A Mecca for Antiquers

To say that Mike Watts is choosy is an understatement. The morning I went to visit his store, Antique Revival in Big Flats, he had already been offered 20 antiques for purchase and only bought one. It’s this selectivity that makes some customers refer to Antique Revival as the best antiques store between Erie, Pennsylvania, and New York City.

While the term “best” is subjective, it’s undisputedly the largest antiques store in New York State. At 10,000 square feet, the sprawling showrooms encourage shoppers to wander through “rooms” created through the artful arrangement of furniture. Vicki Rachel, Mike’s partner in business and life, is in charge of the store’s displays. Instead of hanging category signs that highlight the store’s specialties – Victorian and Empire furniture, porcelain, pottery, art, lighting and oriental rugs – Vicki creates vignettes by integrating various pieces into real-life settings. Dining room tables topped with vintage tablecloths, China, goblets and stunning floral centerpieces look ready for an old-fashioned Sunday dinner. The “walls” of each vignette are created by the arrangement of highboys, cabinets, wardrobes and China closets. These pieces create a backdrop for each roomscape and house smaller items that are also for sale.

Unique Finger Lakes antiques include perfume bottles from Elmira’s Bacorn Company. The perfume manufacturer was put out of business when a fire destroyed its building in 1927, and Antique Revival now has an entire curio cabinet filled with these bottles.

The “aha” moment
Antique Revival was born just nine years ago when Mike, a former antiques wholesaler, was looking to expand his e-commerce business. He started selling antiques online in 1996 when Internet retailing was in its infancy. By 2000, he had outgrown his Elmira location, and he knew he needed something bigger to house all the pieces he had for sale. At the same time, Vicki was looking for a retail space where she could put her background in decorating to good use, and her computer-savvy son, Cy Haverley, was just finishing college.

Mike was looking for a place where he could, with Cy’s help, expand his e-business and give Vicki the retail spot she desired. When he saw that the old Terwilliger Lighting building on Palmer Road was for sale, he knew that was where he wanted to be. “It was an ‘aha’ moment; everything fell into place,” he said. The location, which is just a few feet away from Interstate 86 and less than a quarter mile from Exit 49, has been a boon to his business. “If we were a block from this highway, we wouldn’t get nearly the business we do. We’re in a rural area, and it’s the travelers that keep us going.”

Customers come from the Midwest, New England, Canada, New York City, New Jersey and Niagara Falls, he added.

The store’s ability to attract tourists benefits other area hotspots. “Antiques shoppers will plan their vacations around antiquing,” explained Mike. He exchanges brochures with area bed and breakfasts, wineries and museums. He even swaps customers with Corning’s antique stores, including 94 West, Twin Tiers Antiques Plaza and Market Street Antiques. Niche marketing groups like Finger Lakes Wine Country (www.fingerlakeswinecountry.com) help get the word out about his store and other local attractions.

Where does this stuff come from?
When you go to Antique Revival, there’s a good chance you won’t see Mike, who spends four to five days a week traveling to find more inventory. “I’ll put 1,000 to 1,500 miles on my car each week,” he says. He estimates that 50 to 60 percent of his merchandise comes from Upstate New York and Pennsylvania, and the rest he finds in the Hudson Valley, New Jersey and New England.

While he gets much of his inventory from dealers and auctions, individuals often call or e-mail Mike about selling their attic treasures. But don’t get your hopes up; he usually turns down at least 75 percent of those offers during the first phone screening. If you’re lucky enough to make that cut and have him see your piece in person, there’s still only a 50-50 shot he’ll buy it.

“I say ‘no’ to things that are too new, aren’t collectible or are not in good condition,” he explained. He considers the cutoff for antiques to be 1940, so almost everything in his store is pre-World War II. Vicki uses some leeway on this when creating the roomscapes, incorporating decorative items, such as silk flowers, vases or wreaths, to enhance the ambiance of a vignette. But don’t worry that you’ll buy something new without realizing it; anything that’s not an antique says “contemporary” on the tag.

A big no-no for Mike is antique furniture that has been refinished or repainted. “While we will do minor repairs and clean up a piece, we don’t do refinishing. We believe that patina on metalwork and wood is OK. In fact, it gives a piece character,” Mike added, although he admitted some people see furniture with rust or stains and just don’t understand how it could still be valuable. “Maybe they’re better off buying new,” he said with a laugh.

Bargains await
Although Antique Revival bills itself as an “upscale” antiques store, you can still find bargains there. “Buying antique is often cheaper than buying the same quality of piece new,” said Mike. “For example, an antique dining room set can be one-third the price of a new one, and it’s obviously well-made to have lasted this long.”

True bargain hunters can find deals in the wholesale warehouse at Antique Revival. In this room, you won’t find elegant displays or decorative flourishes. Instead, you’ll see chairs stacked to the rafters, towering bookcases crammed together, a dusty armoire on its side, and a tiered 10-foot-tall hotel chandelier waiting to be brought back to life. This is the room where dealers come to find things they can resell, but anyone can shop here if they’re willing to do the cleaning and repairs themselves. “The pieces might not be as pretty, but they’re cheaper,” said Mike.

There are other bargains to find as well. History lovers will enjoy perusing the basket of postcards, each only $1. While many are blank on the back, there are a good number with writing on them, and it’s a fun pastime to read the greetings.

Another way to find antiques on the cheap is to wait for the store’s annual sale, which occurs in June. During this window of time, prices are usually 20 percent off the regular retail amount.

New trends in selling old stuff
The good news is you don’t have to drive all the way to Big Flats to check out the antiques Mike has for sale; you can simply go online to visit www.antiquerevival.com. In fact, most of the sales at Antique Revival come from the Internet. Still, only 20 to 25 percent of the inventory is available on Antique Revival’s eBay store, so it’s worth seeing the rest in person.

The advent of online sales has meant stiffer competition among wholesale buyers. “Antiques used to go through two, three or four middlemen before making their way to my store,” said Mike. “Now Grandma can get her grandson to put her antiques on eBay, and that means more competition for dealers who are looking to buy.”

Whether you shop for antiques online or in person, buying vintage is one way to contribute to another trend: going green. Mike suggested that buying antiques is a great environmentally-conscious alternative to buying new furniture. “It’s the ultimate in recycling when you pass something down from one generation to the next.”
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by Kari Aderson-Pink
Kari Anderson-Pink lives in Victor and is director of music at Zion Episcopal Church in Palmyra. In addition to freelance writing, she also plays the organ, piano and harp professionally. For more information, visit www.redheadharp.webs.com.