In the Business of Old

How many careers offer an opportunity to continually learn, shop till you drop, travel the world, gab with good friends and enrich the homes and lives of others? A number of antiques dealers in San Antonio have found their bliss in this business. Their passion has infected their spouses, children and friends with their fever for the old. Perhaps their stories will stoke the flames for the forgotten in you.


Growing up in Washington, D.C., Suzan Mendlovitz was surrounded by antiques. “But I never thought in a million years I’d be specializing in them for the last 35 years,” she admits with a smile.

Antiques crept into her life surreptitiously. She and her husband, Max, were just starting their lives together, and money was tight. “Somehow I found out that my husband had been buying antiques behind my back and was storing them at his parents’ house,” she recalls. Later, Max started refurbishing and selling antique ceiling fans as a hobby after they purchased many of the older discarded fixtures from the University of Texas in Austin.

That was in the ’70s. “That’s where the name of our business comes from, ‘FAN-tastic Finds,'” says Mendlovitz. “Then inexpensive reproductions from India hit the market place, and I knew we were in trouble. That’s when we started focusing more on antiques”

With 7,000 square feet, Fantastic Finds specializes in quality. Their mainstay is furniture, silver, art and small items. In fact, Max, who is now 70, is something of a furniture specialist. “But I think he started to get a little bored, so he cultivated a love and knowledge of art,” says Suzan. “My husband especially likes Texas art. We like to buy art and furniture that’s unique. It’s an eclectic shop with a real variety”


As with the other enterprises featured in this article, family plays a big role in the business. One of their sons

decided to switch careers over 10 years ago and join the family business. While he’s still an integral partner, he now has his own business, Jon Mendlovitz Antiques. “He has a wonderful eye,” says his mother proudly. Today all three share the same shop space.

But it is her husband, Max, who really has the “fever” “If we didn’t have this store, I’d probably be spending more time reading,” laughs Suzan. “But Max wouldn’t be doing anything different. He’s always thinking about antiques — he’s the driven one that gives me that push. The thing I enjoy most about it is I’m constantly learning about new things, and I’ve made some really good friends” While Max enjoys the hunt for new pieces, Suzan likes customers and paperwork.


“We carry high-quality merchandise,” says Mendlovitz. “We try to buy things that are special and unique. Sometimes we’ll do a vignette and cluster pieces that go together to give customers ideas. But mostly I tell people to be sure to look up and down when they come into the shop. We keep it neat and try not to put too much on the floor, but I think it’s fun for customers to be able to poke around and ‘discover’ pieces, too”

Like many of the other shops, they do less refinishing and restoring now, partly because of economics, partly because the market has changed. “Mostly we do cleaning to expose the natural beauty of a piece,” she says. Of course, if a piece requires repair, they restore according to its era to preserve its authenticity.

Researching pieces is another aspect of the business that Mendlovitz relishes. “Even if they’re not serious connoisseurs or collectors, most people want to know where the item has come from, how it was made, who owned it, etc. We try to put everything we know or can confirm about the piece right on the sales ticket,” she explains.

“The nice thing about this business is the flexibility it allows you. Now that we’re getting older, we’re less likely to move large pieces of furniture, so we’re migrating to smaller pieces to keep the business more manageable,” she says. Like other dealers, they’ve felt the squeeze of the recent economic downturn. “However, we’re fortunate to have many loyal local and out-of-state clients. Every year we say we’re going to retire, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. We’re having the time of our lives”


A self-professed “newbie” to the antiques business, Rachel Taylor Hooper opened Timeless Antiques this March after three years of leasing space in antiques malls. “It was my hobby, and I did well with that arrangement up until about a year ago, then several of the properties closed,” she says.

Taylor Hooper was raised with appreciation and respect for old things. “My parents impressed upon us our heritage. I have family pieces that I find priceless simply because it’s part of my own personal history,” she says. “I’m fascinated by the beauty and craftsmanship of antiques”

Her husband proposed she bring her antiques into her other business, Alamo Barter Corporation, where she owns the building and had a lot of unused space. “I brought in a few pieces and set up a mini-showroom so that some of my Barter Systems customers, who also love antiques, could shop. Then it just exploded,” she says.

That explosion amounted to some 6,000 square feet of furniture. She decided it was time for an inventory reduction sale. “It seemed like a good test to see whether the location could support a full-fledged antiques business,” says Taylor Hooper. She conducted a weeklong warehouse sale and received great feedback. Since then she’s been working with her husband to convert the space into more of a retail setup, with 2,500 square feet of store space and 2,000 more for storage. “I like to stage my pieces almost like a furniture store. I set it up like your home rather than stacking things up because, personally, when I shop, I want to be able to see the item from all angles and visualize how it might fit in my home,” she says.


