Marty. Rather than keeping a shop open, the Roenigks show their large inventory by appointment. “We actually focus more on buying that selling. This sort of stuff sells itself,” said Marty, whose wife had just returned from California to pick up a big automatic banjo and a large musical clock.

The Roenigks came to Eureka Springs to inspect the downtown Basin Park Hotel, built in 1905. “We ended up buying them both to manage together more efficiently. They desperately needed help, and (historic preservation) seemed like the thing to do,” said Marty.

When Jane Baker operated an antique shop in Eureka Springs, customers often remarked that the town would be an ideal place to stage an antique show. She and her husband, Dave, took the cue and started the Eureka Springs Antique Show & Sale in 1989. Originally an annual fall show, the event went semiannual with a spring show six years later.

Held at the Inn of the Ozarks Convention Center the third weekend in March and November, the show presents a regular complement of 55 dealers presenting an array of high-quality antiques. “We’re small but good,” said Jane, who maintains a waiting list of dealers. “The show doesn’t focus on any one thing. We try to balance it. People compliment us because it’s not all furniture and glassware.”

In Arkansas it’s not unusual for sons and daughters to follow their parents into the antique business. Terrie Collins’ father, Dean Morris, began selling antiques at their family farm in Keo in 1967 to supplement their income during the winter.

“I grew up around it and started helping. It just evolved,” said Terrie. Today Terrie, her father and her brother, Lewis, are partners in Morris Antiques. Eight buildings filled with mostly antique furniture now occupy land that was once a pasture.

“We’re unique in that we have about half American and half European — comprised of English, French, Belgian, some Austrian and some Italian,” said Terrie. She recalls her father’s first trips to England about 25 years ago to import pub tables for use in local restaurants.

“Dean is in Europe as we speak,” said Terrie, who occasionally goes on buying trips abroad. “I enjoy going to Europe to buy, but it’s definitely work — fast and furious.”

Morris Antiques is located 15 miles southeast of the state capital. “People think we’re way out in the country, but we consider Little Rock local,” said Terrie, adding they have regular customers in Dallas and Memphis. “We ship coast to coast and sell on the Internet,” she said.

Along I-30 about 15 miles southwest of Little Rock in Bryant, Blue Suede Shoes Antique Mall is bucking the industry trend with growing sales figures since opening five years ago. “Our sales have been increasing … an average of 10 percent each month over the previous year for the last two years,” said Jim Willburn, who retired from a leading accounting and consulting firm. His wife, Brenda Lee, was a flight attendant for American Airlines for 24 years and a part-time antique dealer. Together they rented space in antique malls in the Dallas area for several years before moving to Little Rock and opening their store.

Blue Suede Shoes Antique Mall operates out of a 32,000-square-foot warehouse in which nearly 300 dealers stock 400 booths with antiques and collectibles — no crafts. A flea-market area, about 20 percent of the total space, allows newer collectibles and clothing.

“We own the property. We own the business. It’s professionally run. Everything is computerized. Dealers can check their sales on the computer at any time,” said Willburn, who believes their antique mall is the biggest in the state.

Don Keathley was born in Arkansas, but his family moved to California when he was 2 years old. His father, a veteran seriously wounded in World War II, started buying and selling antiques and in 1953 opened the first of his three stores in the San Francisco Bay area. Don grew up in the trade, but returned to his home state in 1984 to open Antique Warehouse of Arkansas. The property he bought near Botkinburg included a single old building, which he restored. He has since erected a dozen buildings to house his booming import business, which is split equally between retail and wholesale to dealer trade.

“We’re exactly eight miles north of Clinton on U.S. 65. We’re an hour and a half south of Branson, Mo., which has become a big tourist thing. That’s actually when our business really blasted off, when everybody started going to Branson about 15 years ago,” said Keathley.

