Retro Roadtrip: North Dakota

Staying afloat in the antique business in North Dakota is a daunting challenge, but it is possible. Like the Scandinavian and German immigrants who settled the northern prairie in the late 19th century, antique shop owners in North Dakota are a resilient lot, able to endure when times are lean — or worse.
Linda Magness, an antique dealer of 30 years, saw her shop destroyed by the April 1997 flooding that devastated Grand Forks. Heavy snowfall that winter followed by a rapid thaw caused extensive flooding.

“There was four feet of water in my shop, and it stayed for two weeks. A lot my stuff went out the door and up to Canada,” said Magness, describing the northern flow of the Red River through downtown Grand Forks. Of the nine antique shops operating in the downtown area before the flood, only two reopened, she said.

“Monte (Whitney) and I found a place next to each other and we were open within six months,” said Magness. “We were just passionate about finding a place to reopen and found these stores side by side. We became friends.”
A year ago they moved their shops one-half mile from downtown to 820 S. Washington St., a renovated automobile service garage, which already housed a multidealer shop. The Plain and Fancy Antique Mall is located at the front of the building, while Whitney’s Victorian Rose Antiques and Magness’ Red Geranium Antiques share the back.

“He’s very Victorian and I am much more primitive, with high-end cherry and pine furniture and decorative items,” said Magness. “We’ve celebrated our first year here and the numbers have been very good. We’ve increased sales at the mall a hundred times and they’re thrilled to have us here,” said Magness, who manages the complex.

“We’re doing good. That’s probably all we can expect and all we really want. If we wanted to be something different we’d be in California. We like the North, the Midwest, for lots of different reasons. We’re never going to get rich, but we’re steady,” Magness said.

Beyond the Red River Valley and across rolling prairie 210 miles to the west lies Minot, a city of about 36,000. Here, Gene Brinkman has operated Downtown Antique Mall for 12 years in the basement level of the early 1900s Masonic Temple, which long ago was occupied by a J.C. Penney store. On the main floor is a school for beauticians, whose students and customers often frequent the antique mall.

Brinkman said, however, that his business could not survive long with only the patronage of local customers. While the high price of gas is of immediate concern, he is concerned about a decrease in sales to the dealer trade.
“The last couple of years I haven’t been seeing the same dealers returning,” said Brinkman, who has 10 vendors in his mall, which is located at 108 Main St. South. Local people regularly come to the Downtown Antique Mall wanting to sell, but Brinkman said they often have an inflated idea of their antiques’ worth.

“They think their piece is the most valuable thing in the world, and they’re disappointed when they come in and see another one like it and it’s marked only $50,” said Brinkman. “I don’t know where they’re coming from price-wise, whether it’s the Internet or TV,” said Brinkman, noting that the Antiques Roadshow came to Bismarck in July 2005 to tape three one-hour segments.
“Everybody couldn’t wait to get there with their million-dollar piece, but they soon found out the truth that way. They needed to know,” said Brinkman.
Bernie Adams, who owns Antiques on Main, 200 W. Main St., in Bismarck, is grateful that Antiques Roadshow came to her town last summer. “It brought a lot of business. It was the best month we ever had. Actually, the best day we ever had,” she said.

Adams said lower prices attract many buyers to North Dakota antique malls and shops. “We have probably the best prices in the five-state area. We’re about 20 to 25 percent less here than Montana and Minnesota,” said Adams.
After a slow April and May, Adams said June and July at her multidealer store have been much better. “I don’t know if people couldn’t decide to run out here with the high gas prices,” said Adams.

About 50 miles east of Fargo is Valley City, which has several shops on Main Street. E&S Antiques, named for its owners Ed Schmitz and Sharon Hirsch, has become one of the leading antique shops in the state dealing in furniture.
“We have two floors of furniture to choose from. The price of gas hasn’t really mattered. We’ve had a good summer,” said Hirsch, taking a break during a buying trip to the Gold Rush markets in Oronoco and Rochester, Minn., in mid-August.

Two doors away in a 1918 bank building is Sandi Pollock’s Unique Antiques, a shop stocked with mainly jewelry, dolls, glassware and oddities. “I like odd things,” said Pollock. As for dolls, “I’m not real picky, as long as they’re old and in good shape,” she said.

Fargo, the state’s largest city, has several antique shops, including Lifetime Antique Furnishings, located downtown in a 1908 building at 18 Eighth St. South. Owner Curt Williams said the name of his shop was inspired by the LifeTime line of Arts and Crafts furniture produced by the Grand Rapids Chair Co.

“I got it from there. It’s the idea their furniture will last a lifetime,” said Williams, who stocks a variety of furniture along with general-line antiques. Williams said spring and fall are his busiest seasons, while summertime can be streaky.

“I’ve had some great times in summer and some slower times too. About the last month or so has been real good,” said Williams, whose shop is open year round.

Williams has operated his shop 12 years, long enough that local people know to contact him. “There are still farm sheds intact with original furnishings in this area,” said Williams. “Farm people know to give me a call when they have a few nice things to sell.”

Shannon Grindberg and his girlfriend, Vicki Jahner, have operated Main Avenue Antiques, at the corner of Main and University Drive in Fargo, for more than two years. “Our store is fairly small; 1,200 square feet,” said Grindberg. “It’s mainly general-line antiques in a quaint mom-and-pop shop where you don’t have that antique mall atmosphere.”

The leading antique mall in the area is located two exits before the North Dakota state line, in neighboring Moorhead, Minn. Mary and Mark Wilson opened Moorhead Antique Mall 11 years ago in an 11,000-square-foot building near Exit 2 off I-94.

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Moorhead Antique Mall has 70 dealers, including some of the best in the region, said Mary Wilson. “We’ve had some record months and we’ve had some slower months. We’re fortunate to have a really nice mall. We’ve been able to survive when other shops aren’t doing very well,” said Mary, who emphasizes the importance of clean, orderly displays. “We’re not junky,” she said.

Scott Steffes, president of Steffes Auctioneers Inc., in Fargo, said the antiques segment of his business has changed dramatically since he became an auctioneer in 1980. Unlike the 1960s through the early ‘80s, when the auction company founded by his father, Robert Steffes, sold “a huge amount” of old furniture at farm sales, today’s sales are often devoid of such merchandise.

“People came in droves to sales in vans and trailers and hauled everything to California and Arizona,” said Steffes, estimating that antiques once comprised 30 to 40 percent of the property his company sold. Farm machinery and land have become the focus of the company, he said. “Other than the major antique auctions we do two or three times a year when we sell someone’s large collection, antiques are less than 10 percent of our business now,” said Steffes.
A National Auctioneers Association international men’s bid-calling champion in 1995, Steffes said he gets good results when he handles antiques and collections. In June he sold a 400-piece stoneware collection, the highlight of which was a 2-gallon Red Wing water cooler with “elephant-ear” decoration that sold for $7,000.

Breaking ground in the North Dakota market is Pifer’s Auction Co., founded by brothers Kevin D. and Peter A. “Pete” Pifer. “A couple years ago we just decided we wanted to do this, and my brother and I started the company,” said Kevin, a former North Dakota Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture and CEO of an insurance company and bank in the Fargo and Bismarck markets.
In addition to farm, land and estate auctions, the Pifers conduct about six antique auctions per year. “I just think you need to know the merchandise, whether it’s farm equipment, land or whatever,” said Pifer.

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