Deal or no deal

Antique malls face off in Olde Towne Gaithersburg

Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006

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Laurie Dewitt⁄The Gazette
These mid-century politicalbottle stoppers sell for $32each at The Emporium.

‘‘He lied,” Lois G. Royer admits as the mysterious man leaves The Emporium, her jam-packed antiques and collectible store in Olde Towne Gaithersburg. Apparently the tall African-American gentleman, who insists he is a novice shopper and refuses to give his name, is ‘‘actually a dealer,” specifically a ‘‘picker,” which Royer explains is someone who searches for merchandise to resell to other dealers.

A few minutes earlier, the Mystery Man was swearing that he knows very little about the antique business.

‘‘I got into it maybe six months to a year ago, at the most maybe three years ago,” he contends.

Claiming to be attracted to collectibles with ‘‘bright colors and pretty flowers,” this so-called dumb-cluck shopper says he buys what he loves as he caresses a translucent cobalt blue bowl. It’s not easy to believe him, as he continues to add another expensive bowl, two carved animal horns and horse statues to his burgeoning tab. He ends up putting back the horses, mumbling ‘‘too expensive” under his breath.

Soon he was out the door and going next door to Olde Towne Antiques, another vintage shop sharing the same address, but a separate entrance. Owner Suzanne Stierle was ready for him.

‘‘He comes in here all the time, sometimes for three hours,” she says. ‘‘I don’t even know his last name. Since we gave him a good price three years ago, he always wants a deal, but he does pay cash.”

Whether it’s a wheeler-dealer bluffing his way through the store, a couple of local teens searching for knives or maybe a homemaker out for some fun, antique malls fill the bill. Like any retail mall, these stores rent square footage to multiple vendors, usually longtime collectors looking to make money from their habit. In this case, the shops are filled with thousands of late 19th and 20th century doodads and very little furniture. One shop has classical music playing in the background, while another relies on the hum of an air-conditioning unit. This stretch of Diamond Avenue offers Andy of Mayberry charm with a 21st century twist. A Hispanic grocery store is stationed just across the street and a tool and equipment rental center is housed next door. When the train comes whistling by just a few hundred yards behind the mall’s parking lot, you may start searching for Aunt Bea.

A day in the life

Exploring antiques malls is nothing new for interior decorator Connie Calkins of Olney, but stumbling upon these antique shops is a surprise, she admits, munching trail mix while walking slowly through each shop. She may seem casual, even offering her expert opinion on a 100-year-old hat rack, but she’s on a mission to find decorations for a client’s home.

Nearby, a petite blonde woman stands quietly amid stacks of English bone china, glittery costume jewelry and kitchen kitsch.

‘‘I’m a dealer,” Charlotte Rich of Bethesda whispers, angling herself closer, hoping management doesn’t get a wind of the conversation.

‘‘I am here incog,” Rich continues, as she searches for merchandise to help fill her own space in Kensington’s Antique Row.

Like every self-respecting antique addict, she is looking for the mother-of-all-deals. Maybe it’s not finding an authentic Cézanne amid a bunch of paint-by-numbers – which incidentally are beginning to take off in the collectible world. Instead, it could be something, anything, other dealers won’t recognize as valuable. Everyone has a personal success story: Stierle remembers buying a Scripto cigarette lighter for a measly 25 cents and selling it for $525. Robyn Colucci recalls buying a Clarice Cliff jelly jar at a garage sale for a buck and unloading it for $650. This collector is actually a Boca Raton, Fla., antiques appraiser in town searching the shops for ‘‘rare and not easy to find” items.

Coming across unusual collectibles used to be much easier, Colucci says. With the advent of the ‘‘Internet, you don’t find quality in shops. Most of this,” she says pointing to a 19th century landscape print is ‘‘decorative art, nice and from a period of time,” but not merchandise that when sold will put the kids through college.

This may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to Olde Towne Antiques vendor Galina Silina. She loves perusing the merchandise in both stores and isn’t happy unless each and every customer finds a treasure — even if it isn’t in her own glittery space. The former Voice of America newscaster has morphed into a formidable businesswoman with a space here and in Kensington. She also does weekend antique shows at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg and puts her merchandise on eBay. This transformation started when Silina came into Olde Towne Antiques in search of an inexpensive original painting.

‘‘I was depressed,” she recalls of that fateful day two years ago. Tired of the daily drive from her Germantown home to Capitol Hill and dealing with her bosses and multiple audiences — she also is a mezzo-soprano with the Washington Opera Company — Silina was looking for some much-needed peace.

Walking into the store, her mood was transformed.

‘‘It was so quiet and everything was so beautiful,” she says.

Soon Silina was persuaded by the vendors to try her hand at the antique and collectible business. But there was a small problem: The native Lithuanian and her family had recently moved to America with ‘‘nothing but our clothes.” Rummaging through her garage, she found a few Beanie Babies, a couple of pairs of earrings and children’s books and laid them on a table in the corner of the shop.

‘‘Everybody laughed,” she says, and her peers suggested she might want to start shopping. Soon she was tramping to auctions in New Jersey for merchandise. Now her six-foot tall cases are full of china, jewelry and her newest addition: a Martha Washington biscuit holder from the late 19th century.

No ordinary dealer, Silina has no interest in collecting. She’s the exception, Stierle points out. Most vendors are bona fide pack rats and obsessive collectors. Even before starting a business, their houses and sometimes their cars are filled to the brim with their collections. Many people decide to become vendors just to unload stuff and then buy more old stuff.

Even the most learned dealers aren’t savvy shoppers, nor can they always predict the market. Cutesy Hummels have lost their value, Royer says, blaming eBay for making them too plentiful. ‘‘And how about those commemorative Jim Beam bottles from the 1970s?” she continues. They used to sell for high prices. ‘‘Now you can’t give them away.”

Everybody concurs that jewelry is another matter.

‘‘Women will go without food but buy a pin for a jacket,” Silina insists.

Who needs milk when you can own a vintage Albert Weiss brooch from the 1940s?

The Emporium and Olde Towne Antiques are located side-by-side at 233 East Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg. Stores hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Call The Emporium at 301-926-9148 and Olde Towne Antiques at 301-926-9490.