Over the years I’ve picked up a lot of business cards. Many are from antique dealers — since that’s the hobby I was raised on — helping my parents with their booth at a monthly show in Atlanta. My favorite came from a guy named Al, who sold his wares across from us for a few years. A long-haired character from Cincinnati, he carried the oddest assortment of vintage merchandise. While my mother would be meticulously setting out Japanese porcelain on a spotless tablecloth, Al piled stuff on the floor — rusted sewing machines, old lobster crates, beauty salon hair-dryers, bicycle wheels, a coffin.
The typical dealer’s business card would say, “I buy old books” or “I buy costume jewelry.” Besides his name, Al’s card had only one word: “Things.” There could be no more succinct description of his inventory. And every item had a story. Whether that yarn was true or not was always anybody’s guess. With his loud voice and even louder Hawaiian shirts, Al often seemed a cross between a surfer and a carnival pitchman. Mother tried to smooth out his rough edges, once even forcing him to sit still while she trimmed his unruly beard.
I lost track of Al when we stopped selling at shows, but I recently stumbled across a short online video profiling his latest venture. He’s still sporting flashy shirts and peddling stuff at antique fairs, but now he’s into sculpture. He takes vintage metal items and turns them into unique art objects. Some of it is functional furniture; other pieces can be placed in the front yard to antagonize the neighbors. Al’s voice is softer and his beard whiter than I remember, but the old huckster’s logo hasn’t changed: “Things.”
If Al’s laid-back fashion sense was one extreme at the antique market, I saw the other at an ill-fated show in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While we seldom traveled for exhibitions, every once and a while my folks and I took a chance, and when word got out that a couple of brothers were going to promote a new show in the home town of the legendary “Choo-Choo” train, we were game.
Heading out of town to sell for a weekend obviously adds a lot of overhead expenses that aren’t there for local shows: gas, hotel rooms, eating out. But there is also the opportunity to hawk your wares to a new customer base, so we looked forward to the challenge.
The venue was enormous. It looked like an abandoned Walmart, with enough square footage to put the parking lot inside. But as the dealers came in for set-up day, we realized that the show was only about 10 percent full. The promoters had enough exhibitors to fill three or four aisles. We were still optimistic, though. A shortage of competition could turn into a bonanza of sales. We even sold a few items on set-up day.
After which point the show went straight downhill. We knew something was wrong when we saw the spectacle of opening day. As we headed in from the parking lot, a black limousine drove up in front of the main entrance. The two promoters stepped out, wearing — I’m not kidding — top hats and black tuxedos. Now, it’s one thing to picture a suave, elegant man in a tux. It’s another thing to picture your uncle Charlie in white gloves and tails. These men were not made for evening wear.
As they waddled through all the grand- opening balloons and streamers, each pulled out a wad of cash, ready to make change for all the customers lined up to buy tickets.
All 12 of them.
That’s right. Only a dozen people were waiting in line to get in. And the crowd did not get much better during the entire weekend. In retrospect, all that fanfare was overkill. The dealers sold virtually nothing. At one point on Saturday, I could have rolled a bowling ball down the aisle and not hit a single member of the public, though I might have taken out a table of Depression glass. I don’t know what was more pitiful — the disappointed vendors milling around in each other’s booths, or the two Marx Brothers, clomping around in their penguin suits, wondering what went wrong.
It was obvious what went wrong. All the promotional budget went to the limo, tuxedo rental and balloons. Nothing was spent on advertising. No one in Chattanooga knew we were there. All these treasures waiting to be had, and hardly a customer in sight.
It’s a shame Al wasn’t there. He would have heckled the whole opening-day fiasco. After the show closed early, my parents and I headed back to Atlanta, sadder but wiser. Wiser about researching our show destinations ahead of time, and sadder about not having brought our top hats for the funeral.