Eastern antique shops ward off floods – again

As storm clouds gathered and the Delaware River rose to new heights in Bucks County, Pa., an area laced with antique shops, auction houses and quaint 18th century stone building, business owners scrambled to prepare for a scenario that has become all to familiar to them.

“It’s the third flood we’ve had in 20 months,” said Herb Millman, who, together with his partner John Dwyer, was busy emptying the window of Cockamamies, their antique shop that specializes in Art Deco and 1950s decorative art. It was a scene that would be replicated at stores and auction houses throughout the drenched Northeast on June 28, as dealers moved their wares to higher ground, sandbagged doors and sealed the frames with duct tape. “Practice makes perfect,” Millman said wryly.

Preparation and pluck enabled most dealers to keep their heads above water during an ordeal that has become all too familiar in the popular destinations for antiques shoppers.

Across the river in Lambertville, N.J., shops and galleries on Lambert Lane, the hardest-hit street, closed early as the waters rose. Instead of customers, ducks floated past the shuttered storefronts.

At Peter Wallace Ltd., owner Dan Margo and his partner worked 20 hours straight to haul wares from the basement and first floor up to the top two floors, with the remainder trucked off to storage. Garden ornaments were pulled inside; the heavier objects were tipped in place in hopes they wouldn’t be carried off by the waters.

In an interview with the Hunterdon (Pa.) Democrat, Margo said a flood in April 2005 caused significant structural damage to the shop, which specializes in period architectural engravings, botanicals, European and American paintings, Chinese porcelain, Venetian figures and Napoleonic memorabilia. He had just mailed the final payment for rewiring, new flooring and repair to the beams when the latest flood hit.

The 2005 deluge closed the store for a month; a flood in September 2004 had put the shop out of commission for six weeks. This time around, Peter Wallace was back in business by mid-July.

Ironically, only two blocks away, the streets were dry. David Rago, of Rago Arts and Auction Center on North Main Street, said the biggest concern in his part of town was that prospective customers would be frightened off by reports on the evening news.

 “We might have suffered somewhat had there been an auction that weekend. That happened twice to us in the past two years,” he said. “This time, the event was during our off season, so there was no appreciable loss.”

At Jim’s Antiques on Bridge Street, workers carried out display cases in the event that waters should creep into the first floor of the store and art gallery. A storage facility nearer the Delaware received more thorough preventative action. “We rent a building on the river side and we completely emptied it before the flood,” owner Jim Alterman said.

Despite the mess and inconvenience, Alterman’s shop and most others escaped the flood unscathed. But business dried up as stores remained closed for at least a day as municipalities turned off electrical service in sodden business districts. “I don’t think anybody knows what the final cost of the flood will be but it’s never good for business when your street is closed,” Alterman said.

In New Jersey alone, officials estimated damage will exceed the $30 million cost incurred as a result of the floods of only a year ago. In Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, alone, sustained $20 million in losses. New Jersey and 12 counties in Pennsylvania, where there was also heavy flooding from the Schuylkill and Brandywine rivers, are eligible for federal disaster relief.

At William H. Bunch Auctions & Appraisals in Chadds Ford, Pa., residents canoed down streets after a fierce storm with tornado-strength winds roared through during a preview for a catalog sale. “It rained and hailed a whole lot and threw a 25-foot-tall cherry tree from our landscaping across the highway,” said auctioneer Bill Bunch. “The good news is that I found out my generator actually does work in an emergency.”

After the storm, workers pumped more than 125 gallons of water out of the Bunch warehouse. Fortunately, no lots were damaged. But widespread flooding in the area made it difficult for employees to get to work for a few days.

“No one could cross the Brandywine,” Bunch said. “People had to go all the way to Delaware and then come north.”

While the auction went off as scheduled, Bunch said it’s difficult to gauge whether bad weather was a help or a hindrance. “It’s hard to measure the ripple effect – how many people don’t come out to the sale because of flooding – or how many people head out because they think everyone else will stay home and they’ll get some great bargains,” he said.

In New Hope and Lambertville, businesses advertised in print, on radio and online to let prospective visitors know shops that closed Wednesday and Thursday would be reopening Saturday afternoon. Without electricity, Millman and Dwyer worked by flashlight in oppressive heat in order to put the store back together as quickly as possible.

“When the electricity came on we were back in business and the customers started streaming in,” Millman said. “It was like opening the floodgates – no pun intended.”