Taylor Hooper is meticulous about the research and restoration of pieces.

“Different dealers have different attitudes and approaches. I prefer not to put anything out unless I’m absolutely sure of the origin, type of wood, etc.,” she confesses.

Both Taylor Hooper and her husband have always enjoyed the learning that comes with researching new pieces. She says, “It’s honestly how I got started. It’s something we can do together that we both love. I’m hoping with opening the store next door to my other business I can reclaim that part of the process. It took a lot of time hauling pieces back and forth to antiques malls, so maybe now I’ll have more time to be more hands-on with the retail side as well”

She says sometimes that hard-won knowledge helps with a sale: “It helps a customer see the value, that it’s more of an investment. A well-maintained piece is going to grow in value simply because there’s a diminishing supply. Knowing the history and what it took to craft the piece often gives them a greater appreciation for the piece”

Most of the furniture she deals in is American and French from the early 1800s to Art Deco. “Fads come and go, but classic pieces are always in style,” says Taylor Hooper. “I prefer the clean, contemporary lines that you can find with Danish and Swedish pieces. Luckily, people aren’t as opposed to mixing different types of wood in their home as they used to be, so there’s a market for almost everything”


Taylor Hooper finds deep satisfaction in connecting her clients with the perfect piece of furniture. “It’s similar

to my barter business. I like putting people together with what they need and want,” she says. “The feedback I get from my customers, especially the younger ones, is that this type of furniture reminds them of home or their grandmother’s house. They tell me their house seems warmer, more rooted and comfortable. There’s security in that warmth and familiarity. It makes me feel good when I know a piece is going to a good home where it will be appreciated”


When you ask Tomme Lu Riklin when she got started in the antiques business, she pauses and gives a cryptic reply. “All businesses take different forms and shapes. My present antiques business with my partner and spouse, Scot, started 12 years ago,” she says. “But my first foray into antiques was when I was just 8 years old”


Riklin remembers going to an antiques store with her parents while on holiday in New Orleans. “I was an only child whom my parents had late in life,” she explains. Her father had given her a crisp $20 bill to spend while they were in the Big Easy. Her mother was looking at a pricey chandelier. “I was told to sit quietly. Right next to where I sat was a lovely 19th-century candy box with little bisque dolls inside. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Riklin recalls. “My papa saw me eyeing the candy box and told me to go up to the shopkeeper and offer her my $20 for it. I gasped and told him I couldn’t do that because the price tag said $250. He winked at me and urged me to try it. I couldn’t believe it when she accepted my meager offering. Of course, later on I realized she was going to work on my father for the chandelier”

Riklin’s early exposure planted the seed that has continued to blossom. In grade school she worked with her mother, who dabbled in antiques, and later with her uncle, Phil Willbornem, who has retired to Boerne. She bounced around some antiques malls but didn’t find them terribly permanent.

For a number of years they had a store downtown, where they gained some memorable clients. “It’s been such an adventure,” says the San Antonio native. “We’d stay open late, and many of the NBA players from visiting teams would shop after their games. One time Billy Joel’s band came in, and we had a doctor from South Africa who would come four times a year to buy brand-name jewelry from us. She’d wear it back on the plane and sell it as a way of augmenting her income”

Perhaps Riklin’s most memorable customer was the late famed tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. “It was so strange because he wouldn’t come into the store; he just sat in the limo in his silk shirt and makeup,” remembers Riklin. “He sent his soprano in to tell us what he was interested in. So we walked out with items on a tray to choose from. He would only communicate through his soprano, not to us directly”


After 9/11, business declined sharply downtown, so they moved to a building on Broadway she had purchased with her uncle 28 years ago. Her store is 7,000 square feet and feels like something of a mini-mall, with tenants who specialize in silver and jewelry. It’s open six days a week.

Riklin likes the fact that there’s always an adventure to be had in the antiques business. She also notes it’s a hard business for women: “There’s a lot of physical demands with it, such as moving furniture and packing and unpacking goods for trunk shows and just the kinds of people you must deal with. With this type of business comes a certain amount of exposure”

Riklin bills her business as a gallery of unique silver, estate jewelry and decorative arts. They specialize in Mexican silver, fine jewelry, period furniture and fine art. What really sets Avalon-Riklin Antiques apart from many other San Antonio dealers is that she and her husband are both members of the International Society of Appraisers.


