Finding just the right piece of the past
Apr 24, 2018 02:38PM
● By Steven Hoffman
There's a handwritten sign behind the counter at Aunt Margaret's Antique Mall in Newark that pretty much sums up the appeal of antiques browsing: Your grandma had it. Your mom threw it out. We found it! Now you can buy it back!
For Margaret Flanagan, who has run the collective of dealers for the past eight years, antiques have been a lifelong passion. “My mother was an antiques dealer in Delaware for over 40 years,” Flanagan said recently in the front room at the antique mall, which serves as a meeting and conversation space. “I grew up with it. She packed the house full. She and I started here 10 years ago by renting rooms when it was owned by someone else. My mom had her own shop before that, though. She was where Grain is now. And then she rented space in a huge warehouse mall in Smyrna until that burned down. So she and I came here years later.
“She used to do antiques shows all the time, before her health got too bad. She would leave in the morning at about 4, and then my dad would take us to help her pack up and come home.”
Flanagan grew up in the area, went to the University of Delaware, and worked as a special education teacher for more than 30 years, ending her career at Christiana High School before retiring. In 2008, she bought the antique mall.
Given her mother's proclivity for collecting, Flanagan admitted that as a seamstress, she has a passion for collecting old sewing machines, textiles, threads and accessories, “but I sell them, too,” she said. Presiding over 30 dealers who set up at the antique mall could be tempting for a collector like Flanagan, but she smiled and said, “I can resist” when tempting new merchandise comes through the door.
The large, rambling building that holds the antique mall has a rich history, and many longtime Newark residents remember its past incarnations. “It was built in the 1940s and was a Methodist church,” Flanagan said. “One of our customers brought us a picture of a Sunday school class that was downstairs, and a picture of her mother getting married in the church. Up in the attic is the domed ceiling. The altar was at the far end of the building.
“In 1973, the church left and it became the Newark Police Station,” she said. “A lot of the people who come in here remember that. Upstairs are the old evidence lockers, and the cells were downstairs. There was another part of the building that they put on the back that was torn down when the police left.
“In 1993, it opened as an antiques business with a different owner. Owners have come and gone. When I took over, I changed the name and we'll celebrate our eighth year in July,” Flanagan said.
When Flanagan took over, the building's landlord renovated and cleaned up the lower level, which now holds more than dozen dealer booths. “Right now, we have about 30 dealers,” she said. “At capacity, we could have about 40. Some have been with us since 1993. Some people come for just a little while because their parent died and they have a ton of stuff to sell.”
Being located in a college town has its advantages, Flanagan said. “We have parents who bring their kids in who want antiques. Furniture always sells. “Tables, too. People like miniatures, little shadow box things. Tins are always a good seller as decorations, and mid-century has come back. A lot of people, when the students are moving in at the university, they're looking for furniture – dressers, tables, nightstands. We advertise in the planner that all freshmen get.”
Collecting trends have come and gone in the time Flanagan has been involved in the business, and she laughed when discussing the college students who come in looking for items from long ago – like the 1980s. “The 1980s was just yesterday to us, but to students who were born in the late 1990s or early 2000s, it's eons ago,” she said.
The business has also shifted away from the book price guides that used to govern the value of items. All the price guides are online now, Flanagan said. And the arrival of Ebay in the mid-1990s rocked the antiques business, she said with a sigh.
“When Ebay started, people would come in and say, 'I can get this on Ebay for $15, and you have $29 on it.' And then TV changed it a lot as well, with 'Storage Wars' and 'American Pickers.' People see what the item is worth on TV, but those are different markets,” Flanagan said. “We price our stuff for the community that we're in. We may use Ebay as a guide to what something is selling for.
“For a few years, it was tough to compete,” she added. “I think people now realize that online is not the end-all when it comes to buying. For some people, it's important to see the item and touch it. That's great. I love that. The business is on an upswing now, especially in the past couple of years.”
Aunt Margaret's Antique Mall is the kind of place browsers love. “People can spend hours in here, looking at things,” Flanagan said. The rooms vary from fairly organized to intriguingly cluttered, with nooks and drawers to explore. Items from virtually every era can be found – artwork, paper collectibles, tools, kitchenware, toys, small furniture – and you never know what's going to pop up, because the dealers come in regularly to change the merchandise, Flanagan said.
All the prices are set by the individual dealers, although there's an informal collective of other dealers who can offer advice about items when they come in to be put on sale.
“I still go to estate sales, garage sales, I do enjoy shopping,” Flanagan said. “If I can get a great deal, I won't turn that down! Right now I'm going through my mom's inventory and selling it, so I have plenty. I'm finding things that my mom had in the 1980s that have a $2 price tag. I look it up and it's worth $35 now, you know? It's been great fun.”
In the off chance that a customer doesn't find what they're looking for, there's a “wish book” at the front counter with customer requests. “We have a customer who collects fountain pens, and they don't last long here – they sell quickly. So a dealer can put them on hold for a buyer,” Flanagan said. “If somebody comes in looking for something, and I know I have it at home, I can have them come back the next day.'”
That kind of personal shopping service is what makes a business like Aunt Margaret's Antique Mall appealing for buyers. And the dealers who sell there like the fact that they pay a flat fee per month, and there are no commissions taken from sales. Each dealer agrees to work at the counter several days each month.
And how many times has Flanagan heard, “My mother had one of these!”
She laughed. “I've lost count,” she said.
As collectibles go in and out of favor with buyers, Flanagan said she's concerned that books and magazines will eventually disappear. “People will want them back eventually,” she said. “I probably won't live long enough to see that, but people are going to want to touch books again.”
Flanagan said she still locks up the mall each day, and can be found at the business six to 10 days a month. “I'm never sitting still,” she said. “I have a lot on my plate. But for me, the best thing about this business is the customers. They are awesome. People are happy when they're shopping for antiques. They want to be here, and I love talking with them.”
Aunt Margaret's Antique Mall (294 E. Main St., Newark) is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Visit www.auntmargaretsantiquemall.com.