Everything sold at Antique Warehouse is imported, with containers arriving weekly from Manchester, England, and Antwerp, Belgium. Furniture and stained-glass windows are among the biggest sellers. “We advertise we’re the largest supplier of stained glass in the country. We always have a minimum 5,000 windows in stock,” said Keathley.
Displayed separately to avoid confusion are reproduction furniture and accessories, which Keathley’s brother, Lyn, buys from suppliers around the world. Business has improved after a slow start to the year.

“To be honest, it started absolutely horrible. The first quarter we were running 50 percent below last year. We were having months that were normally $150,000 to $200,000 that were like $100,000. I was concerned, but naturally I kept buying,” said Keathley. “Now we’re in our busy season, September through December. I just saw our numbers for October and we had about a 120 percent increase. I don’t know if it’s the economy or people are getting tired of the gloom and doom on TV and are spending money anyway.”

About a 2-hour drive northeast is Hardy, a quaint town in foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks. “Once you get here you’ll see it’s a unique little place. We’re right on the Spring River. It’s good canoeing water and trout fishing,” said Ron Martin, owner of Memory Lane Antique Mall, located at 118 E. Main St. Sixty dealers occupy two levels of his 1920 building that was once the local Ford auto dealership. “Our customers tell us we’re the best shop within a hundred miles,” said Martin.

Several doors away is Cluttered Cupboard, Betty’s Holm’s multidealer antique store, where 16 dealers set up on three floors of a historic building. Holm, the mother of fi ve grown children, ran a restaurant before becoming a dealer and buying the antique store.

Holm said recreational activities on the river, shopping and dining in the three-block-long historic district known as Old Hardy Town make the town a popular destination. A group called Main Street Hardy sponsors Hardy Good Old Days Antique Show on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends at a local community center.

Marcia and Steve Weaver fell in love with the area and frequently visited Hardy before moving there from Florida in 2004. After getting settled they fulfilled a longtime dream of owning an antique store when they opened the Old Hardy Hotel Antique Mall at 204 E. Main St.

Bob Goodman started his auction service 13 years ago after working for auctioneers for more than 20 years. This year he sold his auction house in Hot Springs to devote full attention to on-site auctions. His wife, Mary, is secretary, clerk and cashier all in one. Bob Goodman Auctions conducts 40 to 50 sales per year. “It’s been a good year, but not as strong as some. Everything combined, including real estate, made it a good year. We sold our auction house so that made it a better year,” he said.

McCollough Auction Service in Springdale, in the northwest corner of the state, is owned by veteran auctioneer Bill McCollough and his son, Don, who manages day-to-day operations. “Auctions are a mixture here, some like the one we had in February with high-end antiques. That’s what we like to deal with, but obviously there’s not a constant supply of that,” said Bill.

Ponder’s Auction in Stuttgart, an hour east of Little Rock and two hours west of Memphis, conducts antique auctions on the fourth Sunday of every month. J.E. Ponder and his wife, Cindy, have owned the business for 16 years. They haul a semitrailer load of antiques from New Jersey and New York each month. “A friend hooked me up with connections there. They buy at auctions and buy out estates. They gather a load and we go out and finish it off, picking out higher-end pieces,” said Ponder.

Ponder regularly imports English and French furniture, antiques from Argentina and new decorator items such as bronzes and chandeliers from Egypt. He said about 80 percent of his sales are to dealers. “2006 has been a slow year. The dealers are not selling well. It’s a combination of everything,” said Ponder.

Dwayne Craig was working in farming and pipeline construction in 1982 when he considered a career change. “I actually was reading an issue of Farm Journal and saw an ad that read, ‘Learn to be an auctioneer,'” said Craig. He contacted the advertiser, Missouri Auction School, and enrolled in the next session. “I didn’t have any idea I’d be doing anything with it, but 24 years later I’m making my living as an auctioneer,” he said.

Craig has conducted heavy-equipment auctions as far away as the Philippines, England and Ireland, but 90 percent of his sales are held on-site around northwest Arkansas, northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri. He maintains an auction house in Highfill, west of Springdale. “There’s not been a lot of good antique auctions for us recently, but we stay busy with estate, household and farm liquidations,” said Craig.