In the Trade
by Frank Donegan
Mary and Bob Fraser.
Exterior view of the shop. A lot of work went into making it look as if nothing much was done to this barn.
A partial view of the Frasers' shop.
Another view of the shop.
A chestnut-backed cupboard in an old mulberry red is $2200. From left, top shelf: a gilt-bordered metal plaque with folky painting of a farmhouse in snow, $85; a yellowware bowl with embossed foliate design, $55; and a small gold-painted eagle meant to hold a little Memorial Day-type flag, $140. Middle shelf: an Asian plate, $110; a tiny painted tin document box in good shape, $55, and an Imari plate, $110. Bottom row: a Shaker carrier (with “some imperfections,” Mary said) in mustard paint with copper nails, $475; a small redware bowl, $150; and a Shaker coffeepot with a little early patch on the bottom, $110.
This hooked rug, dated 1898, in beige, pale blue, and rose tones is $350. The heart in the center is vivid blue. “Hooked rugs are soft right now,” Mary said.
An Ojibwa herb-gathering basket is $850. “I love Indian things,” said Mary. “We don’t really have a market for Indian, but I still buy it.”
A view of the shop’s book room. Mary and Bob don’t sell a lot of books, but Mary said, “You can sell people a book who wouldn’t buy an antique.” She doesn’t specialize but tends to carry mostly genealogy, children’s books, antiques reference works, and books about Vermont. She also has odds and ends such as bookmarks and bookends. “I like anything book-y,” she said.
Last month in this space we featured two young dealers whose combined ages—as one of them pointed out—didn't add up to 80 years. Well, this month we’re going to the opposite end of the spectrum. Mary and Bob Fraser of Chester, Vermont, have had an open shop for almost 50 years (it’ll be exactly 50 in July), and they are not shy about admitting their ages, which, combined, add up to 161 years.
Best of all, they’re still going strong. When we visited them back in October, they had just returned from exhibiting at the Bromley Mountain show where they had sold, among other things, a harvest table, two sets of chairs, and a small chimney cupboard.
"There’s a lot of energy at that show,” said Mary, who herself seems not to lack for energy. Besides having raised four kids, she and her husband have restored a bunch of houses, exhibited at up to 25 shows a year, and kept a large shop open and fully stocked. In addition, Mary is secretary of the Vermont Antiques Dealers’ Association. She writes the VermontADA news column you read in this publication.
For the past half-century, dealers such as the Frasers have been the bedrock of the New England country antiques trade. They deal in everything that has turned the “country look” into a perennial design favorite. They sell good, solid stuff that can go into any home whose owner wants to evoke a comfortable rural ambiance. As their business card states, the Frasers deal in “blankets, country furniture, quilts, coverlets, samplers, wrought and cast iron, folk art, soft paste, stoneware, yellowware, wooden ware, hooked and woven rugs, etc., etc., etc.”
Unlike many dealers today, the Frasers are adamant about maintaining an open shop. Five years ago, they bought their current home because it had just the type of roadside barn that could be turned into a shop. Considering that they were in their mid-70’s at the time, and that the barn had large holes in the floor and no foundation, it was quite an undertaking. But Bob, an industrial arts teacher who took early retirement, worked with a former student to get the project done. Now, on the outside, the place looks like a typical weathered small Vermont barn that has been pretty much undisturbed for decades, but inside it has been transformed into a roomy, wood-planked shop, heated by an inviting stove and filled with lots of inventory.
For the Frasers it clearly doesn’t matter what your age is: if you’re going to be an antiques dealer, you should have an open shop. “I feel that’s what’s wrong with the antiques business—not enough open shops,” Mary said. As do many dealers of a certain age, she recalls an era when customers, pickers, and dealers spent long hours in shops telling stories, exchanging information, and discussing the fine points of objects. Nothing passed the time in a more congenial fashion than flipping over a piece of furniture and talking about it. That’s a lot less likely to happen in antiques malls or show booths.
Mary said it’s nearly impossible to repeat those experiences today. She noted that on a recent buying trip, “We drove one hundred seventy-five miles to visit shops, and we were only able to spend one hundred seventy-four dollars.” There simply aren’t enough shops anymore. “There used to be more than you had money for. You had to pass on things,” she said.
The Frasers opened their first shop as young marrieds. They had been high school sweethearts in Milford, New Hampshire. Bob had served in the Navy during the Korean War and had gotten his teaching degree from Keene State College on the GI Bill. Mary had received her teaching degree from the University of New Hampshire.
By the summer of 1963, they were in Hollis, New Hampshire, where Bob was teaching. They were furnishing their home with antiques, and Mary was running a private kindergarten out of a shed attached to her kitchen. “It had a pink floor,” she said. (For those who may not know, New Hampshire was the last state to mandate public kindergarten. The last school districts to offer it did not do so until the 2010 school year. In earlier years, if you lived in New Hampshire and wanted your kids to go to kindergarten, you hired someone like Mary to teach them.)
By that summer Mary was also pregnant with her daughter Kate. She felt that her condition and running the kindergarten weren’t quite compatible, so, she said, “We filled up the kindergarten with antiques, put out a sign, had a customer within a half-hour, sold something, and have been doing it ever since.”
The date was July 10, 1963, and they were antiques dealers. “As soon as neighbors saw the antiques sign they started bringing us things,” Mary said. “We just went by the seat of our pants. My customers educated me.”
