Ligonier’s Diamond shines bright for antique shoppers

LIGONIER, Pa. – After 20 years, Ligonier’s biannual exposition of antiques and collectibles is finally appreciating in value itself.

Antiques on the Diamond, an outdoor antiques show held every summer in a community reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s image of small-town America, is proving to be an engine of economic growth for the region.

In fact, traditional antique shows nationwide are pumping life and economic health into rural towns plagued by loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs.

661.JPG“You can’t imagine how local businesses begin ratcheting up their economic projections when an antique show comes to town,” said Vivien Cord, who has been running antique shows and crafts fairs for more than 30 years. Her Armonk, N.Y.-based Cord Shows Ltd. promotes seven shows a year.

Cord said that when thousands of collectors come to her shows, they also fan out over several rural New York and New England hamlets seeking food and lodging.

Julie Crist, 62, a long-time follower of the Cord antique shows, said she might spend $1,500 at the show itself, and then additional money for food and drinks to celebrate a successful day of antique collecting. Crist, of Springfield, Mass., collects antique glass, jewelry and dolls.

656.JPGLigonier, a vacation hub nestled in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, saw antique shoppers spend an average of more than $200 per person on both collectibles and food at its Aug. 25 antique show. The town also sponsors a successful antique show on the last Saturday of June.

“We see our Ligonier antique shows as an economic oasis for so many of our other custom retail shops and restaurants,” said Rachel Roehrig, director of the Ligonier Chamber of Commerce. “The antique shoppers come with such diverse needs and expectations, and that’s what really fuels our tourism economy.”

This year, the show drew more than 5,000 visitors to the August event.

Last year, tourists spent $750 million trekking through the Keystone State’s Laurel Highlands, which includes visits to antique destinationd like Ligonier.

June-Aug.JPG“Our Ligonier shows remain a real mix because there are so many dealers. It’s hard to say what’s going to be there,” said Jeff Poole, who owns On the Diamond Antiques in Ligonier.

At the show, he’s seen toys, china, furniture, jewelry and other collectibles that date from the early 18th century to the 1960s.

Poole, 44, has been a collector since he started amassing bottles at age 4. His dad used to drop him off at the Latrobe, Pa., flea market to buy and sell antiques when he was 12. Poole has owned his antique shop for almost 20 years, and to stock his shelves, he’s traveled to England, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Chile and Argentina.

“I think I first became interested because I grew up around my great-grandparents, and they had a lot of interesting things around their house,” the Ligonier native said.

This summer, visitors to Antiques on the Diamond brought things for Poole to appraise for $5 an item.

“People were lined up around the block to get hundreds of items appraised,” Poole said. Further, because more antique shows are marketing the chance to get the old attic collectible appraised, the demand for antique appraisers is skyrocketing.

Joe Cohen, who teaches collectors how to appraise antiques, said his classes are packed.

“This is another great economic spin-off from the growth of traditional antique shows,” said Cohen, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He teaches 16 different antique-appraisal classes through the Broward County Public Schools Adult Education Program.

Cohen, part of the 30,000-member National Association of Watches and Clocks Collectors, said collectors are beginning to ignore the Internet.

“All the collectors I know are jumping into their cars and heading straight to the old traditional antique show,” he said, “where they can see and inspect the items.”

A joint marketing program launched by the Laurel Highlands Visitor’s Bureau and antique dealers in northern Maryland is encouraging the return to traditional antique shows.

“We spent $17,000 on a marketing project that created 60,000 antique treasure maps and colorful advertisements designed to entice antique buffs to our region,” said Julie Donovan, a spokeswoman for the Laurel Highland’s Visitor’s Bureau, which is involved in promoting the Ligonier antique shows.

Other small towns like Hamilton, Ohio, have seen economic boosts from the antique business.

“We’re swamped with orders for specialty plastic cases for antique collectors,” said Angela Wagers. Her father’s business has 15 employees making cases for Civil War collections, dolls and miniature toy soldiers.

Back in Ligonier, where a handful of antique shops operate as retail anchors, shoppers like David Markus credit the mix of old and new businesses as the economic pump that keeps things running smoothly.

“It’s all connected,” said Markus, a retired New York lawyer. “Ligonier has become a real hub for serious antique collectors, but we also have a lot of other great attractions and that’s what makes it all work.”

Angie Becker, president of Antiques and Collectibles National Association in Charlotte, N.C., said the association’s membership has increased from less than 2,000 members in 1997 to more than 4,000 today. The association provides insurance and a variety of other vendor services.

“The antique business has its ups and downs, but most of the dealers are entrepreneurs and that’s what makes our national economy go round and round,” said Jodi Sekula, who plans to turn her love of antiques into a business when she opens a shop later this year in Jeannette, Pa. She specializes in antique dolls and German porcelain.