Something Old/Something New

Sell your collectibles on a shoestring by exhibiting them in an antique mall.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the April 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

At first, Tyco's Tickle Me Elmo seemed like an ordinary toy. But shortly after its release, the giggling plush Muppet from became immensely popular, selling out at toy stores faster than Bert could get annoyed with Ernie. When Christmas-season laws of caused prices to skyrocket into the hundreds of dollars for each toy, those who had Tickle Me Elmo to sell considered themselves lucky. Those who didn't, wished they had.

Few things skyrocket in price like the Tickle Me Elmo dolls. But interest in antiques and collectibles is high. If you've caught collecting fever, whether for primitive furniture, decorative items, jewelry or even modern fast-food kids' meal , selling collectibles or antiques just may be your ticket to business ownership.

Although there are numerous ways to sell antiques and collectibles, one of the most popular is through an antique mall or co-op.

Johanna S. Billings is a freelance writer and avid glass collector who specializes in covering the antiques and collectibles trade.

How an Antique Mall Works

Selling through an antique mall or co-op is a type of consignment. You place your items in the mall, which sells the items, paying you only after a customer buys something.

With most consignment deals, the store owner takes from 25 to 50 percent of the selling price. With an antique mall, however, you rent a booth or case and pay a commission (usually between three and 10 percent of your gross sales). The cost of case and booth rentals vary by mall, with most malls charging between $50 and $200 per month. Some will require a lease, though many allow you to rent from month to month.

By selling this way, independent antique dealers reap the benefits of their knowledge and experience without taking big risks. Your cash outlay is relatively small, at least in comparison to the costs of opening your own private shop.

Malls also provide a full-time staff to run the shop, leaving you free to hunt for more merchandise or keep your regular job. Another type of mall, the co-op, requires each participating dealer to work several days per month in addition to paying rent. If you are employed, be sure time slots are available to suit your schedule.

Choosing a Mall

Cost and staffing are but two things to consider when deciding where to sell your items. You must also consider hours of operation, location and the type of items that will sell at a particular store.

Since interest in antiques has grown over the past 20 years, many malls are now open seven days a week. But hours still vary, and it's not uncommon for a mall to be open only on weekends. One mall may rent spaces more cheaply than another, but if the mall is open every day, the extra cost might be worthwhile.

The location of the mall will also affect your cost. Dealer Terri Mowrer of Columbia, Pennsylvania, pays $75 to rent a glass case at the nearby Antique Center of York, which is open seven days a week. But in Adamstown, which is also near her home, case rentals for similar malls start at about $150. "Adamstown is a whole different ballgame," says Mowrer. That's because Adamstown has a national reputation as "Antiques Capital USA." People come from all over the country, and even the world, to shop in Adamstown, where about two dozen large malls and co-ops are located within a two-mile stretch of highway.

An antique mall must also be easily accessible in order to do well. Antique lovers frequently travel hundreds of miles to shop, always hoping to discover that elusive treasure. If someone new in town can't easily find your mall, you'll lose potential sales.

Equally important is the type of merchandise other dealers sell at the mall you choose. If you have mostly Victorian items, for instance, you probably won't do as well at a mall which specializes in late twentieth-century collectibles, such as Barbie and Batman memorabilia.

Regardless, you also should find out how well the malls under your consideration are doing. Before making a decision, watch customers in the malls that you are considering to see how many are buying, and ask other dealers who sell there how well they're doing, says AntiqueWeek eastern editor Connie Swaim, who for the past eight years has sold pottery and other decorative items at an antique mall near her home in Carthage, Indiana.

Finding and Pricing Merchandise

Antiques and collectibles can be purchased for resale from a variety of sources, including auctions, yard sales, estate sales, Internet sites, private collections and even other antique malls.

Although the variety of places selling antiques and collectibles is fairly large, you must remember that you cannot simply call a supplier when you run low on merchandise. Keeping items in stock requires continuous legwork. And there are no guarantees. Some sales might be better than advertised, while some might not be nearly as good as they sounded. "I've sat through some auction sales that were real duds just to get a few things," says Mowrer. But, to those who enjoy collecting, the "treasure hunt" aspect of the business is one of its major draws.

It's best to specialize in buying and reselling items you like and know something about. "I've been sticking primarily to opalescent glass and Carnival glass, and two types of ceramics known as flow blue and majolica--anything I might know a little bit about," says Mowrer. This makes the entire process easier because she knows where to find things, how to recognize good pieces, and generally how to price them.

Even the most knowledgeable dealers run into a few snags now and then. "You have to do a lot of research," says Swaim. "I can spend hours just trying to figure out what to price one thing."

Where to Learn What You Need to Know

In order to make it as an independent antiques dealer, you must spend time and money building up your knowledge and reference library. Every dealer should have one or more general price guides, like Schroeder's Antiques Price Guide (Schroeder Publishing, $12.95, 800-626-5420), Kovel's Antiques & Collectibles Price List, 29th Edition (Crown, $14.95, 800-726-0600) or Warman's Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide (Krause Publications, $16.95, 800-258-0929). Other, more specialized price guides, like The Collector's Encyclopedia of Depression Glass by Gene Florence or The Collector's Guide to Antique Radios by Marty and Sue Bunis (both from Collector Books, $19.95 and $18.95 respectively, 502-898-6211), will nicely supplement the main guides, offering more detailed and complete information on specific categories of merchandise.

Although price guides are useful, dealers should realize they are not gospel. Prices vary, according to the condition of the piece and the location in which you are selling. The price for a piece of collectible glassware in California or Washington, where quality glass is relatively scarce, might be double what the same piece goes for in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, where glass is more plentiful.

