Remember career day in school, when your hardworking teacher scrounged up as many working parents as possible to discuss their jobs, hoping to inspire us to follow in their illustrious and productive footsteps so we’d one day become contributing, tax-paying members of society? For five minutes apiece, firemen, doctors, lawyers, accountants and even actuaries stood in front of our classrooms, much like a police lineup, to talk about their glamorous, self-sacrificing or lucrative careers.
Do you ever recall having any antiques dealers in this mix? Me neither. Maybe because being a “dealer” was something that conjured up images of back alleys, folded white paper and fistfuls of cash. Or maybe becoming an antiques dealer was a fall-back career.
The fall-back career is the politically correct way of saying second choice, such as when the quarterback fails to ask you to the prom, you wind up on the arm of the defensive tackle. Or the time you went shopping for that red convertible Mustang, but drove home in the blue Fairlane instead, the socially acceptable fall-back choice.
Does that mean being an antiques dealer is some kind of default career? Why is it children never say they want to be antiques dealers when they grow up?
We need to shake up our profession’s image and transform it into one that children dream about and aspire to. Let’s bump antiques dealer from the fall-back position to its rightful place in the front of the classroom.
This may require a little bit of spin-doctoring, because the tag “antiques dealer” conjures up the image of a little old man sitting inside a dark and dingy shop. So a face-lift is in order. How does “antiques entrepreneur” sound? People can picture themselves as entrepreneurs. Visions of Donald Trump, Bill Gates and Mark Cuban dance into our heads. And who doesn’t want to be, or, at least, live the lifestyles of those guys?
So instead of a little old man, paint the picture that some antiques dealers or antiques entrepreneurs are tall, dark and handsome (or at least middle aged with a full head of hair) and rich. Never forget rich. OK, if not rich, at least able to pay their mortgages and take family vacations every year.
Now imagine speaking to that fourth-grade class, watching the students soak up your every word like a dry sponge as you describe not a dank and dirty storefront but your trendy shop in a New York City loft. The décor is urban chic, with exposed brick walls and steel beams. Your salespeople are clad in vintage Chanel, waiters meander with champagne flutes and trays topped with chocolate-covered strawberries, while soft jazz soothes the jangled nerves of your clientele and drowns out the sirens and cab driver expletives just outside the huge plate-glass windows that allow the northern exposure to illuminate the 18th-century furniture juxtaposed beside wrought-iron tables coiffed with signed Tiffany lamps.
OK, that was a bit of a stretch. In my store, I’d be happy with a box of Ritz crackers and some bottled water, but we can dream, can’t we?
And that’s my point. Allow schoolchildren to dream about “antiques entrepreneurship,” making it a career of choice, not a fall-back job.
So right here and now, I propose we make a promise to ourselves and to our chosen profession. We need to sell our careers to the next generation and inspire someone else to be as enthusiastic and passionate as we are about our collections, shops or hobbies, because enthusiasm is contagious.
Tell everyone you know about your collection. Approach teachers and offer to speak to their classes. Find out if schools still conduct career days and offer to stand in the “lineup.” Contact your local Rotary, Lions, PTA or church groups — anywhere a guest speaker would be welcome — and make your pitch. In other words, bring new members into our midst. Nurture new enthusiasts as we had others do for us.
Everyone will benefit by potentially creating more jobs, inspiring someone to begin a new hobby, helping a lonely person make friends, and, most importantly, inspiring the next generation to explore our past. It may even get grandma talking to her granddaughter about butter molds and how they were used. The upside potential is limitless.
Because if we don’t swell our ranks with new members, we’ll soon be awash in a sea of gray and white — hair, that is.
If you don’t believe me, take a good, long look at the attendees strolling down the aisles at your next antiques show. For every four people over the age of 50, there may be one under the age of 35. No kidding. I took two hours out of my life one afternoon and counted.
There is good news, however. The economy has forced the younger generation (and I don’t just mean college co-eds) to take a serious second look at vintage furnishings, providing these treasures an outlet for a new life. So let’s take this budget-conscious consumer to the next level.
For instance, if you know about mid-century furniture, talk to anyone who will listen. Tell them about the beautiful lines, blond woods and bold colors. Tie your knowledge in with familiar brands this generation relates to, like IKEA. Show them how old can be new again.
That’s why my husband and I spend as much time talking to the young people who show an interest in our store’s merchandise as we do the serious collectors. The collector is already hooked. We’re looking to catch some young fish.
When the owner of an antiques store takes time to explain to a 7-year-old the history and difference between a musket and a carbine, we wind up with some really impressed parents and grandparents who also usually learn something in the bargain.
This sparks an interest. This interest may ignite a lifelong passion. We’ll never know for sure. But we’ve got to sow the seeds to yield the crop. That $5 bullet purchased today may bring a new collector into the fold and reap long-term benefits tomorrow. It might take 10, 15 or even 20 years, but that youngster we spent an hour with yesterday may come back to us (or someone like us) someday and purchase a $5,000 antique, renewing the cycle of collecting.
So let’s raise the bar on our career choice and become known as knowledgeable, respected and successful experts — kind of like doctors, lawyers and actuaries, only with a better sense of humor and a career that’s a whole lot more fun.
Or better yet, be someone whose grandchild says, “I want to be an antiques entrepreneur like you when I grow up.”
Melanie C. Thomas has 20 years experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa.