In the past five years, the number of antiques shows and promoters has more than doubled. But that multiplication has produced a weak profit for those dealers who make this business their livelihood.
In some instances they have been limited by managers who, while protecting the integrity of their own shows, forbid dealers to exhibit in shows produced by other managers. In addition, because shows have been focused in the New England area, good merchandise has been scarce in some regions.
A St. Louis couple, Dick and Libby Kramer, decided it was time to look for new ways to get buyers and sellers together.
While growing with their shop, Patchwork Sampler, the Kramers launched a mail-order campaign. They were stunned at the response they received and at the geographical distribution. People from around the country were eager for Americana (especially informal or country antiques and accessories). Their appetites were whetted by a proliferation of decorating and historical magazines , but they were unable to find the merchandise in any of their local areas. ''They were a totally untapped market,'' Mr. Kramer says.
With this information and a group of ''trusting dealers,'' the Kramers staged a large show, called ''Heart of Country,'' last February in Nashville. It was a smashing success - for the dealers, buyers, and collectors.
The show created excitement throughout the American antiques world. Maine Antiques Digest reported: ''No one sang the blues at Nashville. . . . The Kramers put together a memorable event that couldn't have been more smoothly run , beautifully staged, or warmly accepted. . . . People came from Alaska to Florida, to swell the attendance for the weekend to over 7,500. . . .'' And Ohio Antiques Review stated, ''The Heart of Country Antiques Show has to rank among the most successful American antiques events to take place in the last five years.''
Grateful dealers joined forces and took out full-page ads in antiques papers around the country to thank the Kramers. In addition, most of them signed contracts for future shows to be produced by the couple, and huge waiting lists accompanied each show. Last September the Kramers had another hit, the ''Star of Texas Show'' in Houston.
The second Nashville show will open its gates Feb. 11-13.
''The dealers are the stars of the show,'' Mrs. Kramer points out, ''and we want to do all we can to help them.'' The Kramers aim their shows at a young audience - the 25-to-40 age group - believing this is the most overlooked group. In addition, they want to stimulate collecting at all levels by making available merchandise from $5 to $50,000. They emphasize country antiques, because they feel it is the biggest bargain on the market.
It is the Kramers' policy to encourage dealers to participate in other shows, regardless of manager, place, or date. Other channels they have opened include:
* Clear communication, achieved by sending regular mailings to exhibitors to keep them informed.
* Simple, clear contracts, with return envelopes.
* Questionnaires that allow managers to promote the exhibitors and their merchandise better.
* Background information about the host city and state, maps, entertainment, and cultural brochures.
* Public relations and advertising directors who are available to dealers.
* Arrangements for special hotel and travel rates as well as reservation envelopes.
* Dealers' lounges that offer beverages and snacks for the duration of each show.
* A shipper on the floor, making it possible for dealers to sell furniture and large pieces to customers who cannot provide transportation.
The floor is designed professionally, allowing good traffic flow while adding interest to each booth (at Houston the layout was in the shape of a star). The building is decorated and softened with flowers, trees, parks, and background music. A show newspaper, published instead of a program or catalog, includes information about dealers and articles by them, as well as ads and floor plans.
Through these shows, the Kramers hope to enlarge the American antiques market and to stimulate commerce among dealers across the country. They also seek to awaken or renew interest that will help develop new collectors and provide information about various areas of antiques collecting. And they are pressing for managers to allow dealers the freedom to exhibit where and when they have the opportunity.
Different areas of the country have as much to offer to the Americana market as does New England, the Kramers say. As various regions have grown and developed, so have their heritage and artifacts. Though they may not date back as far as New England, their importance in American culture is just as great.
The Kramers insist that regional antiques have long been overlooked. While Eastern areas are exhausting their supply of 18th-century antiques and whipping through the 19th and 20th centuries, other parts of the country haven't even started to look at their antiquities and artisans. ''We must all begin to look at our areas' antiques before they are lost in the shuffle,'' Mrs. Kramer says.