Finding out the value of a piece is but one step toward successful sales. Collectors like to know a little about the origin and history of their treasures, and will shop repeatedly where dealers accurately label their merchandise with information about the manufacturer, age and pattern name, if any.

You can get more detailed information on specific pieces through reference books. These books can sometimes be even more valuable than simple price guides because they frequently contain valuable information, such as how to spot fakes and reproductions.

"I'm surprised at how much I've learned just by looking through books," says Mowrer. "The Carnival glass people really know their patterns." By knowing the pattern names of the pieces she sells, she earns the respect of collectors. Talking to other dealers and attending auctions can also be educational. "Even if I spend a whole night at a sale without buying, but I learn something, it's worth it."

Of course, the process of pricing your merchandise begins before you actually buy items for resale. Mowrer brings her price guides to auctions; before bidding, she'll look up the pieces' values and decide how much she can spend and still expect to make a decent profit. "I decide my price and then I stick to it," she says. "But there are some people who go right up to book price."

"There are different kinds of dealers," says Annetta Vitez, who manages Merchant's Square Mall Antique & Specialty Shops in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she is also a seller. "Some feel they have to double or even triple their money. Others are satisfied with a $5 profit margin. But the second kind don't last too long."

Mowrer strives to at least double her money on everything she sells, a policy which has earned her, at times, between $100 and $200 a week.

Swaim also tries to double her money, but adds that selling antiques is merely a hobby for her. Experts agree that professional dealers should try to triple their money to compensate themselves for their time and expenses.

Legal Questions

Antique-mall staff will collect state sales tax from customers, but will turn that money over to you, the independent dealer, for payment to the state. You will need a sales tax number, available at no charge from the state in which you do business.

Swaim also suggests looking into business insurance, since sellers may not always be covered under the mall's policy. Sellers can be held liable for selling reproductions, and are also potentially liable if they sell something unsafe, such as an old toaster which starts a fire in the buyer's home.

Pitfalls to Avoid

As interest in antiques and collectibles grows, reproductions proliferate. At first glance, many look like the real thing. But dealers who repeatedly make mistakes will quickly earn a bad name with knowledgeable collectors.

In addition, knowing what will sell can sometimes be guesswork. Mowrer put some Blue Ridge dinnerware--which is neither as old nor as well-known as other ceramics in which she specializes--on the bottom shelf of her showcase, just to make it look full. Surprisingly, the dinnerware has been selling faster than anything else. "What you think is going to go usually doesn't," she laughs.

Novice dealers should be wary of jumping on immediate trends. Cabbage Patch , which were all the rage 10 years ago, now sit in antique shops priced at less than $30. If you want to make money on fads such as these, you have to move quickly before prices plummet.

Whatever you display in your booth or case, try to move your wares around about once a week. "Keep it looking different," Mowrer says, "even if it's the same stuff."

Any business has the best chance of success when the entrepreneur in charge enjoys it. Nowhere is that more true than in the antiques and collectibles field.

"You've got to love it. That's basically the whole thing in a nutshell," says Mowrer, who has a full-time job as a janitor and devotes evenings and weekends to her antiques business. If the work were drudgery, she would not be willing to spend the time necessary for success. "The hunt is the thrill. I'll be happy if I can just pay for my addiction to antiques," she laughs.

"A lot of people go into this business because they think it's easy," says Swaim. Many beginning dealers who inherited quality items from a family member, or who decide to sell things from their personal collections, are surprised to find the business can be quite challenging down the road. "They don't realize that once the good stuff is gone, they have to go out and replace it."

Selling antiques and collectibles may not make you rich. But you can reap financial rewards if you go into the business armed with knowledge, persistence and a true love of the business and the merchandise you sell.

Reader Resource

The Antiques & Collectibles Dealer Association offers liability and property insurance, merchant services such as credit-card processing and check guarantees, and educational programs and seminars. Membership is $35 per year. For more information, call (800) 287-7127, or write to P.O. Box 2782, Huntersville, NC 28070.

AntiqueWeek is a national trade publication offering readers weekly features on antiques and collectibles, plus regular columns offering advice on everything from running an antiques business to refinishing wood. A one-year subscription is $25.45 and includes the annual Antique Shop Guide. For more information, call (800) 876-5133, write to P.O. Box 90, Knightstown, IN 46148, or contact them online (

Literally hundreds of books and price guides exist. The five main publishers are:

  • Antique Publications, P.O. Box 553, Marietta, OH, 45750-9963; (800) 533-3433.

  • Antique Trader Publications, P.O. Box 1050, Dubuque, IA, 52004; (319) 588-2073.

  • Collector Books, P.O. Box 3009, Paducah, KY 42002-3009; (502) 898-6211.

  • Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 4880 Lower Valley Rd., Atglen, PA 19310; (610) 593-1777.

  • Krause Publications, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990; (715) 445-2214.

The Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles, run by collectibles expert Harry Rinker, hosts seminars and classes on antiques and collectibles. Topics include authenticating pieces, buying and selling, and expanding your horizons as a dealer. For more information, write the institute at 5093 Vera Cruz Rd., Emmaus, PA 18049, or call (610) 965-1122.

"Antique & Collectors Reproduction News" is a monthly newsletter covering reproductions, copies and look-alikes, with both text and detailed photos showing old and new pieces side by side. Annual subscriptions are $32, and back issues are available. For more information, call (800) 227-5531, or write to P.O. Box 12130, Des Moines, IA 50312.

Contact Sources

Merchant's Square Mall Antique & Specialty Shops, 1901 S. 12th St., Allentown, PA 18103, (610) 797-7743.

Terri Mowrer, 735 Chestnut St., Columbia, PA 17512.


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