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VALLEY BUSINESS | CALLING COLLECTORS: ANTIQUE ROWS
STAKE OUT TURF | VALLEY@WORK

Web Spreads Into a Dusty Corner

August 03, 1999|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS

These days, many San Fernando Valley merchants who make their living selling something old are keeping a watchful eye on something new--mindful that business lost to cyberspace may make them somewhat blue.

Antiques dealing was one area of retailing considered fairly cyber-proof because of the thrill of the hunt and the need to inspect. But it is now joining the rest of the retail world in forming a sort of love-hate relationship with The Web.

Some antiques dealers view the World Wide Web as an enormously efficient distribution channel, one that is able to push a struggling business into the black. Others fear that antiques shopping via the net will spell doom for some mom-and-pop shops that rely heavily on foot traffic, or for consignment shops that will lose their stock as people sell directly to the cyber public.

Perhaps nowhere in the Valley is the topic hotter than in three distinct regions whose lifeblood has been catering to strolling antiques shoppers--Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, Sherman Way in Canoga Park and Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks and Studio City.

For the most part, vendors in these regions say business today is pretty good, thanks to robust sales of homes that are just crying out for an authentic marble-top Herter Bros. table or a Louis XIV armchair.

"I would say for us, business has never been better," said Mitchell Litt, founder of the eponymous upscale-antiques store in Sherman Oaks, a fixture in the community for 26 years. "Quite frankly, it's the best it's ever been."

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Growing interest in antiques is reflected in the popularity of television shows like "The Antiques Road Show," the No. 1 prime time program on PBS.

But nearly all dealers acknowledged that even during this upswing, the Internet is having an increasing impact--for better or for worse.

When Joan Thornock, co-owner of Burbank-based Heidi's Antiques & Collectibles, noticed that business at her shop was slack three months ago, she wondered if her former strollers and browsers had become cyber-shoppers.

"We wondered over these last several months if that was what was happening, with the sales not being what we expected," said Thornock, whose Magnolia Boulevard shop carries an array of 20th century Americana pieces. "That's one of the reasons we felt we needed to sell at [an online] auction until we get our own Web site ready."

There's no way to tell where Thornock's shoppers have gone, but a lot of antiques buyers today are surfing rather than strolling--with profound implications for traditional antiques retailers.

Between May 1998 and May 1999, the number of antique items offered for sale on eBay, the mammoth San Jose-based online auction house, grew by a whopping 543%, from 35 items last year to 225 this May, according to eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove. He said antiques and collectibles make up a growing part of the $622 million in gross merchandise sales on eBay, the No. 1 online auctioneer, in the quarter that ended June 30.

The company does not release sales figures by category, but he said antiques is one of the categories the company hopes to push.

"It's certainly among the categories that we're stressing," said Pursglove, adding that the company's recently announced purchase of the noted auction house Butterfield & Butterfield will help further that goal.

Even without competition from cyberspace, antiques dealers in the Valley face challenges. For one thing, you can get an argument from some merchants south of Mulholland Drive as to how easy it is to even find true antiques dealers in the Valley.

"In the La Cienega, Melrose Place, Melrose Avenue area, there's a much higher concentration of people selling high-end furniture," said Sally Gould Wright, president of Richard Gould Antiques Ltd., an 1,800-square-foot shop on La Cienega Boulevard specializing in 18th and early 19th century English and American pieces.

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Wright is also a former vice president of the Antiques Dealers Assn. of California, an invitation-only group of 44 high-end antiques dealers in the state--none of whom has a Valley address.

"There isn't anything in the Valley comparable to that that I know of," said Wright. "Not that good things don't come up, but there isn't the concentration of high-end dealers there."

Local dealers say that attitude costs them sales, since antiques shoppers like to go to a destination and visit several shops.

While some of the territorial debate can be chalked up to Westside snobbery, experts who track the business statewide said there is some truth in it.

Jeff Hill, editor of the Alameda-based monthly the Antique Journal, says the San Fernando Valley "is solidly rooted in the middle range of antiques and collectibles.

"In Beverly Hills you're not going to find as many collectibles because the rent's higher. Christie's [the auction house] doesn't have trouble paying the rent in Beverly Hills because they have million-dollar accounts," Hill said.

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