Antique dealers combat slow times with group shops

Up here in the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont antiques dealers are well aware of the residual effects of the oil embargo of 1973-74. It may be surprising that a nearly decade-old event could cause major changes in the antiques business, but that's just what has happened.

People cut down on pleasure trips. That meant a drop in traffic for rural antiques shops. As subsequent shortages and rationings took their toll, the loss in traffic became acute. Antiques dealers in rural areas have been badly hurt.

Hartland is a small town. There's a post office, a gas station, and two stores. There's also Barbara Mills, who has an antiques shop on Route 5, one mile north of town.

Mrs. Mills and her family have lived in the large red-brick Federal house built in 1804 for two decades since their move from New York City. The stately structure was without electricity and plumbing when they bought it. Five carpenters worked for nine months to make it livable. The house now is as lovely inside as it is outside.

The Millses erected an antiques shop at the rear of the house. Barbara Mills, educated as an artist at Pratt Institute, loved antiques. She sold antiques from that shop until last spring and, to make up for the loss in customer traffic, traveled the show circuit.

There's a touch of sadness in the voice of the normally cheerful Mrs. Mills when she tells of conditions as winter drew to a close: ''Some weeks during the winter I wouldn't see even one customer. I realized something had to be done. I had to draw more traffic.''

What Mrs. Mills did was establish a group antiques shop in that classic Federal house she and her family loved. The family would live among the antiques.

Group shops are nothing new. Some, like the Antiques Center of America Inc. in New York City, are large and well established. Others sprout up in former bowling alleys and last a few months. Some resemble flea markets, with mounds of dusty merchandise.

Barbara Mills opted for quality and formulated some tough standards: ''No junk. No reproductions. No antiques made after 1860, with exceptions for quilts, folk-art, paintings, and exceptional pieces of Victoriana. No oak and no wicker.''

Could she find others willing to accept those restrictions? ''I contacted 74 dealers. Twenty answered. Four could come immediately. I took a chance and we opened in June of 1981.'' By the end of the summer that number had risen to 13. There are 19 this year and a long waiting list of others.

How about the family space? ''We consolidated,'' Mrs. Mills says. ''We've cut back. We only live in what we can spare. Some of my things have been put in storage; the rest have been loaned to my children for their apartments.'' The way she puts it, it doesn't seem that much of a sacrifice. Barbara Mills sounds like a happy woman these days.

And the dealers - are they happy? Jeannine Dobbs, who calls her operation Dobbs' Country/Folk Antiques, says, ''Barbara runs a great shop. She cares about antiques and dealers.''

Gail Piatt runs Piatt's Copper Cow. ''I've been here since the beginning and have no plans to leave,'' she says. ''Barbara does a lot of advertising and is strict about the antiques. She notifies us when something sells so we can replace it.''

Those are critical points. The commonly heard complaints about stagnant stock , lack of quality, and a shopkeeper unfamiliar with the dealers' offerings are nonexistent at the Antiques Center at Hartland.

Mrs. Mills examines every dealer's stock, insists on tags listing repairs and restoration, and asks that stock be rotated at least every six weeks. She provides all the sales staff, does extensive advertising in a variety of newspapers and magazines, and, most important, shows off the antiques in that beautiful house.

Has it worked? Barbara Mills beams. ''We see between 200 and 300 customers a week now. The dealer waiting list has grown. We're thinking about setting up a reconstructed house across the road and opening a second group shop in the building. Houses are nice - they're better than warehouses.''

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