By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
ESSEX – The small town of Essex, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, is renowned for its 19th century shipbuilding heritage. But more recently it’s been known for its walkable concentration of antiques-related stores. It has been termed “absolute heaven if you love antiques.” Travel guide Frommer’s called it one of the three best destinations for “antique hounds.” And the town of about 3,500 residents is routinely termed the “Antiques Capital of America.” At its peak, it had about 35 antique stores.
Today, you can still venture there to look for antiques, but store numbers have dramatically declined. What happened is no mystery. Remaining antique owners and others attribute the shrinkage to three main factors: the lingering pandemic, the growing popularity of internet shopping, and the aging of store owners. But it, and the neighboring town of Ipswich, still endure as a popular antiques destination.
Surviving stores lean toward high-end
One of the more prominent Essex survivors with an affordable price range, known for its eclectic collection and mascot, a Maine coon cat named Beatrice, is Howard’s Flying Dragon. Edwin Howard, 83, has owned it for 48 years. “There are maybe only three or four stores left,” like his, he said. Most remaining Essex stores are more high-end and expensive.
One of these is David Neligan Antiques, which for 30 years has been specializing in 17th through 19th century English and European furniture and decorative arts. “High quality” pieces, as the store puts it, is no exaggeration. Recently offered were a pair of “Regency mahogany and brass bound peat buckets” for $12,500 and a $14,000 “pair of William IV Rosewood tub chairs.”
An eclectic collection in Ipswich
Another well-known store is AnnTiques, which has a building of 8,000 square feet sitting on the river in Ipswich. It’s generally described as a “collector’s paradise, with everything from vintage clothing and jewelry to handwoven rugs, funky chairs, record players, Native American art and more. The shop also offers furnishings typically found in the historic homes in the Ipswich area.
Ipswich is known for being home to some of the largest numbers of historic homes in America. It has 31 of the 461 properties and districts found in Essex County on the National Register of Historic Places listings.
Shopper evaluations often praise the store for generally “reasonable prices,” and the antique knowledge of its longtime owner Ann Orcutt. She attributes the area’s growth of antique shops largely to its reputation for historic 18th and 19th century homes. Orcutt, 75, has been an antique “generalist” for about 30 years. Her store is a reflection of her own taste. “I buy and bring in things that appeal to me. I’m always hoping they also will appeal to others,” she said.
Oddly enough, she has never gotten into internet commerce and never made a single sale there. “I don’t know how people sell or buy a piece of jewelry and other items without trying it on. I think people want to see it and feel it,” she said.
Still another shop reflects area past
Another popular local store reflecting the area’s past is a historic 1800s barn housing the Olde Ipswich Shop & Gallery, which says it offers handcrafted “Made in America” goods. They include paintings, home décor, seasonal goods and other items. The store, in business for more than two decades, is also known for its early American pottery. Johanne Cassia and her husband Frank Wiedenmann are the owners. She started painting several years ago and her local scenes such as seascapes are among her most popular sellers. She said even with the decline in store numbers, the pace of buyer interest has been slowly picking up in recent months.
While some of the area’s antique stores have closed permanently, others have changed their operating model with reduced hours, offering visits only by appointment, or have shifted their concentration to internet sales. It’s best to plan ahead before you visit.
Another one of the legendary Essex antique businesses is the White Elephant, which has adapted to the changing times. It was often called one of the most unique antique and collectible shops on the North Shore. Owner Rick Grobe, 72, made it his practice to visit homes to pick up items. He still does it but on a different basis.
Grobe and his wife Jean, who bought the White Elephant shop in 1985, closed it in 2015―30 years later. But he still travels around the greater Boston area, sometimes in his 1937 Chevy panel truck, for small items to buy and sell online via the business website and Facebook and Instagram accounts. “Our customers weren’t buying large furniture items anymore,” he said. Instead, the store typically sells smaller items which can be easily shipped to customers across the country by mail.
His longtime slogan still applies: “Tell me you want to sell all of it, and I’ll buy all of it.”