The Retrophile Files: Billy’s Antiques & Props Defends New York’s Old, Odd
No matter what you may find outside of Billy’s Antiques & Props on East Houston Street in New York that interests you, you’re bound to find more inside.
Billy’s Antiques & Props has staying power, and in NYC, that is no easy feat. Big-box stores and over-inflated real estate prices have made small, privately owned shops practically obsolete. Even so, Billy’s—located on East Houston Street—has managed to outlast the other eclectic antique and prop stores on the Bowery.
The shop, which is actually a large green tent, first opened in the rough and tumble ’80s, when junkies, alcoholics and a smattering of hookers ruled Houston Street. At that time, the place was called Lot 76 and William Leroy, Billy’s current owner, worked for the original proprietor. In 2003, Leroy took over the business, and the establishment became Billy’s Antiques & Props.
Folks from all socio-economic backgrounds have crossed the threshold at Billy’s, including celebrities & celebutantes, and well, me. I decorated my first apartment in the mid ’90s with inexpensive odds and ends that I purchased there. But don’t judge a tent by its cover. Sure, you can find affordable no-name mid-century furnishing and a range of quirky oddities at this shop. However, the joint is also brimming with classic antique treasures, including items that existed when Christ walked the earth to souvenirs from Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
A few weeks ago, we photographed Billy’s Antiques & Props, and the owner William Leroy—who the Huffington Post recently dubbed the Defender Of The Old New York—was kind enough to respond to our questions . . .
Just one corner of the interior of Billy’s Antiques & Props. The place is patronized by folks from all socio-economic backgrounds, including celebrities & celebutantes, and well, the author.
DeDe Sullivan: When did you get what I like to call the “junk bug?”
William Leroy: In 1986 I bought a painting for $2,000 and sold it at Christie’s for $12,000. The painting was such high quality that I bought it without researching it. After I bought it I discovered what the painting was worth. I am not a collector; I am a dealer. If I see profit, I sell.
DeDe: I heard about that. It was a French military painting, which I find interesting because your ancestor’s were prominent in French politics and one in particular—Pierre-Nicolas-Louis Leroy—fell victim to the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris and unfortunately was guillotined. On your website, you allude to it as the family’s dark secret. Anyway, do you have an overall retail and pricing philosophy?
William: Leave yourself room for negotiations. Start high.
DeDe: Who is your customer? Is there a particular person who comes to Billy’s?
William: The human race.
DeDe: Do you do shows or attend shows?
William: I love Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market. I will walk through there on occasion. Hell’s Kitchen opened in 2003, when the 26th Street Market, where I got my start in the ’80s, closed.
DeDe: Explain the eclectic mix of merchandise in your shop. Is there a particular look or style you adhere to when you are “picking” for inventory or this all a happy accident?
Billy’s Antiques & Props from across East Houston Street.
William: I pick on the dark side; I don’t want people feeling too comfortable. Billy’s ain’t Crate and Barrel.
DeDe: Thankfully! What was the “oddest” thing you ever sold?
William: A giant meteorite, from before recorded time to the Hollywood star Gerard Butler, and an electric chair.
DeDe: How did you get your hands on an electric chair?
William: It was a working reproduction from a sex freak. It was made to stimulate rather than kill, but it sure did look real. I was offered a real electric chair from Auburn state prison that had 12 executions in it. I could not get the funds together so it was snapped up by the late extraordinary Canadian dealer Billy Jamieson.
DeDe: Not sure I want to own either one, but there is something alluring about “dark” collectibles. Do you consider yourself an expert in a certain antique category?
William: I’m very good in militaria but I consider myself a generalist.
DeDe: Are there items that sell immediately when it hits the sales floor?
William: Leather Chesterfields.
DeDe: Where are you from?
William: NYC ‘s upper eastside.
NOTE: William Leroy was once a prepster. He went to boarding school in Switzerland and played touch football with John-John. He was destined to join the upper echelons of corporate America, but the allure of antiques was too hard to resist.
DeDe: What do you love and hate about the antique business in NYC?
A vintage flapper doll and assorted broaches. You never know what you’ll find at Billy’s Antiques & Props.
William: I like the hunt, but I can pass on the bottom feeders and hunchbacks.
DeDe: How has the business changed over the years?
William: Business has changed for the worse. The rent is higher and things are more expensive. Plus, I miss the artists that use to inhabit the Bowery, where we are located. But I don’t miss the junkies.
DeDe: Tell me about your best find ever.
William: A mummified bog baby from the Viking era. The bog baby just had a great leathery look about it so I bought it and sold it to Billy Jamieson, who had it DNAed for his TV show.
DeDe: Do you sense any upcoming retail trends brewing; are customers starting to inquire about a certain style or item?
William: I think it’s time for Victorian antiques to make a comeback. I’m so sick of Mid-Century Modern.
DeDe: OK, if you had to pick another career what would it be?
William: I have another career acting. The film about the store is coming out this winter. You can check it out at www.dirtyoldtownmovie.com. Plus, I just got booked on a new TV show as a co-host for the Travel Channel. Details to be announced soon.
DeDe: Congrats on both projects. Before we wrap this interview, drop a few words of wisdom on us.
William: Think Yiddish, dress British.
If you missed some of William Leroy’s many TV appearances, no worries; view them here:
• Cash Cab
• Billy’s Antiques and Props, TV Spot
• American Picker’s episode, “A Banner Pick”
Billy’s Antiques & Prop is located at 76 East Houston St. in New York City, 10012. Store hours are: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. -8 p.m. (weather permitting); Mondays by appointment. Call 917.576.6980 or visit the website at http://www.billysantiques.com.
DeDe Sullivan is a retrophile with a particular fondness for junktiques; discarded vintage treasures whose aesthetic worth far exceeds its monetary value. Her blog, VintageandFlea.com, documents her junking and antiquing adventures. This includes sharing her favorite places to score unique items, the history behind unusually finds, along with display and upcycling ideas. Have a question or story to tell? Shoot her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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