This license qualifies them to appraise the value of almost any type of personal property, such as fine art, furniture and jewelry. Riklin is in the process of gaining an additional certification that will allow her to specialize in rare, antique jewelry. It’s enabled them to diversify their business so that it’s not just straight retail, but rather a mix of appraisals, estate sales, shows and retail.

“I find it deeply satisfying to work with estate clients,” says Riklin.

“Sometimes it’s like that moment on Antique Road Show where the person has no idea how valuable a piece is and you get to deliver the good news. You never know a family’s circumstances, whether they’re in dire straits, so good news about a valuable piece can surprise and delight them” Of course, on the flip side, she is sometimes the bearer of bad news, dashing the long-held assumptions about a piece that really holds only sentimental value rather than market value.

“I like helping families through a transition time in their life. So often the last thing they have energy for is the business side,” she says. “Estate sales are fascinating. I get to really dig into a lifetime’s worth of things and organize records or a history to send to the family. You’re in the presence of something very special. It’s more of an emotional thing rather than object based. It’s sad when it ends. It’s like being admitted into a life and not getting to continue the relationship because they’ve vanished”


With 50,000 square feet and three floors, Broadway & 9th Antiques offers a sharp contrast to smaller shops.

Carmen Ingram and her daughter, Joann Fox, established it in 1995. Ingram was looking for a real estate investment, and the old Chrysler car dealership building seemed like a good commercial prospect. Fox, a self-professed “gypsy” who had bought and sold antiques out of her truck for years, saw retail gold. Both women have always loved antiques and have extensive personal collections.

Ingram came into real estate investing quite by accident. As a young nurse in the ’70s whose husband had passed away, she found herself making a good wage and saved much of her money. She had moved from one house to another and made a profit. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got a lot of money sitting around. What am I going to do with it?'” recalls Ingram.

She was reading the newspaper and got the idea to try to do it again. So she bought another house, fixed it up and sold it — again at a profit. “I decided I was on to something and began expanding from residential purchases to commercial,” she says.

Meanwhile her daughter, Joann, had been fine-tuning her hunting and selling skills. “I’m kind of the black sheep of the family. Everyone else went into nursing, but I went into junk,” she laughs. “I didn’t have money for day care, so my two kids came with me on weekends when I’d sell to stores in New Braunfels or go to sales and auctions”

Fox says her kids were her secret weapons at estate sales: “The night before a big sale I’d make my own ‘sold’ tags and take sheets with me to cover things I wanted to buy. Then I’d have one of my kids sit on the sheet so no one would bother it. It’s funny because they developed a real eye for Depression-era glass. We had a lot of fun for years, even before the store”

Fox’s hard-core hunting demonstrated to her mother how passionate and motivated she was when it came to antiques. When the old dealership building became available, Ingram saw real estate and Fox saw an antiques business. It’s a dichotomy that’s worked ever since.


Ingram says the down payment cleaned out her savings, so they had to do all the restoration themselves. “Hard work doesn’t scare me and Joann. We’re used to it with all the remodeling we’ve done on our rentals,” says Ingram. We’re not just talking a fresh coat of paint either. With the help of less fortunate locals

looking for work, they tore down cinder block divider walls, hauled away chemicals left over from the Harley-Davidson shop and brought what Fox calls “the giant dinosaur” back to life. They converted the basement into a workshop for Bryant (Ingram’s second husband) for restoration and upholstery; the main floor features mostly furniture; and the third floor, which they call “the attic,” is where the bargains are to be found. Ingram’s sister works part time there, and Fox’s children, now in their 20s, pitch in too.

Filling the behemoth falls mostly to Ingram and her husband, although Fox usually handles estate sales and local deals. They travel the world from Mexico to Pakistan, purchasing containers full of finds. “I find auctions too expensive and yard sales too much work,” says Ingram, who still works as a float nurse three days a week because she loves nursing. “I prefer to go overseas and ship back, although now that the dollar is weak, it’s not as cheap as it used to be to do this”

Day-to-day operations fall to Fox, who delights in the decorating challenges and opportunities that the business provides.


“The thing that makes our store so much fun is that we have a lot of inexpensive stuff too. It’s not that fun for most people to go into an antiques store and see a chair that costs $15,000,” says Fox. “Sure, we have some high-dollar pieces, but we have so much space that we buy complete houses out and also deal in architectural antiques, such as claw-foot tubs, windows, garden gates, doors and knobs and fireplace mantels. We also have four other dealers who specialize, so there’s really something for any type of shopper”

Another unique feature of Broadway & 9th Antiques is their resident artist/handyman, Richard Manriquez. “He’s been with us since the beginning, helping with the remodel, moving and delivering pieces and creating funky art pieces from odds and ends throughout the store. His work sells like hot cakes!” says Fox. “Richard is a big part of this business and helps us tremendously”

With such a variety and an enormous inventory, Fox says they’re a favorite of Dominion designers, who prowl the attic for staging materials. They’ve also leased to many a production company, outfitting commercial or photography shoots for H-E-B and Taco Cabana, as well as movie sets for films, such as Secondhand Lions and The Alamo.


