As the months passed in the antiques mall, we realized that there was absolutely no money to be made in this business. Half of our sales were made to other dealers (who were convinced that we were underpricing the item and they could sell it for more). Of course, these dealers all demanded a large discount as “a professional courtesy”. The rest of our sales were to haggling customers who talked us down to just under what we paid for the item. This lack of profit quickly drove the more sensible dealers out of business. This created a revolving door of dealers through the mall.
The new sellers came in with big dreams. Jeff, the owner, was so Quixotic. He had the ability to make them believe that the world wanted what they had, and if they just worked hard enough they would strike it rich ( I finally conceded that the only person coming out ahead was the owner of the real estate). The new dealers, inspired by Jeff’s vision, shopped and sewed and stripped and painted and stocked their booths with their treasures. They waited, along with the rest of us, for the sales that would support them in retirement; sales that never came.
Among these new dealers was the young woman who made pillows from vintage handkerchiefs (she threw in an occasional sachet). We had crafty dealers who painted shabby chic furniture (what they lacked in talent they made up for in vibrancy). We had a young man who blew his own glass – he made beautiful objects, but sold only a few. I bought some of his letter openers for gifts to get him started. Sadly, I think I was his only customer.
We had a Christian lady selling nightmare-inducing dolls. We had the rug dealers from Pakistan. A Moroccan furniture dealer gave it a go for a few months. The kitchen gadget lady had a little success, but at an average sale of ten bucks she eventually gave up. There was man who sold dead animals in any form (stuffed, mounted, skins, horns). I should see if he wants to buy husband’s deer hoof (I have been trying to get rid of this thing for 30 years).
Over the years I made many transitional friends at the mall. My favorite dealer, however, was Sonia. Sonia was a tidy, well dressed, older woman with an unusual accent and a sharp tongue. Sonia was not one of the original dealers – she came in after about a year and rented a large glass case right in front of the cash register. She was crystal clear with her intentions and told us vehemently that she was not a dealer. She was simply selling things from her personal collection. “I am not a dealer,” she repeated to each and every customer. “I’m probably leaving next month after I clear out a few things from my home. I give no discounts. Everything is authentic English or Japanese. Nothing cheap from China. I just have too many things. I own 17 sets of china.”
Sonia did have a lovely collection – small pieces of decorative ceramics, tea sets, pottery and art from Europe and Asia. She felt her inventory was better than the rest of ours (she had clear disdain for all things American). She didn’t seem to need money. Her late husband was a doctor and apparently left her enough money to maintain their large historic home. She was very energetic for her age (I would guess she was in her 70′s). She always dressed in a skirt with hose and heels. She claimed that she even gardened in heels.
Sonia was on a mission to improve the mall’s reputation – which apparently required spreading her treasures across the store. She was very persuasive and Jeff had no backbone. Soon Sonia’s personal collection had crept well beyond her glass case onto the surrounding walls and floor space. While most sellers would occasionally offer sales, Sonia refused to budge on her (quite high) prices. She said her items were special, one of a kind, and worth far more than the price. Her art collection was all professionally framed and pricey. Any hapless soul who wandered into her space was treated to a lecture on the style and setting and artist. Her furniture looked lovely. but as she always stretched ribbons across the arms and PLEASE DO NOT SIT signs on the seats, no one was allowed to actually test drive them.
Most dealers only popped in once or twice a week to check on their inventory. Sonia hovered over her goods; standing guard for eight hours at a stretch behind her case (in those heels). If someone wanted to see something, she took it out, cradled it in her hand and provided a complete provenance. She then placed it on top of the case for them to admire. She stared them down, waiting for them to realize that this was a rare gem that they needed to own. The trapped customers had to look her in the eyes and tell her that they did not want it.
Sonia was quite the saleswoman. It was a mistake for any of us to admire anything in her collection because we would soon own it. Here are a few things I admired which are now in my house
I also loved this teapot but had to draw the line somewhere. She told me I was really missing out, clucking and shaking her head before putting it back in her case.
Sonia spent her days in the mall dusting, rearranging, and talking to the customers and dealers. I think she was lonely. She was not, however, terribly kind or politically correct. She and cashier would walk around the store and rip apart all the junk or the horrendous condition of everyone’s booth. “Joan’s inventory is cheap,” she said at least once a week. “She just goes to garage sales. No one wants that crap. Jeff needs to tell her to leave.” No one escaped her shrewd, tasteful eye. The pottery dealers lacked class, the animal guy was a slob, the kitchen lady was passing off plastic as Bakelite. Under it all she really did have a good heart. Once she got to know you and trust you, she would defend you forever.
