West Virginia offers dealers an escape from big-city life

With home invasions and violent crime on the rise in their Boston neighborhood, Robyn and Charlie Forse decided they would sell their home and move out to the country – way out to West Virginia. Searching real estate listings on the Internet, the couple settled on a small farm eight miles east of Parkersburg. Charlie left his secure job as supervisor of several gyms, and Robyn left behind her duties as a stay-at-home mom.

“We moved here because we have three children in middle school and didn’t want them to go to high school in Boston. The area we lived in was getting rough,” said Robyn, the mother of two girls and a boy, ages 12, 13 and 14, respectively.

“On the down side of moving to West Virginia was the jobs. We talked about doing something as a family business because if you’re not going to make a lot of money, it might be nice to work for yourself,” said Robyn.
Soon after they moved there, the retired couple who sold them their farm made an enticing offer to sell them their antique mall, as well. With no prior knowledge of the antique trade, Charlie and Robyn bought Pleasant Valley Trading Co. a year ago in August. It immediately became their new career.

“This was all new to us. That’s the only thing we were hesitant about, but we had dealers here who knew the business. We’ve been learning so much from the dealers and former owners. We’re still in a learning process,” said Robyn.

Located along U.S. Route 50 at Progress Ridge Road, Pleasant Valley Trading Co. is based in a former one-room schoolhouse that has had numerous additions through the years. More than 80 dealers rent the 10,000 square feet of available space. The business also includes an ice cream shop and diner where customers enjoy homemade food and baked goods, which Robyn prepares. Charlie works at the antique mall full time.
Also located on the property is Route 50 Auction House, which is currently available for an auctioneer to hold sales, said Robyn. “This weekend we donated it to the local 4-H club to have their Christmas fundraiser auction,” she said.

Robyn said their first year in business has been successful. “Everybody is nice who comes into the store. We’ve had people from all over the country and the world here – Australia, Ireland, Germany. Most of them can tell we’re not originally from here. They all ask the same thing: ‘What the heck are you doing in West Virginia?'” said Robyn, who retains an unmistakable New England accent.

“We got lucky. The children love it here. They enjoy school. My son played football this year and enjoyed it. My girls are involved in 4-H. It was a big change, but definitely for the better,” said Robyn.

Another native New Englander recently putting down roots in West Virginia is Pamela Apkarian-Russell and her husband, Chris Russell. Pam is widely known in the antique trade as the Halloween Queen. Searching for an affordable location to establish a museum for their extensive Halloween collection, the couple purchased the former Boggs Run School in Benwood, a village south of Wheeling overlooking the Ohio River.

Open by chance or appointment for about a year, their museum and antique shop attracts visitors from around the country and the world, if not locally. That may not be surprising as local residents see the once-vacant school being transformed into what could be a set for a 1930s horror movie. Apkarian-Russell calls it Castle Halloween. “It’s almost Gothic in feel, and we’re putting on a lot of Gothic decoration on the outside of the building,” she said.

In addition to setting up their museum and operating an antique shop out of one of the large classrooms, the couple resides in the schoolhouse. The only scary aspect of the place is the high cost of renovation. Fixing the building has taken more time and resources than they anticipated. “We paid too much for it, and having never done this before – we didn’t see its flaws,” said an undeterred Apkarian-Russell. “I’m awed sometimes with the amount of work we’ve done. I’m unpacking things now that I haven’t seen since we bought them.”

The end result will be a unique museum devoted to every aspect of Halloween and horror, except blood and gore. “To me horror is Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, not what’s on the 5 o’clock news,” said Apkarian-Russell, who wants to distance her Castle Halloween from typical haunted houses that open seasonally.

An archaeologist by profession, Apkarian-Russell met her British husband in Israel. Together they lived in New Hampshire for more than 30 years before moving to West Virginia. When not working on the museum or antique shop, she writes and lectures on her specialty.

About 30 miles downriver in New Martinsville, Tom Storc became the owner and manager of an antique mall four years ago partly by popular demand and partly by accident. Converting a former department store to a rental hall and flea market, Storc quickly developed a kinship with his dealers.

“We had so much fun seeing the stuff move in and out of here. I was not into antiques, even to the point I wasn’t aware of what antique malls were,” said Storc, a former railroad worker and woodworker. “I asked them if we did this on a regular permanent basis would they be interested. We had a bunch of dealers sign up.”

After devoting 2,500 square feet of space to Christy’s Antique Mall, the store was expanded to 10,000 square feet and took over the rental hall five months later. “As the last wedding party was going out the door, I was knocking a hole in the wall to join the two operations,” said Storc.
Christy’s Antique Mall, named for his wife, is better now than when it opened, said Storc. “We made the decision that dealers who were doing well would get first crack at any available space. We started with weaker inventory, but became more serious by having established dealers expand. It’s reduced the number of dealers but has improved the quality tremendously,” said Storc.

The proximity to West Virginia’s glass industry is apparent at Christy’s Antique Mall, with a strong presence of Viking, Martinsville, L.G. Wright and other glassmakers. Storc said about 40 percent of the his business is to the trade. “A lot of dealers come in from what we call primary markets: Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Ohio, even from South Carolina to stock their antique shops,” he said.
Now immersed in the trade, Storc has become an auctioneer and started Storc Auctions. Though Christy’s Antique Mall has no room inside for an auction gallery, Storc hopes to conduct sales during the summer months under a tent in a parking lot. He believes customers will be attracted to nearby riverfront development in downtown New Martinsville.

“We’re only 175 feet from the (Ohio) river,” said Storc, noting that on one occasion their location has been a liability. “Two years ago we had major flooding. We actually had to evacuate the store. There was three feet of water where I’m standing,” said Storc. “Most of the dealers got their antiques out. The best pieces got out, but we ended up losing what I consider quite a bit.”
Storc credited his dealers for helping get the store cleaned, restocked and reopened quickly. “We had an average of 30 people, all dealers, here working to get the place back in order,” he said. Storc was also grateful to volunteers from local churches, who provided food and drink to workers helping with the cleanup in the affected business district. “It was everyday, 9 to 7:30. We reopened the following Saturday. People couldn’t believe it,” he said.

Williamstown Antique Mall has been a mainstay of this Ohio River town for 20 years. Through the years a familiar refrain from customers has been, “Oh, you have a lot of glassware!” That’s only natural in Williamstown, the hometown of 101-year-old Fenton Art Glass Co., which is located across town, a mere 5 minutes away.

Sue and Jim Stage and Ed and Lori Radcliff went together and bought Williamstown Antique Mall se ven years ago. Ed Radcliff had worked for the previous owners for many years. The new owners immediately constructed a new building at 801 Highland Ave. to house the mall, which has 29 dealers, all on one level.

Sue Stage estimates that about 75 percent of their merchandise is glassware, much of it made in the upper Ohio River Valley. “Because my husband and I dealt in stoneware for years, we’re getting a good selection of it, including Donaghho and Greensboro. We have some furniture, but mostly smalls,” she said.

Stage said business this year has been slower than normal, although sales rebounded sharply in September and October. Williamstown Antique Mall is located one mile off I-77. Billboards along the highway direct motorists to the mall, which is open daily until 6 p.m.

Huntington, also on the Ohio River and at the far west end of the state, has several antique stores. In its 13th year, Bus Barn Antique Mall, at 402 18th St. W., is located less than one mile from I-64. The mall takes up about one-fourth of a former streetcar-bus barn. In the same building is Bus Barn Flea Market, the tri-state area’s largest flea market, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Bus Barn Antique Mall owner Leonard Samworth said his 35 dealers “carry bigs to smalls.” He said the former has included a vintage fire truck and a Chevy stake truck. Among the smalls are beautiful pieces of glassware made by the many West Virginia glassmakers, past and present.
“One of the attractions in the area is Blenko Glass Co. (in Milton) and we have glass dealers who are strong in that area. We have a lot of Marshall items, game programs as far back as 1914 and 1919,” said Samworth, an alumnus of the local university. He noted that the mall has a nice selection of other sports and movie memorabilia. Bus Barn Antique Mall is open weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Thursdays) and weekends 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  

Sisters Antique Mall is visible from I-79 at the Flatwoods exit. Ron Posey is temporarily managing the mall during a change in ownership. “It looks like it will remain an antique mall. Business is not as good as it was in previous years, but it’s holding its own,” he said.

Opened about six years ago by two sisters, the mall currently has 40 dealers and is open daily to 6 p.m. Posey said customers will find a good selection of antiques including glassware made in West Virginia. “I deal in furniture, oak mostly. I also buy and sell old lighting,” he said.

Most people have dreamed about making a midlife career change. The idea came to Teresa Kee of Buckhannon as she was attending an auction. “I thought, ‘I can do that,'” said the former secretary and married mother of two. She talked with the auctioneer, Joey A. Bennett, and after attending auction school, became an auctioneer in 2000 and Bennett’s business partner. That changed suddenly in May when Bennett, 48, died of a heart attack.

Kee forged ahead alone as Teresa Kee Auctions LLC. “I was worried that people would not hire me because I was a woman, but I have found that not to be the case. I’ve been very busy,” said Kee, who conducts most estate auctions on site and occasional consignment auctions at the Riverbend Golf Club in Buckhannon.

Assisting Kee at auctions is her 20-year-old son, Philip. “He’s been a ring man ever since I started. He’s very knowledgeable, but hasn’t yet decided on his career path,” she said.

Kee observed that furniture prices remain soft, while quilts have begun a comeback. “The economy the way it is, people are just holding onto their money. Everybody is looking for a bargain,” she said. “If you’re going to buy furniture, now’s the time to buy.”

Anything having a local connection remains strong at auctions. “Yesterday we were going through a basement and found dairy bottles that had probably been stored 50 years or longer. People gobble that stuff up,” said Kee.

Misfortune brought auctioneers Doug Groves and Roger Mullins together as business partners in 2003. After fire destroyed Mullins’ Mountaineer Auctions in Clendenin, he turned to a longtime acquaintance for help.
“I was working with Stacy Cooper in Vanceburg, Ky., when Roger called and asked if we could come up and help for a couple of sales to get things back to normal. Two sales have led to three years,” said Groves, who owned an automotive parts business before getting involved in auctions.

“I’ve known Roger and his son, Steve, for years. They run a family business. They just took Stacy and me in as part of the family. It’s a business but it’s enjoyable,” said Groves. While Groves and Mullins are both auctioneers, Cooper remains their lead auctioneer.

Eric and Lina McDonald of Fort Ashby are veterans of the antique flea market circuit, having done the Richmond Big Flea and Scott’s Antique Markets in Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta for many years. Eric has managed auctions for 17 years and recently became a licensed auctioneer in Maryland, where he conducts antique auctions as Remember That Antiques & Auctions at the La Vale Fire Hall near Cumberland.

Changing with the times and turning to the Internet, they have made Retro Lina the largest vintage fashion store on eBay. However, their biggest hit on eBay has been a pair of beaded Indian moccasins that sold for $6,800, said Eric. In recent months they have promoted their Retro Lina vintage fashions on MySpace.com.