Barbara Boardman Johnson in New Hampshire.
Johnson’s shop Pewter & Wood in Enfield, New Hampshire. It’s on a dirt road, just like her place in Cave Creek, Arizona.
Eight bottle dolls (actually, one is mounted on a tin can rather than a bottle). “They’re under $350 each,” Johnson said.
Interior views of Johnson’s New Hampshire shop.
Nice punched-metal pie safe in gray/mustard paint, $1850. (The sides and front are punched; the back is not.) Johnson isn’t sure of its origin. It appears to have some poplar interior wood. “It was found in a barn in Essex, Vermont,” she said. “Whether it migrated to Vermont or what, I don’t know.” The grain-painted domed trunk on top is $550.
A Spanish or Mexican darning sampler found in California, dated “Octubre 28, 1856,” is priced at $2200. Motifs include a monkey, doves with a heart, and a key.
Three-drawer box in yellow and brown grain paint made to sit on a counter, $1250. The top lifts to reveal a shallow compartment; it’s mortised, tenoned, and pegged like a cupboard door. Secondary wood is poplar.
Three sections of a hand-carved column in old blue paint have trailing leafage twisting around the boldly reeded pieces. Johnson doesn’t know where they were made. The wood is heavy and dark. The three pieces together are $550.
In The Trade
Selling country antiques in the northeastern United States is no big deal. Lots of people do it. But what’s it like selling the same stuff in the Arizona desert?
Barbara Boardman Johnson knows. She sells in the East and in the West. From May through early autumn she sells at shows in New England and Pennsylvania and from a shop behind her lakeside home in Enfield, New Hampshire. Come the beginning of November, she trucks her inventory to her desert home on a dirt road in Cave Creek, Arizona, north of Phoenix and sells from there.
She estimates she earns about half her gross in each place.
When she’s in the Northeast, Johnson, who sells a mix of country smalls and furniture with emphasis on first surface paint, could be said to be in the mainstream of the business. But when she’s in Arizona? Out there, she said, “It’s very strange. I’m like a fish out of water.”
There are sharp differences between the antiques markets in the two regions—both in what kinds of antiques are available and in the way that they’re sold.
To begin with, in the Southwest, there is—not surprisingly—very little country material of the type sold back east. “Most dealers there buy from estate sales,” Johnson said, so they’re not likely to pick up much in the way of painted jelly cupboards or Windsor chairs. The antiques trade, she said, is “much more generalized. Lots of glass, china, silver, Victorian, oak, jewelry.”
Johnson said that, overall, the antiques business in the Southwest has dropped off substantially, perhaps even more than it has in the Northeast. “The housing market really tanked in Arizona,” she explained, so there’s not lots of interest in furnishing homes. There were very few shops carrying country material to begin with, and now, she said, “Most country shops have gone by the wayside. My shop has been a kind of oddity.”
In fact, there are few independent shops of any type that have survived in her area of the Southwest. “The majority of dealers out there are in malls or group shops,” she said.
Before opening the shop in her Cave Creek home, Johnson had a shop in what she calls “a neighborhood-type strip center” in Scottsdale. She ran it from 1991 to 2004. She closed that shop, she said, because “I had burnout from sitting in the shop. Also rent out there is very, very high. The overhead was not conducive to doing business.”
Besides, she and her husband (whom she identifies only by his nickname, “Smiley”) had gotten their two kids, Erica and Joshua, through college, and were free to sell their home and move to the more relaxed and rural Cave Creek about 20 minutes north of Phoenix. “There are beautiful views. It’s a great tourist destination,” she said.
Selling antiques out of one’s home by appointment may be an accepted practice in much of the country, but it’s not in Arizona. Johnson said, “It’s really different out west. People are intimidated by shops in the home. They don’t want to disturb you.”
To overcome this local reticence, Johnson said, “I had to change my whole method of selling.” She holds an open house each month. “I redecorate every month. I have an e-mail and a call list, and I invite people,” she said. She also advertises the open house in the local antiques trade paper, the Antique Register. She gets about 30 people a month to come, and they buy.
Johnson also runs an annual luncheon and silent auction to benefit Alzheimer’s research (her mother was afflicted with the disease). She said, “Dealer friends from around the country send me things for the auction.” In addition to benefiting a worthy charity, the event, she said, gives her visibility among collectors in the area. She added, “Many locals have never been east, but there are some diehard collectors. I still have a lot of collectors who started in the 1980’s with me.”
During the 1980’s and ’90’s, Johnson exhibited at eight to ten shows a year in the Phoenix-Prescott-Mesa area. They were general-line shows. She compares them to the old New Haven, Connecticut, shows in the Goffe Street Armory. (Johnson grew up in the Westville area of New Haven near the Yale golf club.)
There were no “country” shows in the area. Now, she said, there are virtually no shows of any kind. The only show out west at which she has consistently exhibited is the California Country Antiques Show in Los Altos, California. She didn’t do the most recent one but said, “I’ve done it every year since 1988, and I plan to go back.”