Both Ingram and Fox caution against jumping into something so large initially. Fox says to start small and grow into it. “That way it takes the pressure off, and you can really learn as you go. It’s also good to take in consigned pieces so your inventory doesn’t clean out your pocketbook,” she advises.

“You have to be very financially secure since all businesses go through ups and downs,” says Ingram. “It requires a serious commitment to be there all day long, week after week. With Joann’s and my ambition, we’ve managed to pull it off really well”


A husband in the military afforded Cheryl Jelinski the opportunity to see the world and all its treasures. With each post, she found new things to collect. “My mother-in-law really loved antiques. That’s where I got the bug,” says Jelinski. “For 28 years we moved every two years. I looked at it as an opportunity to add to my collection”

During one of their tours in San Antonio, Jelinski worked for Wilkinson-Rhodes, an antiques dealer that imported directly from Great Britain. “I learned so much about antiques and the business behind it while working there,” she says. “It’s a complex world. I found out no dealer is an expert in everything. You have to build a network of experts you can go to when researching a piece”

After San Antonio, it was off to Turkey, and when they came back to San Antonio for good, she decided to make a go of it full time in 1996. Her first store was on Hildebrand. “I had $1,500 to buy inventory with and a dresser, an armoire and stuff out of my house,” she recalls. “I think that’s why a lot of people go into this business — because they have too much stuff in their house”

Her business was thriving when her mother fell ill, and she scaled back to care for her. That’s when she moved into her current location on Sunset. Appropriately named “The Cottage Antiques,” the quaint blue house has only 1,500 square feet of floor space. As a result, Jelinski is all about turning over her inventory fast. “I specialize in furniture; it’s what makes me money. My store is unique because we commit to having new items every Tuesday and Thursday. I stage a piece just like it would be used in someone’s home so a customer can immediately visualize how it might look. I also price very competitively, so it’s rare for us to have a piece for more than a month,” she says.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. “When I first started, I bought things that I thought people would buy. Turns out that’s totally the wrong way to approach this business. It took me five years to learn that lesson,” she laughs. “It was an expensive one to learn, too!”


Now she buys what she loves, from 18th century to vintage. “It’s very easy to sell a piece that you personally like,” she notes. “Gradually you start to develop relationships with people who like the same things you do, and they become your clients”

Although Jelinski loves eBay for buying, she prefers selling in person. “Online buying has enabled me to find things without traveling as heavily as I used to,” she says. “But I prefer knowing my customers. This business isn’t just about selling furniture; it’s the relationship I establish with the customer that’s meaningful. I love knowing where a piece is going to go and that they love it”

Perhaps it’s her commitment to her customers that has allowed Jelinski’s business to weather so well the seemingly never-ending construction on Sunset: “If I were a new business, I would never have made it, but we’ve become a destination. My clients are so faithful and regular. They know they can count on new finds each week, and they’ve gone out of their way to be supportive. I’m really lucky in that respect”


Over many years of buying and selling, Jelinski and her sister, who is an antiques dealer in Florida, finally found a way to temper their desire to “own” everything they find. “I used to rotate things through my own house. I’d buy them for the store but like them so much I wanted them for myself. When you start out, you tend to do that,” she says. “My sister and I used to fight at auctions about who would get what, but now we just split things. It’s no longer about possessing the item personally, it’s more about winning the bid or getting the item”

It’s not just Jelinski’s sister who gets into the act, it’s a family effort. Jelinski has three children and a husband who have all helped at one time or another. In fact, the oldest of her boys builds furniture as part of his Austin-based business called Howl Interiors. Her husband is a teacher during the school year, but The Cottage gets his full attention in the summer. Her daughter loves antiques and works full time there as well. “She likes to be in the store, whereas I would rather be out buying,” says Jelinski of her daughter. “And she has a younger eye and a real gift when it comes to talking to customers”


Jelinski is fortunate to have found an occupation and hobby that she’s passionate about. “I see no end in sight. This business is a lot of fun, and if you don’t mind working hard, it will be a success. There are many levels and ways you can work within it, such as buying space in a mall or selling a few pieces at a time online,” she advises. “I like to think of it as buying a piece of yourself”

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