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Antiques Show Booths: A Style Guide

Hollie Davis and Andrew Richmond | July 12th, 2017

The Young Collector

At the risk of repeating ourselves, selling antiques is hard work. There’s all the driving around and browsing auctions and hauling heavy things in and out and up and down; there’s all the calculating of margins and costs; there’s the mental load of keeping a rolling sense of inventory; and there are all sorts of “hidden” challenges too, tasks that people just don’t realize are so labor-intensive. For instance, designing a booth requires a great deal of forethought, an ability to envision how the finished product will look, the skill of calculating how much inventory to take (take too little and you miss opportunities, but take too much and you’ll be tempted to hold a fire sale just to avoid loading up again at the end of the day), and generally some sense of aesthetics, what looks good together and how much space an object needs to stand out. Some friends use graph paper beforehand to create a scaled layout, while others even go so far as to set up mock booth walls ahead of time and take photos. Setting up for a show seems like such an obvious part of the job that it is easy to overlook, but an incredible amount of thought and planning goes into every single booth one sees at a show.

And at this point, after nearly 15 years of hitting the show circuit, we have seen a lot of booths. After a while, one comes to realize that they’re sort of like collectors—there are types of booths. They have personalities, in a sense, and there are definite categories, so we offer some observations.

The Gallery Booth: A gallery booth is like a mobile art gallery. You will recognize it immediately because you will know you are not cool enough to buy anything in it. You will notice a gallery booth a mile away because of the spotlights, but even if you’re feeling particularly stylish, you might never actually go into one, because it’s easy to assume that everything has to have at least three zeros in the price. Someone has to pay for all those pedestals, after all.

The How-Much-Can-I-Fit-In (HMCIFI) Booth: Space is limited and you need to make sales, but editing your list is really hard—“Let’s just bring everything! That way something is bound to sell. My booth is 10' x 20', so I should be able to get six chests, five tables (three of them are drop-leaf, so no problem), three sets of chairs, and a wardrobe in there with plenty of room left over for 30 paintings and 15 quilts. Pfft, who needs colored paper on the walls?” Often with HMCIFI booths, you can’t actually enter the booth. You can just stand at the front and gesture while the proprietor climbs over to the back wall to retrieve any potential purchase. That is, of course, if you can get past merely wondering how long it took them to set everything up. (See also the I-Just-Cleaned-Out-A-Barn Booth.)

Be sure to seek out the soothing experience of the You-Really-Should-Be-An-Interior-Designer Booth. Wait, is this a booth, a reception room, or a magazine photo shoot? Is there potpourri? When will they pass the hors d’oeuvres? Dealers at big shows often do use designers, but plenty of dealers even at small country shows will make you stop in the aisle to admire their talent. The woman who sets up across from Andrew can take a pile of millstones, throw in a few flowers, and turn it into a room setting that will knock your socks off—just before she sells all of it.

Nothing-But-Furniture Booth: Andrew says this is something only men do. Women are smart enough to know that small things are easier to move (both physically and in terms of selling). These dealers are the ones driving the 26' long rental truck to fill a 10' x 10' booth. They tend to be boom-and-bust in terms of shows. They’ll either not sell a single thing or sell everything they own and pay their kid’s college tuition before lunch. Note that these dealers are also easily identified by their back braces. Furthermore, they have a distinctive, low, muttering sort of call, “I hate unloading, I hate loading, I hate unloading.”

Maze Booth: These are created by people whose talents are wasted on antiques. These booths are created by people who really should be designing corn or hedge mazes. They seem to disrupt the time-space continuum of the show somehow. They’re usually on corners or sometimes even through an aisle. It’s like those episodes of Scooby-Doo where pulling an iron sconce rotates the fireplace and everyone walks out confused and somewhere unexpected. “Wait, where are we? Didn’t we see this aisle already? Oooh, I like this! Honey, come look at this! Honey? Where’d you go?”

One type is really observable only by those who currently work or have worked in the auction business and thus have sold an extraordinary quantity of antiques. When those folks go to a regional show near said auction house, they often encounter the Hey-We-Sold-That Booth. These are the booths that are populated by purchases from your (former) employer’s recent auction(s). For some reason, these objects look much different in a booth than they did in the salesroom or in, well, overcrowded storage. (Is there such a thing as enough storage at any auction house?) But before you pass judgment on the markup, be sure to read our “Antique-onomics” columns from a few months back.

The Anchor Booth: The anchor happens when you have a lot of stuff to sell but one thing you really want to sell—a large case piece, typically, although a large portrait or landscape is also acceptable, but in any case, the sale of that single object would make your whole show. Every dealer has done this at some point. A secretary, cupboard, chest-on-chest, or a big name important artist landscape goes in the center of the back wall, and the symmetry drives everything else. It is flanked on either side by a pair of portraits, two trade signs, or a pair of banquet tables, a couple of stands with candlesticks, and generally a rustic trestle table up front holding at least three of the following: flowers, candy, business cards, flyers for upcoming shows, or an empty wine glass left by another customer.

The As-Found Booth: This one has two variations, the I-Just-Cleaned-Out-A-Barn (IJCOAB) and the It-Just-Needs. The IJCOAB booth is one we’ve all seen. It is easily identified by the large quantities of rusting metal implements, tools for which no one now knows the purpose, weathered wood, and the thick layer of dust. The It-Just-Needs booth is much trickier. At first glance, everything in the It-Just-Needs booth is amazing. But then we look closer. “Now, that is a great highboy, isn’t it? You do not see them like that anymore. It’s a beauty. Just needs a new back leg there and it’s all set! No? You like pie safes? This one came out of the back of a hog shed in Virginia. Just needs new tins—you can have any design you like! Nope, don’t know where the drawers on that cupboard got to.” Everything is almost perfect; it just needs something.

The I-Hired-A-Piano-Mover Booth: This booth tends to draw more amazed whistles and quizzical looks than actual sales. This is the booth where your only thought is “How the heck did they get that in here?” The facility manager’s only thought is about the structural integrity of the building. We’re especially surprised by the dedication of some of these folks, because we see the same behemoth objects at multiple shows. We’d have given it away rather than loading up another time.

The I-Only-Like-One-Thing Booth: These people have never heard “You don’t have to like it to sell it.” They like one thing—toothpick holders, face jugs, painted furniture—and that is all you are going to get from them. If you have seen their booth once, you have seen it a thousand times.

A few years ago, we might not have given this much thought, but after more than a year in a new line of work, we’re enjoying a change in perspective. The world looks very different from inside the booth looking out. Dealers move the antiques world forward. We would stagnate and rot without them. They are the force that roils new material to the surface and are the unofficial storage units of our nation’s collective history. We’ve never had more respect for the legions of folks, regardless of the size of their booth or their inventory, for whom this is a labor of love, those who pack trailers in the rain, spend lots of nights in cheap motels, know where to get the best meal and a beer after 9 p.m., and always find something new to be excited about sharing with the world. We’ll see you somewhere on the road.

We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached  by e-mail <[email protected]>, on Facebook (, or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.

Originally published in the July 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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