This business has continued to grow in popularity, so the owners recently opened a second location in Woodstock. Learn what it takes to run a successful antique store and find out what separates this place from its competitors.
“Antique” is a fluctuating term that can mean different things to different people.
But those with a heart for original, historically significant, one-of-a-kind items won’t have to second-guess that definition at Roscoe Woodstock Antique Mall, 890 Lake Ave., in Woodstock.
The former Colonial Antique Mall was purchased earlier this year by Gay Stomberg and Ted London, who also own the well-known Roscoe Antique Mall in South Beloit. After a swift, but thorough renovation of the building and some adjustments with the dealers, the couple reopened in July with firm guidelines in place for what constitutes an “antique” here.
At Roscoe Woodstock Antique Mall, all items must be produced before 1970; no reproductions, crafts, soaps or other kitschy items are permitted. Mass-market “collectibles” have no place.
It’s not that those items aren’t sought after, it’s simply that they don’t belong in a traditional antique mall, say Stomberg and London. Instead, visitors will find items such as original slot machines, advertising, petroliana, country store items, heirloom jewelry and furniture.
The antique mall’s oak and walnut furniture are quality pieces, often built by hand, that have withstood the test of time. “Primitives” include cabinets with original paint from the 1800s, dry sinks, stonewear, quilts, folk art – the types of items that are consistently sought after.
“Every piece has a story, and those who appreciate antiques can feel that story,” says London.
Twenty years ago, Stomberg and her late husband, Dennis, opened Roscoe Antique Mall off a small service road in Roscoe, without having any real knowledge of running an antique mall.
But, the Stombergs had renovated a three-story Victorian home and fallen in love with the antique furniture they used to furnish it.
“Restoring the house was a lot of work; filling it was a lot of fun, and our interest just grew from there,” Stomberg says.
Having no preconceived ideas of the business was actually helpful, she adds. The Stombergs worked with experienced antique dealers, learning what shoppers wanted, how to set up eye-catching displays, how to choose quality dealers and how to set standards for the age and quality of items allowed in the mall. The emphasis on quality helped the store to stand apart from competitors that felt more like a resale shop or flea market.
“The quality of merchandise here is so much better,” says Stomberg.
After 3.5 years, the store moved to a larger building in South Beloit, and business took off. Because of the strict antique standards in place, customers knew they could expect unique, quality pieces. The Roscoe Antique Mall eventually gathered a national and even an international following.
When Dennis died in 2013, Gay Stomberg kept the business going. In 2015, she met London, who had grown up in the antique business and had a particular interest in oak furniture, lamps, petroliana and advertising. He also had a special fondness for gaming and coin-operated items such as slot machines, pinballs and antique vending machines.
When Stomberg and London were approached about buying Woodstock’s Colonial Antique Mall, the couple saw an opportunity to expand their offerings and their customer base. They’d long been trying to target the Chicago market, and they thought Woodstock made an ideal extension.
The Colonial Antique Mall had its own 20-year history in Woodstock, which meant Stomberg and London wouldn’t have to start from scratch. But by the time they took over, the mall’s standards of “antiques” had significantly decreased and nearly 75 percent of the inventory did not meet the couple’s guidelines.
Those first two months they worked with the mall’s existing dealers, helping those who wanted to stay to refresh their collections and stay within the new guidelines. They also helped to transition those who preferred to leave.
“We tried to handle that transition as smoothly as possible for all involved,” Stomberg says.
The couple also invited some of their South Beloit dealers to Woodstock, helping to increase the promotion of cross-traffic.
To help them manage the dual stores, Stomberg and London kept Woodstock’s existing manager, Kathleen, and named their daughter Meredith general manager of both locations. Their daughter Kristi works as a sales associate.
Already, the Woodstock location is seeing renewed interest from old customers and the community at large.
Joan Schratt, 77, of Crystal Lake, hadn’t been to the mall in several months, but she stopped by in early August for a quick visit and was pleased with what she saw.
“Before, it was looking like a garage sale,” says the antique doll collector. “I don’t mean that as an insult. Things were just getting too recent. If you’re into antiques, you don’t want to see things from the 1990s. I’m looking for turn-of-the-century dolls, books I may have had as a child. There’s a difference between kids’ collectibles and antiques.”
Though many of the lessons Stomberg and London have learned are geared specifically toward the antique trade, some are universal guidelines for any small business.
Creating relationships with customers is at the top of the list. “You have to be able to connect with people, adapt to each personality and be interested in what they’re looking for,” London says.
“Conversation is the key,” agrees Stomberg. “It helps you find out what people are looking for. We push our staff to converse with customers as much as possible because it builds our return customer base. In so many shops, no one even speaks to the customers and they’re often inattentive to them, which hurts sales because customers often just leave.”
The dealers who help out at the store have an advantage because they get a feel for the types of customers who are coming in, which helps them adapt their inventory, Stomberg says.
It also helps them keep tabs on what younger generations find intriguing. In the antique business, mid-century modern pieces, with their simple, streamlined look, are appealing to younger couples looking to furnish their living space, Stomberg says.
The couple works with several dealers who bring in authentic mid-century modern pieces from the mid-1950s to the 1970s.
Finally, Stomberg and London both believe inventory and displays shouldn’t grow stagnant.
“We realize antiques are not a necessity, so the store needs to offer an ever-changing and interesting variety of merchandise in order to gain repeat customers,” Stomberg says. “We encourage all of our dealers to remember that.”
Many antique stores have gone by the wayside because they didn’t replenish their stock, she notes.
So, Stomberg and London both utilize the contacts they’ve built to keep a steady stream of new inventory coming in. They also do their own hunting, as they search for antiques to sell or add to their personal collections.
“We scour the country looking for unique things,” London says. “I love what I do. It’s a continual hunt, and there is thrill and satisfaction with every great piece we find.”
Stomberg guarantees customers will enjoy walking around the new mall. London agrees.
“You’ll see things you’ve never seen before and may never see again,” he says.