Johnson said that even in country material, there are distinct differences between what sells in the East versus the West. “Textiles have always been an issue out west. Selling hooked rugs is not easy. Textiles are easier to sell in the East,” she said, adding, “Quilts are starting to see more interest here [we’re speaking in New Hampshire], but they’re still dead out west. Also, samplers and oil paintings are easier to sell in the East.”
On the other hand, she said, “Out west I still have strong collectors for things like pantry boxes, whereas here they’re a little slow.”
And of course, she noted, “Any folk art pieces with a ‘Wow’ to them sell in either place.”
She also noted that Phoenix-area buyers are more likely to buy on line—not necessarily because they are more tech savvy, but simply because they want to stay off the dreaded highways of the sprawling megalopolis. “In Arizona I see more people willing to Internet shop because driving crosstown is a fifty-mile trip.”
But it was driving—albeit of a less stressful sort—that introduced the young Johnson to antiques as she accompanied her parents on what she fondly remembers as “Sunday drives in the Connecticut countryside.” She said, “My parents looked for old silver, Tiffany, glass—all that ‘Do not touch’ stuff.’ ” She followed their lead and collected china pin boxes.
It should be noted that Barbara’s maiden name is Boardman and that her family owned a firm—started by her mother—that made pewter hollowware in Connecticut. Yet, she said, she knows of no connection between her family and the famous Boardman family of pewterers. The inclusion of the word “Pewter” in her business name, Pewter & Wood, is in fond memory of her parents’ business. She actually sells very little pewter. (But she does sell a lot of wood.)
Johnson said her first “real” antique was a $3 Lincoln rocker. She had gone to college at the University of Vermont and married a Vermonter (the aforementioned Smiley). “We strapped the rocker onto the back of his motorcycle,” she said.
Johnson went on to teach at Essex and Colchester, Vermont. Her husband studied computer science in grad school, and they moved to Pennsylvania. That’s where she really began to appreciate country stuff. “I fell in love with Pennsylvania antiques,” she said.
Smiley’s job led them to Phoenix. “I hated it out west. I had antiques withdrawal,” Johnson said. So they came back east. But that didn’t suit Barbara’s husband. Having been brought up in Vermont, she said, “He hated being cold all the time.”
So it was back to Arizona.
And then it dawned on Barbara that maybe she didn’t have to live in just one place.
In 1983 she began selling out of the Arizona house, but when summer rolled around, she headed for New England, leaving Smiley to enjoy the desert heat. She tried her first northeastern antiques show: “I did Brimfield—May’s field—once in July with my four-year-old daughter.”
Even after she opened her Scottsdale shop in 1991, the six-months-here-six-months-there routine continued. She said, “I’d rent the largest U-Haul trucks they had. That was back when you could fill them [with antiques].” And she’d bring her kids along on these treks. She said, “We’d crash around. I’d stay with friends.” She got a more solid New England base when her parents bought a home near Mt. Snow in Vermont.
“I used to take two weeks each way. I’d buy my way across and buy my way back,” Johnson said. “Now I take four days.” Today most of her buying occurs after she gets back to New Hampshire. “I buy from the time I get back here in May and bring that all out west,” she explained. And now that her own kids are having children of their own, her cross-country companion is her golden retriever, Riley. “He’s my co-pilot,” she said.
This itinerant lifestyle was certainly aided by the fact that Johnson and her husband have successfully figured out how to accommodate each other’s preferences. “He’s rarely in the East and rarely goes to shows,” she said. “He likes waterskiing.”
Johnson added, “Most dealers have seen my kids with me at shows, and I suppose they wondered who my husband was.” She recalled one show promoter who, never having seen her husband, assumed her marriage was on the rocks. “He came up to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your divorce.’” Of course, there had been no divorce; it was just life as usual.
Johnson put down permanent roots in New England in 1997 when she bought her current home, which fronts Crystal Lake in Enfield. (She noted that New Hampshire has two Crystal Lakes, a fact that may not be unique to the Granite State, since just about anyplace you go there seems to be a Crystal Lake nearby.) Johnson noted that her husband, who will be retiring soon, has promised to come east for two months next summer. After all, one can water ski on Crystal Lake too.
During 2000-01 Johnson built her Enfield shop across the dirt road from her backyard (she seems to have a penchant for dirt roads). Despite having the attractive shop, she said that, in the East, “The majority of my business is at shows.” Unlike in the West, she said, she doesn’t advertise except for running an occasional ad in a show section.
She does about a half-dozen shows a year in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, among them Frank Gaglio’s Pickers Market, the Vermont Antiques Dealers’ show, and the Carlson and Stevenson show in Manchester Center, Vermont.
Johnson said, “I’d like to add a few more shows in the East,” but added that she’s not interested in any New York City venues.
As for the shop and house on Crystal Lake? “This is a constant,” she said. “This won’t change.”
For information, contact Barbara Johnson of Pewter & Wood Antiques at (602) 677-5686 (cell); in Enfield (603) 632-9822; in Cave Creek (480) 948-2060; Web site (www.pewterandwoodantiques.com). By appointment and at shows.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest