As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”
More than four decades ago, the Donovan family of Chicago took a big step by transforming their collecting appreciation for antiques into a business venture — Griffins & Gargoyles. Between now and then there have been several ‘first steps,’ explorations and experiences, and at the conclusion of 2016 the Donovans will once again take a ‘step in faith’ as they bid farewell to their brick-and-mortar shop and operate strictly online.
Griffin & Gargoyles Past, Present and Future
Recently, Antique Trader caught up with Kelly Donovan, who, along with her father Roy, owns Griffins & Gargoyles, to discuss the past, present and future adventures that await. As the Donovans spend the month of December sorting through inventory, providing customers a discount of 40 percent or more on items in their historic building, they are also reflecting on the many treasures and cherished friendships this life has brought them.
Antique Trader: How did you get into the antiques business? What inspired you?
Kelly Donovan: We moved from the suburbs to the city of Chicago in the early seventies. The 1890s house we moved into had been “renovated.” This included removing the old woodwork, fireplaces, etc. After living in the house it was clear to us that removal of the original materials was a poor move on the previous owner’s part. At that point we began to search for all kinds of things: moldings, mantels, stained glass and other fixtures to incorporate into the house. This led to transforming the furnishings, too, from a Mediterranean style to antiques.
During this period of time antique shops, auction houses and “urban renewal” was in full swing in our neighborhood. This enabled us to find what we needed. Then, of course, like many dealers the fever ‘got’ us. A collection has gone beyond furnishing a home, so you start a shop, because you can’t stop buying. Especially back then the prices were great, and of course it is a fun hobby.
AT: How long have you been co-owners of the business? How did you come up with the name Griffins & Gargoyles for your business?
KD: When my parents decided to start the business they needed help and with seven children what better place to find workers. For me, it was the right time in my life; I had just graduated high school, and had no plan to leave Chicago since I had just moved here three years before. I have been with Griffins & Gargoyles ever since.
From my memory, the name came about because my father had bought a container from England. The English like their heraldry — griffins depicted on their flags and in stained glass — and gargoyles being more prevalent in the U.K. and Europe. [The name] had a ring to it.
AT: What prompted you to start traveling to Europe for buying purposes? What are some of the best experiences you’ve had during those buying trips?
KD: We bought four containers from the U.K., and at that time we were new to the antique retail trade, so of course we were reading every trade publication we could. At that time there were many ads and stories about containers in Europe and we took a chance. We never went back to England, but instead focused on Antwerp (Belgium).
The experiences we’ve had are numerous, with great stories and adventures; but the best experiences are the people we met along the way and the friendships we forged and cherish today.
AT: The Griffin & Gargoyles property sounds like it has a lot of character; how has it evolved over the years?
KD: The property is a gem in Chicago. We have 50 feet of frontage on the street and the building sits
back from the sidewalk about 60 feet. We found a great old iron fence in France with huge gates. Behind the iron is a brick driveway made of old Chicago bricks, the type of bricks that have been removed from under the asphalt streets, but still can be purchased. Adjacent to the brick is our parking lot with granite pavers from an old house in the uptown neighborhood. Most granite pavers in Chicago came from Red Granite, Wisconsin. The large doors in front are from an old church on the south side. We laid the bricks and pavers ourselves. Not one brick in the driveway has moved since 1977.
AT: If a new antiques and collectibles business owner inquired about your best advice, what would you tell them?
KD: Gain knowledge about the business, read everything you can, have fun, work hard and protect your hands. Other advice may be buy what you like, if something gives you a spark, speaks to you, features good lines, and color or quality. I guess all that means is develop an eye for things and get a feel of the object and the market.
AT: What prompted the decision to close up shop of your brick-and-mortar business? If you can, tell us more about your future endeavors and goals?
KD: We decided to simplify our lives and with technology we can. The internet provides a path to still buy and sell without the need to open the shop on time. It will also free us up to travel.
AT: Where can people find you online and what kind of house-call services do you provide?
KD: Online we are looking at eBay and other online outlets. We will maintain a warehouse, email and Facebook presence. The house calls can include whatever a customer needs: from a piece they purchased from us, such as a missing key, a locked cupboard door, applying a fresh coat of wax or dismantling armoires for a move.
We sold a few thousand armoires over the years, with most of those broken down into easily movable components. As simple as these pieces may seem it is not without effort or know-how that one can take them apart properly, without losing the small pieces, and then put it back together. This is a task we definitely give assurances to our customers we will continue.
AT: What are some of the best moments of Griffin & Gargoyles four-plus decades in business?
KD: Working with family, there is natural trust and loyalty there so that foundation creates good moments. Best moments have been meeting and getting to know a great group of people — Our Customers. What a blessing to us to be able to have had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people.