Rinker on Collectibles: Our Future Relies on Kids Collecting

Chicago’s beautiful skyline is the backdrop for antiques & vintage shopping at the Randolph Street Market.

On Saturday, May 25, 2013, Linda and I drove from Kentwood to 1350 West Randolph Street, Chicago, home of the Randolph Street Market Festival. It was the 2013 season opening day and marked the 10-year anniversary of the market. Known simply as “Randolph Street” in the trade, its promotional literature bills it as “America’s Largest (and Liveliest!) Urban Antiques Market.” The claim is appropriate.

As part of the 10th anniversary celebration, Sally Schwartz, founder and promoter, invited a panel of antiques and collectibles experts to participate in a roundtable discussion on the current status and trends of the trade. Participants included: Danielle Arnet, a reporter for the Maine Antique Digest; Al Bagdade, show reporter and author; costume jewelry collector Sue Klein Bagdade; Kathy Finley, a co-founder of Randolph Street (but is no longer involved); Nena Ivon, a fashion icon and lecturer; Phyllis Kao, a specialist on Asian works of art at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers; myself; Sally Schwartz; and Greg Willett, a long-time Randolph Street dealer and owner of Greg Willett Antiques and Estate Sales Services. Martin Willis, a WorthPoint Worthologist, recorded the roundtable and posted it as a podcast.

A visit to the Randolph Street Antiques Market is a shot of adrenalin for anyone feeling depressed about the long-term future of the antiques and collectibles business. The crowd is more diverse than any other outdoor antiques and collectibles market I have attended. Families with youngsters, some still in carriages, abound. Young couples and singles in their 20s and 30s are a key part of the mix. Every ethnic group is represented; the crowd is a rainbow coalition.

The beautiful, air-conditioned Beaux Arts Plumbers Hall building is the jewel of the Randolph Street Market.

A visit to any flea or outdoor market is a success when I leave with a wealth of column ideas. Is the urban outdoor market, as opposed to the standard county fair/expo center market, the key to the industry’s survival? What role does repurposing play in this business’s future? (I never saw so many reconfigured objects as I did at Randolph Street.) How has the antiques market sector adjusted to the decline of interest in its objects? Is decorating or reuse the greatest driving force in today’s market? I will explore these and other ideas I jotted down in future “Rinker on Collectibles” columns.

Prior to the roundtable discussion, Martin Willis and I teamed up to walk the show. Our mission was to talk with youngsters and ask them why they were at the market and what, if anything, did they buy.

This was prompted by a discussion I had with a young lady during lunch. Linda and I shared a table with a mother and three daughters, the oldest a teenager. I could not resist asking if she bought anything. When she answered yes, I asked if I could see what she bought. Her face lit up as she reached under the table for a bag. Out came a late 1970s or early 1980s Polaroid Land camera.

Throughout my career, I have tried hard not to be judgmental. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. So is what people collect. Junk to one person is treasure to another. As long as an object brings pleasure to someone, who has a right to say it belongs in the landfill?

Antiques, like this vintage sporting equipment, can be found at the Randolph Street Market.

Still, I was a bit taken aback. I owned a similar Polaroid camera and used it during the early years of accumulating images for use in my publications. I quickly discarded it in favor of more sophisticated camera equipment. If I should rediscover it while going through the material at The School (the former Vera Cruz [Pa.] Elementary School), it will end up in the garage sale pile. Any amount received above a dime is in the miracle class.

Carefully controlling my facial muscles, I inquired what caused the young lady to purchase the camera. “I liked it” was her reply. An attempt to probe further failed. “Liked” was good enough. Attuned to the important role good industrial design plays in attracting the interest of young collectors, I was astonished to recognize how well-designed this model of the Polaroid Land camera was. It had clean, geometric lines. It spoke to the tastes of the decade that used it. While the young lady probably did not understand the attraction, something inside her did.

After finishing lunch, Linda and I walked down one of the outside aisles. With apologies to Clement Clark Moore, “what to my wondering eyes should appear” but a dealer with a shelf full of Polaroid cameras for sale. I could not resist walking over to check the prices. The lowest priced example was $12.50. What am I missing?

A young girl, possibly 8 to 10, was the first youngster with whom Martin and I spoke. “Who brought you to the market?” I asked.

Many items at the market have been repurposed, like these old restaurant-grade mixing blades, which are now kitchen light fixtures.

“I am here with my mother.”

“Did you buy anything?”

“I did.”

“Can I see what you bought?”

The young lady reached into a back and pulled out a ring, silver plated with an oval black stone or glass. The price tag read $9. In order to show it to me, she put it on her finger. It was a perfect fit.

The great news is this youngster left the market with something she will treasure. Her shopping experience was a positive one. Having found something she likes, she undoubtedly will pressure her parents to bring her back. Although purchasing the ring for reuse, the youngster understood it was old and had value that transcended its physical presence.

Author’s Aside #1: I was pleased to discover how many dealers at the Randolph Street Antiques Market had items priced below $5. Weber’s Antiques of Grayslake, Ill., had two eight-foot tables filled with plastic bags of costume beads and jewelry priced as low as $2.50. At the far end of one of the tables was a box of odds and ends with items priced at 50¢ or $1. An Asian couple watched as their two girls, ages between 6 and 8, filled their hands with a half dozen objects. When I asked one of the girls how she was deciding what to buy and not to buy, she responded, “I am buying the pretty ones.” Again, each youngster left the market with something they will enjoy, at least temporarily. No tree grows unless a seed is sown.