She recalled one early lesson. “A woman had a plank-end chest and wanted thirty-five dollars. I had heard that plank-end chests should cost about thirty dollars, so that’s what I offered.” The deal was struck, and Mary took the chest back to the shop. A dealer came in and pointed out that the piece was a French-foot Federal chest worth considerably more than what Mary was asking. Sometimes, as the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The next time Mary saw a French-foot chest, “I paid seventy-five dollars and then asked too much for it and didn’t sell it until I figured out I was asking too much.”
The Frasers moved from New Hampshire to Vermont in 1967, after Bob got a teaching job in Springfield. The first house they bought was the General Lewis Morris house on the Connecticut River. Morris served in the Revolutionary War and was a congressman from Vermont. The hipped-roof Colonial had eight fireplaces “and wonderful garden land,” as Mary said. The reason they could afford such an impressive homestead on the modest income of a middle-school teacher and an antiques dealer was that it was in sad shape. By way of understatement, Mary explained, “All the houses we have bought have been in a considerable state of disrepair.”
Their next house was even more of a project. Mary said that she was doing some part-time social work that required her to drive to meetings in Concord, New Hampshire, a couple of times a month. On one trip she noticed a fine early cape that was destined to be replaced by a branch bank. It dated from 1735 and had four fireplaces and two beehive ovens. After some involved machinations—and despite the fact that they owned no land to put it on—the couple acquired the structure. They quickly bought 40 acres of land overlooking the Connecticut River back in Vermont and moved the house from its cramped triangle of land in Concord.
One of the side benefits to having a husband who’s an industrial arts teacher is that he has plenty of skills that come in handy when an early house has to be reconstructed. After everything was done, Mary said, “When you walked in you would have thought it had been standing there since 1735.”
When Bob retired from teaching after 28 years, the Frasers decided that their 40-acre spread, while beautiful, was too far off the beaten track for a couple who now planned to be true full-time antiques dealers. “When Bob retired we felt we needed a better place to sell antiques,” as Mary put it. They bought an 1840’s brick cape in Taftville, a hamlet of Woodstock, and lived there for 20 years until they bought their current home.
The Frasers have been doing shows for almost the entire time they have been in the business. “For a couple of years we just did the shop,” Bob said. He noted that the couple’s first show, in Leominster, Massachusetts, had a home-buying element to it. “Mary was doing the show. The same day there was an auction of a house and contents. I actually went to buy the house. I bought a highboy instead—for one thousand dollars. I only made thirty-nine hundred dollars a year in my first job. I never wrote a check that big in my life. I had to write it twice to get it right.”
They exhibited at Betty Forbes’s shows in Dorset, Vermont, and Glastonbury, Connecticut, and ranged as far south as New Jersey a couple of times. Although they have done as many as 25 shows a year, by last year they had cut back to nine and, Mary added, “Next year maybe not quite so many.”
One of Bob’s favorites is the Danielson show in Connecticut. “I consider it my trip south for the winter,” he said. He likes the show’s leisurely Friday setup and early pack-out on Saturday. “I’m back in my bed by Saturday evening.”
Mary founded what is now the Bromley show with Lynne Gallipo, who later moved to Arizona. The show started out in Wallingford, but she lost the use of the small elementary school in which it was held. Needing a new venue, she said, “Bob and I hopped in the car. When we got to Bromley, we said, ‘If they’ll have us, this is it.’” The location proved to be a fortunate choice since other shows sprouted nearby at Okemo, Ludlow, and Manchester. “If we were still up in Wallingford, we’d be out of the loop,” Mary said.
Eleven years ago the couple sold the Bromley show to Jim Dunn, and they laud him for the way he has developed it. “He has done everything to make it a good experience for the dealers,” Bob said.
The Frasers also take space at the nearby Stone House Antiques Center in Chester, despite their strong bias toward single-owner shops. Mary said, “They’re open all the time; we’re open by chance or appointment.”
As have most dealers, they’ve seen prices plummet. That $1000 highboy that Bob bought some 45 years ago may now cost even less than it did back then. “Prices have tanked,” he said. They’ve seen basic highboys that used to cost $3500 sell for $850. And as most dealers know, you can completely forget about slant-front desks. Bob said, “The last Governor Winthrop desk we saw was three hundred seventy-five dollars, and we didn’t bid on it because we have two in the shop.” “Plus one in the house,” Mary added.
Mary and Bob have three daughters and a son. The aforementioned Kate, whose arrival propelled her mother into the antiques business, lives in Kingston, New York, and works with the Animal Farm Foundation rescuing pit bulls and trying to rehabilitate their unfortunate reputation. Daughter Lissa teaches at Salve Regina College in Newport, Rhode Island; Donna is a special education teacher in Charlotte, Vermont; and son Stephen lives nearby in Chester where he makes and sells maple syrup and honey. “He does a little bit of everything,” his father said.
The kids have suggested that maybe their parents should think about scaling back, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. “We’re still having fun with this,” Mary said, to which Bob added, “We’ll keep on trucking.”
For information, contact Mary and Bob Fraser, 2155 Route 11 East, Chester, VT 05143; (802) 875-5944; e-mail <email@example.com>; Web site (www.frasersantiques.com). Open by chance or appointment; also at the Stone House Antiques Center, Chester, Vermont.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest