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The Buck Stops Here: Experience teaches to vet the venue, then book

Sometimes the most important lessons are learned the hard way, as Melanie Thomas explains in her latest The Buck Stops Here column, about vetting an antiques show venue prior to signing on to display.

Like the renowned groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, we sleep a lot in Gettysburg during the winter, only poking our heads out about once a month just for the heck of it.

But this year, Jay and I wanted to try something different to keep our blood pumping and checkbook humming, so we decided to set up at an antiques show, preferably in a warmer climate. My Internet search located one that billed itself as the “longest running and best show in the Carolinas.” After perusing the website for several minutes, I shot off a couple of emails to friends in that area just to get their take on it.

All the responses gave the show a “thumbs up,” so I not only booked a space, I rented an extra table and locking display case, tall enough to hold our antique long guns.

The show was advertised as a five-day event, beginning with early dealer set-up on Wednesday. When we arrived late that afternoon, we found the parking lot empty. Did we just drive seven hours for nothing? Entering the deserted building, we saw that just four


Atmosphere isn't the be all end all of an antiques show, but necessities like adequate heat are essential.

dealers had opted to take advantage of this set-up time. Following the map provided by the promoter, we located our assigned space.

The booth was missing both the extra table and the locking display case, hampering our ability to unload. With our footsteps echoing in the empty building, we noticed something else was missing – heat. The building was not just freezing, but below freezing, as the temperatures outside hovered in the low teens. So much for a warmer climate!

A swish of hot air nearly knocked me over as I opened the door to the show’s office, where a balmy 75 degrees engulfed me. Asking about the display case, no one knew its whereabouts. Plus, the only person capable of moving it, even if they knew where it was, had gone home for the day. I then inquired when the heat would be on and was tartly informed by the promoter, a no-nonsense type of woman, that the building was heated only when the paying public was in attendance.

Did she just imply that dealers don’t count?

Thursday proved hectic, noisy and just as frigid. Dealers busily unloaded their vehicles, setting up their booths while stomping their feet in a feeble attempt to stay warm. Our display case was still missing but the extra table had materialized overnight.

Late Thursday morning, balanced precariously on a small dolly, the display case made its long-awaited arrival, but with no lock. My husband wasn’t about to leave $20,000 worth of antique rifles in an unlocked case, so I returned to the toasty office (can I hang out in here?) seeking the elusive lock.

“No lock?” the promoter answered in a somewhat lofty tone. “Are you sure?”


A lock without a key is more than a problem when you are displaying items at an antiques show.

My hackles shot up. “I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t,” I replied. Cold hands and numb feet make me testy.

In a feeble attempt to act like she cared, she then opened a few desk drawers, patted down the countertop and then shrugged as if to say, “What else do you want me to do?”

Promises were made to locate the lock as soon as possible, with a request for me “to be patient.”

Did she just imply I was impatient?

We were still missing a lock, heat and lighting. Did I mention that half the light bulbs were burned out, engulfing the building in a shadowy twilight?

Not to be brushed off, I asked again about the heat. This time she blamed the dealers for letting in the cold air while setting up. She did not want to waste energy running the heat while the doors kept opening, otherwise she’d be forced to pass this added expense back to the dealers, and we didn’t want that now, did we?

Did I detect a condescending tone?

I decided to investigate the show’s other venue known as Building A, where the difference in ambiance made me break a sweat, literally. Not only did the aroma of hot food and coffee waft down the aisles, but there was heat, lots of it. Coats were slung over the backs of chairs, not zipped and buttoned up to chins. The glare was so bright, I squinted. While warmth and lighting abounded in Building A, Building B stayed mired in frost, requiring flashlights.

Why would a promoter sabotage half her show?

So began my true due diligence. Quizzing dealers in both buildings, I asked if the current conditions were normal. Guess what? They were. Building A stayed heated or cooled, depending on the season, while Building B dealers either froze or perspired, all the while in perpetual gloom.

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One dealer claimed the only way to get a space in the coveted Building A was to make a monthly commitment for a year, pay for those 12 rentals in advance and be a close, personal friend of the promoter.

Funny, I didn’t see those parameters on the website.

Late on Thursday afternoon, the promoter handed me the lock for the display case, only it didn’t fit. She shook her head. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “The dealer who usually rents this case can get it to work.”

Now I’m incompetent.

I asked if her dolly-wielding employee could give the lock a try. We left him sprawled on the floor fiddling with the ill-fitting accoutrement. I instructed him to leave the key in the lock if he managed to get it working.

As Jay lugged the long guns back to the car yet again, he informed me he was ready to leave the show not just for the day, but forever. I convinced him that Friday would be better because we would have heat as customers jostled each other in the aisles. Jay looked at me with his, “Yeah, right,” expression. Even I didn’t believe the words as they came out of my mouth.

Who was I kidding?

On Friday morning, we rounded the corner of the parking lot with high hopes, only to have them crash. No one waited in line for the doors to open. In fact, no one besides the dealers had bothered to show up. I prayed the heat was on.

It wasn’t. Today’s excuse was, “It’s broken. Maintenance has been called,” she said with a flick of her wrist, as she entered the balmy Building A. We did have some good news, however. The display case was locked, with no key in sight.

I trudged back to the office.

“No key?” she said. “Surely he left it in your booth.”

“Sorry, no. Can you call him?”

“No, Friday is his day off. We’ll just have to make do.”

That did it.

“Make do? How about refunding me the $30 we paid to rent a useless display case? That’s how we’ll make do.” I slammed the office door, trying but failing to shatter the glass. At least my temper tantrum raised my blood pressure, allowing me to forget how cold I was.

I stomped out, passing a vintage thermometer reading 30 degrees.

An hour before the show closed on Friday, a sudden burst of lukewarm air belched out of the vent 30 feet over our heads.

The heat was on.

About 15 people shopped in Building B that day, who all complained about the cold and dreary conditions and how they wanted to return to the “other building.” Who could blame them? I would have stayed in Building A, too, if Jay would let me get away with it.

Throughout Saturday, the indoor temperature hovered at 47 degrees, which the “regulars” told me was the norm during the winter. It was an eventless day with a whopping 60 or 70 shoppers, who were as generous with their wallets as the promoter was with her BTUs. Late that afternoon, the promoter’s assistant came dashing down the aisle dangling, guess what, wait for it, that’s right, a key. Remember that locked display case holding nothing?

“I’m so sorry! I forgot you needed this. Here!” she presented the key with a flourish, like I was some honored guest being handed the key to the city.

I was done. Done with the cold, done with the useless display case, done with the abysmal lighting, done with the poor attendance. At 4:30 Saturday afternoon, we packed up and never looked back.

Maybe Punxsutawney Phil had it right all along. Hibernation can’t be all bad, so wake us up in the spring.

About our contributor: Melanie C. Thomas has 20 years experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa., 717- 334-1122, or


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