Rhode Island: Heavy hitter in antiques trade

Rhode Island has the smallest land area of any of the United States and has fewer residents than any  other state in New England except Vermont. Yet when it comes to the number of antique shops, little Rhode Island is loaded.

Peter Gensel, owner of Greenfield Antique Center in Smithville, attributes the relatively high number of antique businesses in Rhode Island to “everybody’s dream of opening an antique shop.” Gensel opened his business in 1995 on Putnam Pike in an early 19th-century mill. He started with 29 dealers and now has about 150. “I grew larger to better weather the ups and downs of the economy.”

Two of his longtime dealers are Elizabeth and Frank Emmons, who also have their own shop, Country Cupboard Antiques, up the Putnam Pike (U.S. Route 44) in Chepachet. Having been in business for 18 years, Elizabeth describes their shop as the traditional mom-and-pop operation. “We’re hanging on,” she said, noting, however, that the road they’re located along is no longer lined with antique shops as it once was.

Traveling east on Route 44 will take motorists to Providence, the state’s capital and largest city. There is a concentration of antique stores on Wickenden Street.

Marian L. Clark, who comes from a New England family of antique lovers, is in her 19th year as owner of Benefit Street Antiques. Located at the corner of Wickenden and Benefit, Clark’s three-room shop benefits from its proximity to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. “I have a great corner location at the foot of College Hill,” said Clark, adding, “My customers depend on me … I love what I do.”

Eighteen years ago a friend asked Richard Kahan if he wanted to go in with him renting a storefront at 416 Wickenden for an antique shop. Kahan’s former partner has long since departed the scene, but Kahan continues to do business as Red Bridge Antiques. He carries an eclectic mix from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Recent standouts included an 18th century sea chest and a painted cottage pine chest. He also likes to handle primitive folk art and fine art.

ACME Antiques at 460 Wickenden is open only on Fridays and Saturdays, as owner Kevin Regan sells primarily to the trade and decorators. “The inventory changes every week because I do a lot of wholesaling,” said Regan. He recommends the Wickenden Street congregation. “We say it’s a great place to shop. I buy a lot from the shops on the street and take it to New York or elsewhere,” he said. One of his biggest sellers is Heywood-Wakefield furniture.

Ferguson & D’Arruda, owned by Brian Ferguson and Tom D’Arruda, has been located in a 19th century storefront at 409 Wickenden for 10 years and last year expanded to an adjacent building. “There are several shops on the street, which makes it a good destination,” said Ferguson. “If one of us happens to be closed, someone else is always open. The Wickenden Street shops are easily accessible from I-95 by taking exit 20. Parking can be found on nearby side streets,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson & D’Arruda deal mainly in furniture, including early 19th century neoclassical pieces, architectural elements and garden antiques. They also promote four antique shows, including two in Rhode Island. Their Little Compton Antique Show will be Aug. 4-5 at the Wilbur-McMahon School on the Commons in Little Compton.
“It’s well attended, the dealers do well, and it’s withstood the ups and downs of the economy,” said Ferguson. “People actually come to buy on Friday nights. It’s not just a social thing.” They also stage an annual garden antique show to benefit Blithewold Mansion and Arboretum in Bristol in late May.

Steven M. Fusco and Kevin Bruneau have operated an antique shop since 1998, but their Estates Unlimited Inc. has quickly become known as one of Rhode Island’s foremost auction companies. They conduct estate auctions every six to eight weeks at their auction house at 63 Fourth Ave. in suburban Cranston.

Fusco and Bruneau usually have sales on Sundays most of the year and on Thursday evenings during the warmer months. “People around here often make weekend plans during the summer,” said Fusco, a second-generation Rhode Island auctioneer. They also conduct estate tag sales, estate clean-outs and appraisals. “We established ourselves quickly … and have no shortage of work,” said Fusco, adding that he loves living and working in the Providence area.

Nanci Thompson is another auctioneer who has made the progression from shop owner to auctioneer. She and her brother, Brian Thompson, started Thompson Auction Co. in January 2005 after attending Missouri Auction School together. They conduct auctions at the Varnum Memorial Armory in East Greenwich, which is located between Providence and Newport.
Nanci’s late father, Lewis Thompson, was a part-time auctioneer many years ago, and she and her mother, Hilda, are longtime auction-goers. “I always thought it would be fascinating to get into the auction business,” said Thompson. “Rhode Island is such a small state, all the auctioneers know each other and all get along well.”

Thompson described Rhode Island as a state of “old Yankees” who never threw anything away. “There’s a long history here and a lot of good stuff sitting in barns, attics and basements. It’s a continuous treasure hunt,” she said.

Newport, founded in 1639 and the summer home for many of America’s wealthiest families in the mid-19th century, is still fertile ground for antiques. One long-standing shop is A&A Gaines Antiques, operated by Alan and Amy Gaines since 1980.

“We try to stock the high-quality antiques one used to be able to find in New England shops,” said Alan. While selling less furniture now than in the past, A&A Gaines offers a large selection of clocks, nautical items and China trade pieces.

The Gaineses pride themselves in customer service. “Anybody who is seriously interested in antiques, we’re glad to help … The whole basis in the antique business used to be that people went to an antique dealer to learn about things and feel secure in what they purchased, in that the antique dealer was the expert and was supposed to help them,” said Gaines, adding many dealers continue to do so.

A&A Gaines Antiques is located a 40 Franklin St. Other shops are located on Franklin and Spring streets in Newport. Armory Antiques, at 365 Thames St., has 125 dealers.

Less than 30 minutes north of Newport is Tiverton, where promoter Jacqueline Sideli stages the Tiverton Four Corners Antiques Show twice each summer on the grounds of the Soule Seabury House. Her next show, which features approximately 50 dealers from around New England, will be Aug. 19.

Sue Hawes and Gene LaParle have operated the John Goddard Shop Antiques Inc. for about seven years, the last four years at their present location at 2984 E. Main Road in Portsmouth. They named their shop after the famous 18th century Newport cabinetmaker to denote the high-quality merchandise they carry.

“We do get Newport furniture from the 18th century. Actually, it’s more plentiful than people realize because the Goddard-Townsends made an abundant amount of furniture and it still can be found,” said Hawes. “It’s desirable furniture and we’re lucky to live in an area where we’re still able to find it.”

Hawes considers the state of the antique trade to be strong. “We’re very aggressive though. We’re not the type to just sit around and wait for people to walk in. We try a lot of different avenues to sell our merchandise,” she said.

An eBay seller for more than seven years, Hawes said the Internet auction Web site has been a godsend. “Not only has it exposed us to new customers, those people will contact us directly when they’re looking for something again,” said Hawes. An example is an Oregon woman who has purchased several folk art portraits, one for about $20,000, she said.

Located nearby, at 3101 E. Main Road in Portsmouth, is Eagles Nest Antique Center, which has more than 100 dealers. Doris and Ron Bousquet opened their store about 15 years ago and are assisted by their daughter, Denise Costanza. “We’re not so far into Newport; we have a lot of parking, which is a nice feature,” said Costanza. “Once people find us, they come back. We get a lot of tourists, but we have a lot of local customers too.”

With Massachusetts about 10 miles to the north, dealers stock a good selection of Sandwich and other early American glassware as well as furniture, said Doris Bousquet, who specializes in estate jewelry. “We have a lot of old things in this area. This is where it all started,” said Bousquet.

You might enjoy these books on antique jewelry:

•  Warman’s Jewelry
•  Warman’s® Vintage Jewelry  
•  Answers to Questions About Old Jewelry