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The demise of the high street antiques shop

Only about twenty years ago many town and city high streets would have had at least a couple of antique shops but slowly they have disappeared; the question is why?

Ask half a dozen dealers why takings are low at an antiques fair and you will get half a dozen different answers; it’s too sunny, the rugby is on, it’s the week before payday etc. It’s the same with the demise of the high street antiques shop; people will give you a myriad of reasons. One was the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, the thinking being that as people could not access the countryside, they would not go to market towns where many small antiques shops resided.

Mahogany, rosewood and walnut (the so-called ‘brown’) furniture went out of fashion. Over a period of about a year dealers found themselves with a shop full of furniture worth less than they had payed for it, taking up the same space but costing more to house month on month. Collecting anything that needed polishing went out of vogue as a new generation adopted a minimalist décor. Local councils increased the cost of car parking ahead of inflation. Business rates contributed to the overheads of a shop, although now most single shops do not have to pay them it was too little too late.

In 1989 something called the Internet was born. It has changed the way we all live and importantly buy. Many antiques dealers now sell solely online – it’s an international market place with much lower overheads than a high street shop. Therefore, we see somewhere like Wallingford in Oxfordshire, which twenty years ago had five antiques shops and an antiques centre, now having just the centre and one shop. The others have either gone out of business or moved online.

Many dealers, both full and part time, have left the business or died off and the dynamics of antiques dealing has changed four-fold. The expertise once found in shops has now moved to markets, fairs and antique centres. As with any downturn in business only the experienced, efficient and knowledgeable have survived. Of course, some antique shops still trade on, mainly family concerns that own their premises.

Occasionally a new shop will open, usually as a retirement project or by someone spending a redundancy pay-out. Often with little or no experience or knowledge of the ‘trade’ let alone the wares they try and sell, it is quite frightening how quickly someone will take on a shop and lose their money; you can always tell them at an auction, buying lots unseen and damaged goods or offering you ridiculously low ‘bids’ because they’ve seen someone do it on the TV. For my two-pennies worth I am sure television programmes are partly to blame for the demise of the high street shop. Also, the sometimes eye-watering commission fees charged by the major auction houses are prohibitive, you’re paying more for the stock which increases overheads and in all honestly, I struggle to see what ‘service’ the buyer receives for what can be 28% buyers’ premium.

So next time you talk with a dealer at a good quality fair or antiques centre, do not think that because they do not have a shop that they are second rate – they are the canny ones who have probably been in the business 30 years or more and are watching the overheads and adapting to a changing market. TV programmes where low offers are made and accepted by the star-struck less experienced is seen as the modus operandi, but antiques dealing is a business and dealers need to eat and pay the rent too (if not on their shops then on their homes!).

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