Emporium concept benefits dealers and customers at the Antique Center Savage Mill offers convenience HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

June 24, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

It's not everywhere you can peddle a $15,000 hand-carved carousel horse that used to belong to a movie star.

"Well, it isn't a beginner piece," says Bette Jeane Rutkowski, the current owner of the 1905 carousel horse, once owned by 1940s movie star Barbara Britton.

But Ms. Rutkowski, who specializes in old rocking horses and carousel horses, figured that the most likely place buyers of such rare collectibles might visit was the Antique Center, a collection of more than 250 antique dealers housed in three different buildings at Savage Mill, a former textiles mill turned antiques and crafts emporium.

The Antique Center, launched five years ago this month by Julie Baker, a former nurse who sold antiques on weekends, has been a hit with dealers such as Ms. Rutkowski, whose business, Rockinghorse Antiques, had been based in Dundalk for 35 years.

Ms. Baker, an Ellicott City resident, has all 40,000 square feet of the space she leases from the mill rented out to antiques and collectibles dealers.

"I just had this gut feeling this type of thing could fly," she says.

The center's location in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, one of the nation's strongest retail markets, has been a magnet for dealers. They also like the security of the center and the fact that Ms. Baker has taken pains to keep dealer inventory of a high quality.

"It's a great place for exposure," Ms. Rutkowski says. She spent several years mulling where to rent space to expand her dealership. After looking into renting space at several buyer hot spots, including Black Angus in Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Antique Center near Stevensville, she settled on the Antique Center about a year ago.

Ms. Baker was successful immediately when she began renting mill space she had leased in June 1988.

"We had 50 dealers sign up right away and a waiting list as long as your arm," recalls W. Blake Billmyre, co-director of the Antique Center and a dealer who rents space in the mill for his own antique furniture collection.

Little turnover

Today, the venture experiences little dealer turnover and when a dealer does depart, it is usually because of personal circumstances, not because sales are flat, Mr. Billmyre says.

Dealers range from those specializing in the obvious -- such as old coins, and country and Victorian furniture -- to the obscure -- such as Moser glass, an art form which catered to the wealthy of the late 1800s, and antique slot machines, denizens of the speakeasies of the Prohibition era.

The Antique Center and mill are drawing customers from a wide area, including New York and California. Dealers hail from 11 states, most of them on the East Coast.

Ms. Baker's system works this way: She leases space from the operators of Savage Mill, a renovated complex of 12 historic brick buildings off Foundry Street in Savage. Ms. Baker then rents space or glass cases to antique dealers and collectors, and provides sales staff to handle purchases and inquiries. Dealers aren't charged a commission on sales. They only pay the $3 per square foot space rental or $150 case rental. Dealers are sent a check each week for their sales.

"A lot of our dealers are doctors, lawyers, we even have a guy who is pharmacist," Mr. Billmyre says. "They start out collecting a particular type of antique and soon they have a pretty decent collection and are very knowledgeable about the area of their interest. Next thing, they want to sell some of their collection, but they don't have the time to be at a shop all day. We take care of that for them."

Ms. Rutkowski says that was a big selling point for her.

"I have a lot of restoration work that is very labor-intensive," she says. "Even if I had to staff the counter for one day, it [would] be a hardship."

Ms. Rutkowski has been particularly pleased that Ms. Baker's sales staff is quick to call if they receive questions about her merchandise that they can't answer.

A quickly answered question can land a sale, and "not every place will do that," she says.

She also likes the fact that Ms. Baker's sales staff is knowledgeable about antiques and that Ms. Baker and Mr. Billmyre accept only dealers with significant knowledge and experience.

If there is a question about authenticity of an item, Ms. Baker has about six antiques experts she calls on to have a look.

Ms. Baker launched the emporium after learning how difficult it was to keep her antique shop in Ellicott City, Treasure Tymes Antiques, open while she worked in nursing. Wishing she could find someone she trusted to handle her sales, she found fellow antique dealers complaining of the same plight.

Ideas from New England

While on a trip in New England, she visited several antique emporiums where sales were handled by management for dealers.

Ms. Baker had planned to launch the project in Ellicott City but decided to locate in Savage Mill because of its impressive restoration and its proximity to Interstate 95.

After quickly renting the 10,000 square feet of space she leased in what's known as The Cottenshed Building in 1988, she leased another 10,000 square feet in a second building a year later. Last fall she leased another 20,000 square feet in another building, making Ms. Baker the mill's largest tenant.

"What I didn't know was that what I envisioned would quadruple in size," Ms. Baker says.

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