Georgia: A peach of a shopping experience

Whether you’re looking for monumental furnishings for your castle or a humble piece of folk art to brighten your bedroom, Georgia — and especially Atlanta — is the place to look. Atlanta is the home of such giants as Red Baron’s Antiques and Great Gatsby’s Antiques & Auctions, whose major productions are equal in scale to the grand merchandise they sell. The city’s outlying areas include the largest selection of antique dealers in the Southeast.

This was an important factor in Tricia and George Breckenridge’s decision to open Atlanta Antique Gallery in Chamblee, a community north of Atlanta renowned for its concentration of antique stores. After their careers as telecommunications executives brought them to Atlanta, the couple decided to forego retirement and start their own antiques business.

“We did research. We went from Mount Dora, Florida, up to Brimfield. We investigated about 200 locations trying to figure out what it was we like or didn’t like about antiquing venues,” said Tricia, describing Atlanta as a fair place to base an antiques business.

“There aren’t the rabid collectors and buyers that you have in the Midwest and New England. We figured we had to take an alternative look at how we were going to sell our antiques, which was to develop a Web site.” The store’s Web site attracts 6.5 million hits a month, and Internet business accounts for about half of sales at Atlanta Antique Gallery.

Their prime location in Chamblee’s Antique Row provides ample through-the-door business. “We made it a pleasant environment. It’s 11,000 square feet, with 156 cases and 22 showrooms,” said Tricia. “We have a lot of high-end things; it’s not a junk mall. It’s air conditioned, well lit and a nice place to shop.”

Another Chamblee storeowner who has found an alternative outlet is John Carbone, whose Moose Breath Trading Co. supplies antiques to major restaurant chains. “When you’re dealing with a national chain that’s constantly building, you have a customer for life,” he said, adding that while retail sales have been off, the commercial side of his business remains very strong. Founded 19 years ago, Moose Breath Trading Co. has 25,000 square feet of showroom space filled with eclectic, offbeat, and eye-catching antiques.

“You will find everything from the ridiculous to the sublime on Chamblee’s Antiques Row,” said Shirley Maddox, who has owned and operated Rust & Dust Antiques for 31 years. With her complex encompassing four buildings and a warehouse, she stocks sufficient inventory to regularly provide vintage props for the film industry.

Maddox said business in 2006 started slowly but has picked up considerably. She is gearing up for a big weekend when Chamblee sponsors an outdoor antiques fest, on June 3.

In business for more than three decades, Biggar Antiques in Chamblee prides itself on offering a genuine “antique” experience. The shop specializes in country store items, advertising, Americana, architectural pieces and the unusual. Like a growing number of Georgia antique businesses, Biggar’s also provides movie prop rentals.

With so many retail antique outlets located in Georgia, it’s no surprise that auction houses abound. Steve White has been involved in the auction business for 24 years, and in 2002, founded Four Seasons Auction Gallery.

“Atlanta works very well because it’s easy access. You have all the people who can get here easily from the airport. It’s a central location with people traveling from Florida, North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. It’s a big hub of activity,” he said, adding that sales volume at Four Seasons has increased about 15 percent in each of the last three years. “People are still looking for high quality at a reasonable price, in a fair and pleasant environment … and that’s what we try to provide,” he said. Four Seasons Auction Gallery conducts auctions every Wednesday and at least one big Sunday auction per month in addition to an increasing number of specialty auctions.

Although Red Baron’s Antiques has been conducting auctions in Atlanta for 25 years, owners Bob and Linda Brown came into the business by chance, said their son, Paul Brown. After the couple opened a clothing and accessories boutique and decorated it with antiques, they had customers clamoring for the furnishings in the store. They decided to hold an auction, which led to another auction six months later. “It sort of grew from that,” said Paul, who directs Red Baron’s marketing.

Red Baron’s auctions have always been known as big productions that include chef-catered meals and live entertainment. The megasales are held three times a year.

“Our clientele is always going to have money, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be loose with it. If the economy is tight, they may pull back a bit,” said Paul. “We’re on an upswing right now; 2006 is an excellent year. I would say about late 2003, early 2004 we noticed a big surge.”

Red Baron’s retail showroom, open six days a week, is a vital part of the business. “We had a $125,000 sale this morning right off the floor through a designer,” said Paul.

Great Gatsby’s Antiques & Auctions is another high-profile Atlanta auctioneer that presents a sumptuous spread to customers at its grand auctions, which are conducted quarterly. “They’re three-day events, fully catered, open bar, nonstop food and nonstop fun,” said company owner and president Ted Tzavaras. “It’s not like those boring Northern auction houses where they put you to sleep.”

Tzavaras considers Atlanta a choice spot to run his business. “There is excellent airline service, great restaurants and it’s also an antiques center. We have decorators from Dallas, Houston, L.A. and New York, and they come to Atlanta to buy,” said Tzavaras, whose operation also includes a 100,000-square-foot gallery that is open six days a week.

Business in 2006 has been good. “The collectors who have the spendable income are fighting for the high-quality goods,” said Tzavaras. “The high end surprises at every auction.”

Atlanta is also considered a hub of the folk art market. “Most of what we consider folk art or outsider art primarily comes from the Southeast, and it’s mostly the African Americans that didn’t have an opportunity to get a formal education and surely didn’t get an art education,” said Steve Slotin, founder of the annual Folk Fest in Atlanta and Slotin Folk Art Auctions.

His semiannual auctions tap into some of the foremost folk art collections that include works by such outsider art icons as Howard Finster, Bill Traylor, Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Suduth.

Folk Fest, now in its 13th year, attracts 10,000 customers to the North Atlanta Trade Center, where the event is held the third weekend in August. Georgia is a great place to start collecting folk art because so much of it was created in the Southeast, said Slotin. “What you see is truly original. These artists were influenced only by their rural surroundings or religious conviction. The Southeast was a great place for these artists to develop and bloom.”

As limited supply and increased demand drives up the prices for vintage folk art, Mary Jane Potter, owner of Matilda’s Enchanted Cottage in Alpharetta, Ga., has found a niche market for outsider art, often painted on old, found objects. Her constantly changing inventory of outsider art and antiques fills three cottages along a busy thoroughfare.

“I’ve struggled through after 9/11 and through the bad economy, and I’ve done that by doing shows. By doing that, I’ve broadened my ability to reach people and let them know I’m here,” said Potter.