As area residents have long known, Woodbury, Conn. is the unofficial but widely recognized Antiques Capital of Connecticut.
There is justification to that claim, as the small Litchfield County town boasts more than 30 antiques shops that attract buyers from all over the U.S. and beyond. Some seekers of the old, storied and beautiful drive up from New York City or Fairfield County in their Porches and Mercedes on weekends to cruise up along Main Street (Route 6). They pass fine restaurants, quaint village shops, including one where Marilyn Monroe once sipped ice cream soda, and myriad storefronts that boast an assortment of antiques, running the gamut from
Woodbury's reputation as the state's unofficial antiques capital took root more than 50 years ago, as dealers such as Kenneth Hammitt, Ethel Bjerkoe, Mason Stewart, Moira Wallace, Ignatius Weiss, and Howard and Priscilla Richmond established businesses in historic homes on and near Main Street (Route 6). They were soon joined by current and longtime shop owners who established Woodbury as a favorite rural antiquing destination for collectors, decorators and dealers. Many shops are now home to second- and third-generation antiques dealers. Together, they cover almost all categories, periods and styles of antiques, along with related accessories, gifts and
You might think that the antiques trade, which appeals in large part to upper income individuals, may be somewhat recession-proof. Well, that isn't the case, as buyers tuck away their checkbooks when the stock market takes a plunge or the country weathers political uncertainty and an economic downturn. Dealers are optimistic that the worst of the current storm is past and are feeling positive about the future, albeit
“I would say that about 50 percent of my business is now done on the Internet,” said William Hildreth, a former marketing consultant who purchased the venerable Mill House Antiques & Gardens from former owner David Veselski in 2008. The new boss sat in the office of his pleasantly rustic shop located close by busy Route 6 on a sunny afternoon. “That has been a big change in the industry, and we manage a vibrant presence on the Internet with our Web site.”
As they say, you change with the times or you perish, and that is true even in a business so deeply rooted in tradition and the provenance of the past as antiques. Mr. Hildreth and his wife, Diana, who love their new life in Woodbury after years spent in hectic Fairfield County, would like to, as they say in marketing, bring more added value into their business. The property already has visually sumptuous gardens that entice customers, and there are plans for some sort of a tea room or perhaps even a small bed-and-breakfast on the property, which encompasses several acres and no fewer than 13 buildings, nine that are actively involved in the antiques trade.
For lack of a better term, some Woodbury dealers are thinking out of the box-or make that thinking out of the shop in their efforts to bump up sales and attract clients. Country Loft Antiques, for example, conducts dinner parties and weddings and has a seven-bedroom bed-and-breakfast that features meals prepared in a “gourmet” kitchen.
“It's all about supplementing what we have with the antique shop,” said Carole Winer-Sorensen, owner of Country Loft Antiques. “We always have the antiques but we also have a beautiful venue, 19 acres on Main Street, and holding events here, and by having a bed-and-breakfast, allows us to keep people around for a longer period of time and attract new customers who want to find out what Woodbury is all about.
She reported that business has begun thriving again after the economic downturn, and said she feels nothing but upbeat about the future of Woodbury as an antiques capital.
One of the key factors in keeping Woodbury at the forefront in the world of antiquing was the creation in the 1980s of the Woodbury Antiques Dealers Association, composed of dealers who banded together to create a group and a Web site to promote their individual businesses and the town as a whole as a destination. The site includes a list of dealers and information about their shops, as well as a bit of Woodbury history, and a list of area inns, restaurants and recreation venues.
Thomas Schwenke, owner of Thomas Schwenke Antiques, said, “The economic slowdown affected Woodbury and all other locations with special emphasis on antiques. But Woodbury has a strong base of dealers and an active dealers' association who have worked together to increase group marketing over the past few years, and that has mitigated somewhat the impact of the economy. Traffic to Woodbury has declined, although we are seeing knowledgeable previous clients and new clients on a regular basis.”
Four years ago, Mr. Schwenke started an auction platform that he says has strengthened his business and added significantly to his client base on both the auction and direct retail side. He has continued his national advertising program, reduced the number of shows in which he exhibits, and concentrated efforts on his shop's Web site in order to draw new business.
He said Woodbury has been and will continue to be “a mecca for antiquers due to the number of good dealers here and our group stature,” and added, “The antiques business is healthy, although there are shifts occurring in what people are seeking to purchase, and that is the challenge we all face-staying current and adapting to a new collecting/purchasing environment.”
