Nowhere in Southern California is there a better example of what is going on in the antique industry today than in downtown Orange.
The city, which will celebrate its 100th birthday April 6, was built around a central plaza that is the core of the Southland's largest antique row.
On Glassell Street, for a block on either side of the plaza, almost every other turn-of-the-century storefront displays an antique seller's sign. In all, the central area of town has 31 antique shops, including three indoor malls that, by themselves, provide space for 160 dealers.
They are part of a thriving antique business in the county, which has become the heart of the trade in Southern California. There are, for instance, more antique wholesalers in Orange County than in Los Angeles County, which has nearly four times the population.
The heavy concentration in downtown Orange provides an intriguing look inside the world of antique retailing--a world that combines old-fashioned standards like quality, service and reputation with modern merchandising techniques, volume selling and the pressures of a changing marketplace.
Marty Burns began things 16 years ago when she opened her shop, Marty's Things, on South Glassell to become the downtown's first antique dealer.
She said it took about eight years for the dealer population in the plaza area to grow to its present size. There is a waiting list of people hoping to acquire space in downtown buildings to open antique stores.
In part, the success of Orange's antique row reflects the growing popularity of antiques and nostalgia items.
But the city's dealers haven't been willing to let customers discover them simply by chance. They may sell old-fashioned goods, but their marketing techniques are up to date.
Slick Brochure Offered
The Old Orange Antiques Dealers Assn. publishes a slick brochure describing the plaza area as the "antique capital of Southern California" and listing all of its dealers. The publication is distributed in almost every hotel and motel in the county.
The group also advertises in county-based newspapers and in regional and national antique trade magazines. It occasionally buys spots on radio stations in Orange and Los Angeles counties to promote special events, such as an annual antique fair going on this weekend.
On most weekends, special events or not, the downtown stores bring in a constant stream of shoppers, some serious, some browsing as they might on a first visit to Disneyland's Main Street shops.
They come from Orange, of course, but also from Fullerton, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Riverside.
Several of the merchants maintain that some of their best customers are winter visitors from the Midwest and East Coast who have found that Southern California prices and selection are often better than at the shops in their hometowns.
They are drawn by stores specializing in everything from toys and magazines to rare old American and European furnishings. One of the West Coast's premier antique glass specialists is in downtown Orange, as are several stores specializing in popular nostalgia items such as old jukeboxes and slot machines, art deco kitsch and antique advertising signs.
There are even a couple of stores on South Chapman Avenue--not included on the roll of antique dealers--that specialize in parts for antique autos and souped-up 1930s roadsters.
"There is a very good selection, and there are some good, select furniture dealers," said Robert Dannenbaum, editor of the West Coast Peddler, a major regional antique trade journal.
About the only thing Orange's antique row lacks, he said, is a high-class auction house and a dealer specializing in museum-quality, fine-art antiques. "If you want Chippendale, Sheraton or Queen Anne, you have got to go either to West L.A. or one of the high-end dealers in Newport Beach."
One other thing the row doesn't have is a store featuring reproduction furniture and accessories, which are becoming more common as many dealers struggle to balance the increasing cost and scarcity of good-quality antiques with the need to do enough business to pay the rent.
(But the Antique Guild maintains a small store featuring almost nothing but reproductions about 2 miles away on Tustin Avenue.)
On the surface, the Orange antique row looks like an ideal marketplace where just about everyone prospers because of an overriding concern for the common good. Although it would never happen in a good Victorian potboiler, the surface appearance seems to be the truth.
Denise Pontius, one of Orange's newest dealers--and, at 25, one of its youngest--owns with her husband, Tom, a high-end shop specializing in pre-1850 American country furniture.