SHARON LYNN BEAR can’t be dissuaded by the price of gas, the time it takes to unearth the perfect piece or the disappointment of ending a shopping excursion empty-handed. Whether the Irvine resident is browsing for a 19th century vase or a vintage Italian footed bowl, her venue of choice isn’t EBay or Craigslist but the old-fashioned storefront overflowing with antiques.
“I love to see the items, touch them,” says Bear, whose home is filled with antique store finds from Ventura to San Clemente to Palm Springs. “I even enjoy the stores’ old, musty smell.”
Unfortunately for Bear and others like her, the antique store is becoming something of an antique itself. The number of U.S. shops that specialize in furnishings at least 100 years old -- the generally accepted definition of an antique -- has been falling since the 1980s, according to Connie Swaim, managing editor of the newspaper AntiqueWeek. Walk the antiquing districts of Southern California these days and you’ll sense the acceleration of the trend here.
Earlier this summer, Cari Markell cleared out her Silk Roads Gallery on La Brea Avenue. Bruce Graney closed his Pasadena store last year after operating for nearly three decades. So did Sally Gould Wright of Richard Gould Antiques, a Los Angeles business her parents started half a century ago.
Many antique associations have seen membership dive, and the Antiques Dealers Assn. of California has kept its numbers steady only after allowing in dealers who don’t have brick-and-mortar stores or who sell pieces that aren’t technically antiques.
Part of the trend stems from changing tastes.
“The concepts of an interior enriched with antiques and a lifestyle surrounded by history are no longer attractive to most people today,” says Bob Garcia, owner of Therien & Co., the La Cienega Boulevard store that has been selling European antiques since 1974.
The local market has migrated toward 20th century classics and the modern designers du jour, he says. “People use antiques as emphasis, contrast or counterpoint -- not to surround themselves with an atmosphere of times past but to give a resonance to contemporary furniture.”
But it’s not just what people shop for. It’s how.
Michael Bruno started 1stdibs.com in 2001 as an online antique mall for dealers in the U.S. and Europe. Largely through word of mouth, the site has grown to attract 1 million visitors a month, and there’s a list of dealers waiting to join the 450 already vetted by Bruno’s staff and on the site.
“At first, high-end antique dealers resisted going online,” Bruno says. “Dealers now see that people will look at $100,000 pieces on their computer. A busy person can see hundreds of chandeliers in minutes and know just where to find the one they want.”
Fewer shoppers have the time or inclination to drive from one antique store to another. Says Silk Roads’ Markell, “It makes no sense to continue to spend $20,000 a month on rent when no one’s coming.”
NEWLYWEDS Marlene and Charles Cavanagh are standing near Bonhams & Butterfields’ auction house on Sunset Boulevard, trying to figure out how their Jeep Grand Cherokee can fit the day’s bounty: two green-cushioned McGuire chairs valued at $1,200 for the pair and bought for $425, and an abstract artwork that was $1,200.
“My mom wanted to give us a painting as a wedding gift,” Marlene says. “This will be it.”
The couple are regular antique shoppers, but they rarely go to antique shops -- “once in a blue moon,” Marlene says. Instead, they’ve furnished their South Pasadena home with pieces from Bonhams’ monthly Sunset Estate Auctions.
“We tell our friends, what you pay for a reproduction we’re paying for an original,” Charles says.
“We’re seeing 10 times the number of people than we ever did before,” says Peter Loughrey, who founded Los Angeles Modern Auctions in the early ‘90s. His first auction recorded about $100,000 in sales; this year, he says, he’ll do $6 million in business.
Whereas buyers at auctions had been mostly hard-core collectors and professional decorators, the crowds now increasingly consist of homeowners simply shopping for cool pieces for the living room.
“It’s changed so about 50% are people who are buying for their home,” says Carolyn Mani, director of Bonhams’ Sunset Estate sales. Her goal is to make auctions less intimidating and more like recreation. Admission is free, as are the coffee, cookies and sandwiches.
At the June sale, TV producer Jeff Jenkins of Hollywood stopped by in a T-shirt, shorts and a ball cap to see what might catch his attention.
“You can find way better prices here than a store,” says Jenkins, who had bought a rug for $150 and a table for $200 at previous auctions.
“There’s that something in the thrill of the hunt that goes along with buying at auction,” Mani says. “You miss that when you go to a store and write a check.”
FOR THOSE who cherish the act of browsing store aisles, the thrill of one hunt may hasten the loss of another.
“Now I see my clients at auctions and I say, ‘Oh, so there you are,’ ” Richard Gould Antiques owner Wright says.
Even though her website business is doing well, she still makes house calls to longtime clients who can’t buy a piece without touching it first. Wright misses the strangers who came into her La Cienega shop and asked questions about the objects on her shelves. “It’s sad that we’re losing that exchange,” she says.
For many others, survival has meant new strategies.
Therien & Co. has branched out from period antiques to more modern fare. Two years ago, Garcia started showing 20th century pieces, mostly one-of-a-kind furniture from France, Italy and Austria.
The San Francisco Fall Antiques Show hired a new executive director last year and, for the first time, themed its event to showcase 20th century modern design. Lisa Podos, who later resigned as director to raise a baby, says the move was a nod to younger collectors who want one great object to go with contemporary furnishings. “They are more eclectic,” she says.
The Los Angeles Antiques Show now accepts pieces that aren’t old enough to be antiques. A 1930s Art Deco table might be seen alongside 17th century chairs. Ray Azoulay and his fellow organizers may add “Design” to the show’s name to broaden its appeal.
Antique stores that don’t take risks -- that look like Miss Havisham’s house, crammed with creaky rockers and dusty chests of drawers -- won’t survive in a consumer world that demands fresh excitement, says Azoulay, owner of the Venice shop Obsolete, whose very name pokes fun at antiques’ faded image.
He points to the 100-year-old weathered iron clock face underfoot, a piece that once hung on a building in Maine. Conventional wisdom would have dictated that Azoulay hang it on a wall. But at 8 feet across, few homeowners could accommodate it that way. So he laid it on his floor, shaded it with a maple tree and introduced it as a garden piece. “It will sell this way,” he says.
“We in the business have to be inspiring the consumer, showing them something in a way they didn’t see, giving them ideas of how they can do it in their home,” he says. “It’s hard to convey that in a 14-inch computer monitor, but you can see it if you walk into a compelling, thought-provoking, interesting environment. That’s our job. The ones who can’t do that won’t make it.”