Sonia loved opera, as does my father-in-law. Every new season I would ask her advice on which operas he should buy. She went to the Lyric every month, driving her ancient Jaguar to a garage where the owner always saved her a spot.
Over the months, Sonia revealed tidbits of her earlier life. There were apparently multiple tragedies, the details of which she dropped dramatically into mundane conversation. I mentioned traffic on the Dan Ryan and she told me that he son had been killed along the shoulder of that expressway. Jeff mentioned someone’s heart trouble and Sonia told us of her son who died very young of a heart attack. She said these things as if we already knew or if they happened to everyone. She did not want any sympathy, she just wanted us to know her. We also learned that her son-in-law died mysteriously in her house and she became the sole support for an ungrateful daughter and her unruly children.
Sonia’s sales were volatile. Her rent (for the case) was pretty low, but so were her sales. As her prices were high, one good sale would tide her over for 6 months. Sonia explained that she had to pay her rent out of her own checking account (as she wasn’t a real dealer). Did she think the rest of us had big corporations funding our rent? We were all losing money. We all continued to moan about how we were ready to pack up and leave. We would just give it a few more months or we would just wait until Christmas. Quixotic Jeff always had a reason for low sales – there was a Bears game on, the weather was lousy, gas prices were high. Things would turn around next month. Always next month. The real reason we all hung in there was that we had too much inventory. We didn’t want to move all of our stuff. And then what would we even do with it? We had to sell it.
Month after month Sonia stayed. She was a bit secretive about parts of her past. If anyone asked about her accent she would say that she was “European”. We learned that she was from the Ukraine. She lived there as a child until the Communists came through her house. Shuddering, she described how they had touched her cheek and said something about her beauty. I know she was in Vienna during part of WWII. She described going to a church with an aunt – when they came out they discovered all the buildings around them had been bombed. She had cheated death, but it sadly hunted her for the rest of her life.
While Sonia was full of contempt for messy dealers with cheap merchandise, she hated cheap customers even more. Sonia always had a theory about which ones were shoplifting or switching price tags. She was handy to have around during spikes in shoplifting. She shadowed customers as they walked through the mall. When a large set of sterling was stolen she was sure she knew who did it. “Mark” was a dealer at another mall. Sonia didn’t like him because he had misplaced an item she left with him for appraisal. Whenever Mark came into our mall she would whisper, quite audibly. “Watch him. He steals.”
Most customers, Sonia explained, were stingy and only wanted a good bargain. While Sonia complained about how poorly she was treated in her life, she had no empathy for other immigrants or races. When a customer tried to talk her down on price and left dejected she said, “Typical Arab, wants something for nothing.” When I mentioned something positive about Obama she turned to me in horror. “You Americans, you will get the president you deserve. Just you wait.”
She was vague about her religion. She belonged to some sort of Russian orthodox church and seemed to attend these marathon sessions of up to ten hours. Once Jeff asked her if she was really Jewish. She said yes but offered no more info. We had no idea if she was kidding or if this is why she fled to other parts of Europe.
I never questioned the fact that Sonia was wealthy and did not need the income from the mall (good thing) or if she was really a dealer in disguise. However, one day I was driving to a local consignment store (looking for some of those underpriced treasures). I saw Sonia in the parking lot. She was also heading to the consignment store. She had nothing in her arms so I can only guess she was going to actually buy inventory. She was shopping just like the rest of us lowly dealers. I don’t know why she hid this from us. Maybe she thought she was better than us, or maybe she wanted to preserve her image as a wealthy European. She preferred to say she had inherited her items or purchased them when she lived in Europe. I really wanted to shop that day, but didn’t want to embarrass her. I don’t know why – she would have relished the opportunity to expose one of us. I drove away.
I eventually gave up the antiques business. I slashed prices until almost everything was gone. I donated all my books to the library. I didn’t visit the mall for many months. Then it was a new opera season and I thought I would stop in and see Sonia for some recommendations. When I walked in the door the mood was very somber. I looked at Sonia’s booth and saw a black ribbon draped across her glass case. Jeff told me that Sonia had just died yesterday. She had a brain bleed.
I hope she didn’t suffer. People were pouring in to pay their respects. Her items were selling quickly. I bought one final thing from her.