Karen Reddington-Hughes, president of the Woodbury Antique Dealers Association and owner of Abrash Galleries, Rugs and Antiquities, points to the efforts of the association as crucial in keeping the town high on the must-visit list of those antiques lovers that Mr. Schwenke referenced. She also believes the signs along I-84 announcing the Connecticut Antiques Trail, seemingly a modest bit of help from the state, can have a major impact on increasing traffic of potential customers flowing off the highway and onto Woodbury's Main Street.
“For years the town has been known as the Antiques Capital of Connecticut, and it is very fitting that as an association, and with the help of State Sen. [Robert] Kane and William Monti (with the latter leading efforts to raise money for the sign), we spearheaded the Connecticut Antiques Trail that is modeled after the state's wine trail. The long term goal is to highlight the towns that have quality antiques,” said Ms. Reddington-Hughes, with Woodbury, of course, perhaps being most prominent among those centers of cherished items for the home.
Ms. Reddington-Hughes' shop specializes in antique Persian, Indian, Turkish and Chinese rugs, and gives a very real indication of how the diverse nature of the antiques shops in Woodbury is one of the town's main strengths. There's something for everyone. Abrash Galleries, opened in 2004, offers an eclectic mix of art, fine porcelain and exceptional handmade, vegetable dyed and one-of-a-kind oriental rugs.
Lisa Demuro, owner of Lisa Demuro Antiques, said the antiques business in Woodbury has weathered the economy's “capitulation” because of the high level of professionalism and commitment the dealers have displayed in good and bad times. “I am selling less quantity and more quality,” she said. “To keep my business growing, I have started participating in antiques shows. I believe Woodbury will continue to be the ultimate destination for high quality antiques.”
George Champion, who fits uniquely into the landscape, as his Modern Shop is the “only shop in Woodbury dedicated to 20th-century design,” says customer traffic is down but visitors who are shopping are more likely to be serious buyers. “My shop is probably faring better than most. The focus of our shop, Modern design, is currently in favor. In fact, 2012 marked the opening of our adjacent showhouse that expanded Modern Shop's retail space by 3,000 square feet. The expansion allowed us to diversify merchandise beyond our primary focus, mid-century Modern furniture, and carry far more accessories.”
Mr. Champion has seen an uptick in the cash-and-carry business of smaller items. He has also put effort into a Web site, search optimization and social media, along with some new creative marketing efforts to get the word out about his shop.
“We are seeing customers from greater distances up and down the East Coast, and a concentration of visitors from the New York metropolitan area, who aren't necessarily weekenders,” he said. “Since the Litchfield Hills are a draw for upscale visitors, Woodbury's location is an asset. Also, the location is poised to benefit from the future recovery of the Litchfield County second home market.”
Reputation is everything in the antiques business, and the shops in Woodbury have earned a sterling one by providing clients with the best and most varied shopping experience in the state. A certain camaraderie also helps create synergy between shops of a different feather.
“What is good for the whole is good for everybody,” said Mr. Hildreth. “If someone comes into our shop looking for something we don't have, we refer them to a shop where they can find the item, and vice versa. We will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mill House next year, and that tradition was important to the previous owner and is important to me. We stand by our antiques and the customer knows that.”
While Mr. Champion may be correct in saying that this is a time when customers are looking for a more modern look, historic and traditional styles never seem to go out of favor. “My wife and I joked that when the television show ‘Dallas' came back on the television, antique furniture would become popular again and that is what happened,” said Mr. Hildreth.
“The pendulum is always swinging,” added Ms. Winer-Sorensen. “Some customers who are building new homes may believe it is a time to change the way they decorate their interiors and go back to a more traditional, warmer look, and that is what antiques can do for a home.”
To be certain, Woodbury is a draw for weekenders. It has several fine dining establishments (including The Curtis House, the oldest inn in the state), there are local bed-and-breakfasts, and historic sites and gardens, such as the Glebe House Museum & Gertrude Jekyll Garden and the Hurd House Museum.
Still, Mr. Hildreth said more can be done. “Woodbury as a town has to figure out what it wants to be,” he said. “Some steps have been taken and individual shops and merchants are doing things, but we need to figure out what we want to be and what we want to offer to people who come here. I would like to see a few more cafes, restaurants and bed-and- breakfasts to keep people around longer, but that takes effort, money and time.”
In the meantime, Woodbury remains, if not the center of the universe, then at least a galaxy among the stars that will likely glow brightly for years to come. To learn more, visit the Web site at www.antiqueswoodbury.com.
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