Skip to main content

Civil War dealer just can't stop dealing

There's no retiring for Civil War dealer Jay Thomas. He's still happy to be brokering deals and selling historic artifacts.

For those who don’t know, Jay and I closed our shop in Gettysburg just over a year ago. The reasons for this are many, primarily for semi-retirement status from being a Civil War dealer. We have moved back to Jay’s home state of Tennessee, where he was raised and our first store was born.

We moved into a house of chaos. By this I mean we had no functioning kitchen, raw sheetrock showed where molding should have been, and other sundry issues indicating our contractor was behind schedule, way behind schedule. We’d closed on the house over a month before, handing him the keys with a list of items to remove, replace and renew before we moved in. This did not happen.

Retirement changes a man

Jay and Melanie Thomas

Jay and Melanie Thomas, proprietors of Arsenal of the Alleghenys. Submitted photo.

And suddenly, Jay wanted to take charge. This was a new phenomenon in my 25 year marriage. The day we were married, he relinquished control over everything to do with running the household. He was firmly entrenched in the philosophy, “happy wife, happy life.” This worked well for us. Now, however, Jay wanted to not only voice an opinion, but expected me to take it seriously.

“I think the couch should go over here,” he said while the movers were unloading the truck.

“Put the couch there,” I said, ignoring his comment.

“Why don’t you put it here?”

“Because the side chairs are going there.” This conversation set the tone for the next several days. His comments were a minor irritation, at worst. But as the days wore on, he became more insistent.

While I was dealing with no dishwasher, no kitchen sink, no oven and no countertops, Jay was obsessing about where to place the dresser and shopping for new ceiling fans. I couldn’t have cared less about fans at this point. I was standing at the laundry room sink, elbow deep in a sink full of dirty dishes, with an insecure German shepherd refusing to let me out of her sight and finding my feet her new comfort zone.

A surprising revelation

Four weeks later, things became slightly more sane and normal, except Jay was home all the time. This wasn’t working for either of us. He took to leaving in the afternoons to “explore our new neighborhood.” Relieved to have some down time, I welcomed his post-lunch jaunts until he came home and announced he’d found the perfect location for his next shop.

My head almost unscrewed off my shoulders.

“What new shop?”

“I’ve got to have something to do, someplace to go,” he insisted.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for staying productive while in retirement. But, silly me, I thought it was now time for him - who had been a Civil War dealer for decades - to pursue other interests, develop new hobbies, explore something new. I decided the best way to deal with this turn of events was to reason with him.

Pros and cons

“Honey, don’t you remember how burned out you were going to the store every day? Dealing with rude and ignorant tourists? You don’t want that again, now do you?”

“There are no tourists here, and I can be open when I want.”

“But what about covering your expenses? How much is this new shop going to cost monthly?” The tally came to around $1,300, not too much but more than I had planned to spend while downsizing our life.

He dropped the subject, understanding my reasoning. Shortly after this, Jay left for a military show in, of all places, Gettysburg. He got a taste of hanging around other dealers, listening to the complaints about low show attendance, no one spending money and the usual angst. Arriving home exhausted from the 12 hour drive, but excited about the deals he’d put together while on the road, he’d had his dose of being an antique trader, or so I thought.

Not giving up

Three days later, the subject of renting retail space was casually brought up at breakfast. Again trying to reason with him, I reminded Jay we still had a piece of lakefront land to sell. After we unloaded this, we could broach the subject again.

Nodding, he agreed. The next few weeks passed quietly with Jay unpacking boxes in his “man cave,” where he had carte blanche on arranging furniture and decorating. Just as I sensed his restlessness, it was time for another Civil War show, this time in Virginia. He packed in less than 15 minutes and took off for a few days.

Again, he returned exhausted but buoyant about the contacts and deals he’d brought to fruition. And by the way, he’d found another dealer to go in with him on the shop, bringing our share of the expenses down to about $650/month, a much more manageable amount.

Does the expression, “like a dog with a bone” come to mind?

Still a Civil War dealer

We’d known the dealer he wanted to share space with for several years. Though he was retired, his wife was still working full time, leaving Tom with a lot of spare time on his hands. Sound familiar?

I listened, I really did. I tried to keep an open mind, but had to remind him of a few things. Was he going to keep the website up to date? Was he going to handle the bookkeeping chores? Was he going to do any marketing and if so, how? These are all the fine points he didn't consider because were my bailiwick while we had the store in Gettysburg.

Wondering if Tom’s wife was on board with this scheme, I gave her a call and found out she was as much against it as I was, citing similar reasons plus a few more. With both of us determined to nip this in the bud, the potential partnership withered on the vine.

Another show in Maryland was on the calendar and this time I decided to set up and go with Jay. Watching him dart around the tables and return victorious with another buy, I remembered the days before the store became a chore, when going to work was fun. And I realized this was what Jay wanted another shot at. He didn’t want or need to replace this activity (being a Civil War dealer) with something new. That was my idea of retirement, not his.

Change of heart

On the long drive home, I raised the subject of opening another store, telling Jay I’d had a change of heart, that maybe we should do it yet again. He listened.

“Mel, let me tell you something. I don’t need a store to be a Civil War dealer. All I need is a show and someone to buy my stuff. And I can find both of those anywhere, without the extra expense and worry that comes with a brick and mortar commitment.”

The relief must have been visible on my face, so he continued.

“But remember one thing, Mrs. Thomas. I’m a Civil War dealer. Always have been, always will be. It’s something I will never let go of. I guess it’s terminal.”