The atmosphere is relaxed and the items you may find at the Randolph Street Market will almost always surprise.

Martin and I stopped a 10- to 11-year-old young man carrying a bag. “Can I see what you bought?” I asked. I expected an action figure or toy vehicle. Much to my surprise it was a map of the world, recycled from an old atlas. He bought it from Paper Patty, a dealer set up on the balcony of the Plumber’s Union building housing the indoor dealers. The map was marked $4. “What are you going to do with it?” He told me that he liked old maps and planned to frame it.

Martin and I stopped another young man of similar age. He bought two glass lantern slides, one featuring a Mercator global map and the other a mountain scene. “What are you planning to do with those?” “I am going to use them as coasters,” he replied. A bit taken aback, I asked him if he knew the history of what he had just purchased. He did not. I explained they were from an educational set used for classroom instruction in the 1920s or 1930s. I suggested that he might want to enclose them in a wood frame and hang them in a window or attach a string loop and hang them over a lampshade. The young man liked these ideas.

Author’s Aside #2: The dealer who sold the lantern slides failed in his duty to the trade. We sell history and stories. When we do not pass along knowledge, objects remain inanimate. Collecting passion develops when the buyer feels he/she has bought something special.

Maybe a couple of these chairs caught our shopper’s fancy.

Martin’s and my final conversation was with a young lady in her 20s who was attending the Randolph Street Market with a girlfriend. “What are you looking for?” I asked.

“I need two chairs for my apartment, but they have to be cheap.”

“Is a hundred dollars cheap?”

“No, more like 50 dollars.”

Having walked the show, I was aware there were dozens of chairs in this price range, many of which had strong modernist appeal. When I asked the young woman what type of chair she was seeking, hoping to be able to point her in the right direction, she responded, “I will know what I want when I see it.” I have no doubt the young lady left the market with a pair of chairs, matched or otherwise.

Are these stories exceptions rather than the rule? Not at the Randolph Street Antiques Market. The merchandise at this market is what everyone seems to want, especially the younger set. Read more about this in a future “Rinker on Collectibles” column.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2013

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  • Shawn Surmick

    This is a very positive and well done article. I cannot comment on how many newly ‘minted pickers’ who have come into the trade thinking they are going to ‘strike it rich’ because they saw an episode of ‘American Pickers’ or ‘Market Warriors.’ Sad to say, but most of these new ‘pickers’ do not love the objects they buy either. Perhaps this is why so few last longer than a season or two. At most of the markets I visit dealers outrank collectors by at least a 2 to 1 margin. If everyone is buying looking to make a ‘quick buck’ I have to wonder who they are selling these items to? As both a dealer and a collector I can confirm that quality objects sell; as does objects from the 70’s and 80’s. It is also great to see Art Deco period objects selling well due to new interest from the Great Gatsby motion picture and popular movies like Captain America that are set in or near this time frame. My only concern is what happens when the amount of television shows that feature collectibles dwindles? Will the ‘arm chair pickers’ who found the love of these objects still have interest in them or will the true collectors and dealers be left dealing with the remnants of a speculative bubble brought about from the ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘Storage Wars’ generation? The business of antiques and collectibles is by no means a quick way to get rich. It takes knowledge, appreciation, and years if not decades of practice for one to make a living dong it. It also doesn’t hurt to have a little luck either!

  • Harry, what a great article, you always manage to find the story! This is so interesting to see what these youngsters like. I remember collecting pigs when I was a kid, I had a stuffed Piglet at 5 yrs old and just became fascinated with pigs. I collected all through high school even and then, it got to the point where I was just done with pigs and didn’t collect anything until I settled on cigarette lighters and vices in my mid 20’s. While growing up, several of my girlfriends collected travel related items, one collected spoons and then she moved later into salt & pepper shakers. A lot of us collected charms for bracelets, which it makes me sick how many people are melting down gold charm bracelets today. I honestly believe that collecting is just human nature and even present in the animal world — hoarding and the degree to which we like to have stuff and create order out of this stuff. A collection creates a timeframe for memories too. My goal has always been to turn more people on to the joy of collecting, whether they come to it from a decorating standpoint and trying to fill a shelf or mantle with a collection, or just because they want to adorn themselves, it’s still a purchase that gives so much pleasure and satisfaction, and hooking them on the treasure hunt.

  • Harry, this is a refreshing article from you after your recent one spreading doom and gloom within the antique trade. Thanks.

  • Larry Quirk

    Yes a hopeful article but still emblematic of the problem in the industry – no one bought or was looking for ANTIQUES. The kids were buying shiny, pretty stuff for cheap money (can you make a living in an antique store selling 25 cent to $2 items or is that called a Dollar Store). The adult wanted a cheap chair and had no idea what style etc. she wanted. And the article notes that many of the offered items were repurposed. Are lamps made out of mixing blades antiques? I am afraid that the next wave will be turning Eastlake sofas into clothes hampers.

  • Yes, this does provide hope. I believe each generation finds items that anchor them to the past, whether it be their childhood or of previous generations. As Harry has stated for some time, for many items there is no “next” generation that is following in collecting a specific kind of item and as a result prices are falling. However, whether it be Polaroid cameras, mid century modern furniture or even typewriters (which I am seeing rising in price) there are items that younger generations are finding desirable. This is good. Remember, at one time “antique” furniture was just plain “old” furniture.

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