Out with the Old – Top 5 Reasons for the Death of Antique Stores

“Marmont Hill – Antique Store” by John Falter, Saturday Evening Post cover, June 28, 1947.

Can you remember real antique stores?  The ones full of surprises and wonderful, beautiful things?  Maybe a country cottage at the end of a winding lane, or a converted lighthouse on a rocky shore, or a charming little shop on a Paris side street.  A bell might tinkle when you opened the door, there would be a faint smell of expensive furniture polish and a cat would yawn on a windowsill.  Inside….  so many treasures!  A shimmering Gallé vase, a Gustav Stickley bench, a rosewood violin or a Venetian mirror.  Maybe there would be a set of sterling wine goblets, a Black Forest inkwell, a Chippendale dresser or a bowl full of Māori jade figurines.  Antiques could be found for smaller budgets too.  Luxuriously bound leather books, stoneware butter churns, vintage photographs, marble chess sets, arrowheads or heirloom quilts. A prize like a delicate china teapot would never be bought and forgotten, it would always hold an honored place in your home.

Do these stores still exist?  Sure.  But they are harder and harder to find.  The country cottage has been taken over by a craft supply chain, the lighthouse is completely boarded up, and the Paris location now sells luxury handbags.  As The Economist reported in December 2015, antique shops are closing in record numbers on both sides of the Atlantic.  What are the reasons?  Here are a few:

1. A change in demographics. Many antique stores thrived for decades in older parts of city centers, where 19th century buildings were mostly empty and the rent was inexpensive. But as downtowns become more and more habitable, millennial residents are moving in and changes are rampant.  Long-closed warehouses, train stations and factories are being converted to chic loft apartments, trendy nightspots and expensive restaurants.  Building owners can get much higher rent from wine bistros and gastropubs, so sleepy little antique stores lose their leases.  It’s happening fast, in major cities everywhere.

2. A change in decorating style. Today’s young buyers, for the most part, don’t care about antiques. They like a sleek, modern, minimalist look and they don’t associate rarity or age (or even history) with value.  Their jobs are more transient with no anchors to pensions, so they move a lot, live in urban apartments and don’t have the room (or desire) to accumulate a lot of heavy furniture and collectibles.

Urban residents want a sleek modern look with exposed brick and plumbing. There’s no demand for dark, dusty antiques.

3. Failure to adapt. Mid-century modern and industrial décor fit into the millennial aesthetic, but antique stores have been slow to cash in. Some just don’t want to change, but the style can sell as successfully as traditional antiques if it is stocked correctly. Mid-century pieces date, for the most part, from the 1940s to the mid 1960s and sell well if they are in superb condition and of very high quality.  Like traditional antiques, the genre requires research, authentication and accumulated knowledge.  Renowned designers from this period include Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, Herman Miller, George Nelson and the like. Creations by these masters have a fabulous look and yes, they are expensive.  Contrarily, there was also a ton of really bad stuff made during this time.  It was cheaply mass-produced (in hues of green and orange) and used in homes with lots of rambunctious children spilling food and bouncing on cushions.  Unfortunately, most mid-century resale stores don’t do their homework and stock what is easily accessible, along with souvenir pillows, ceramic owls and Norman Rockwell posters.  Which leads to #4, below…

This might be a fun flea market but it is not an antique store.

4. The dumbing down of antiques. At the height of their popularity, antique malls were opening all over the country. The business concept went like this:  Joe Entrepreneur rented a huge building and then sublet booths to hundreds of sellers.  Joe wanted the cheapest building available, so he probably found an abandoned grocery store in a grubbier part of town.  Joe didn’t know anything about antiques and didn’t care, which meant he also didn’t care about quality or authenticity.  Novice sellers thought it would be a fun hobby (and a good way to clean our their closets). Pretty soon, malls were cluttered with garage sale junk, brand new merchandise and crafts.  When (now disillusioned) dealers learned they couldn’t sell enough doodads to pay their booth rent, they started moving out.  Joe had to lower the rent to fill the increasing empty spaces – and you get the picture.  It became a death spiral of used Happy Meal toys and Princess Di plates.  Eventually most of these places went under, usually in bankruptcy.  But the damage to the term “antiques” had been done.

Here’s guessing “etc…” was part of the problem.

5. Reproductions. Almost everything of value has been reproduced. In the past, if a particular antique or collectible became really popular and all the antique stores started carrying it, you can bet somebody else started reproducing it (complete with scuffs and soil to make it look old).  Naturally, people became wary of that item (what if it’s not real?) and were afraid to buy it.  So it dropped out of favor, never to rise again. The list is endless.  Blue willow porcelain, cast iron banks, Victorian samplers, Beatles memorabilia, chocolate molds, Florentine trays, advertising, Tiffany lamps, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture…  Name it; it’s been reproduced.  And every reproduction hurts the market because the original loses its cachet.  Forever.

Can you tell which Federal dressing table is original and which is a fake? No? Then why risk $2,000?


So, is there any hope that real antique stores will ever be revived?  Maybe.  It’s been said that, if you wait long enough, all things that go out of fashion will come around again. But it’s doubtful that includes hoop skirts.  Or the 50’s aspic craze.  So maybe not.

Spam aspic probably won’t come back in style any time soon. Let’s hope that’s not true of antique stores.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist and accredited appraiser who specializes in books and collectibles.

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