From left: Dave and Dan Braskie. (Lorraine was off on the day we visited.)
Exterior of the group shop.
One of the crowded no-nonsense aisles in the Quaboag Valley Antiques Center.
The furniture section of the center. Much of it is devoted to Dan and Dave’s inventory.
Oil on canvas painting of a red mill and burbling stream by Ruth Sanderson, who grew up in nearby Monson, Massachusetts. Dave said that the artist is known for her book illustrations. “She does fantasy kids’ books.” This scene is $500.
A Tiffany serving fork in the Renaissance pattern with its original labeled bag. The Braskies also stock lots of other pieces in this pattern. This one is $450.
Pair of Heywood-Wakefield step tables, $400.
Marble-top rosewood vanity that Dave Braskie attributes to the cabinet shop of Elisha Galusha in Troy, New York. It has an old finish that has been cleaned and is priced at $4000.
In the Trade
When times get tough, it doesn’t hurt to have more than one iron in the fire. That certainly seems to have been true for the Braskie family whose business (or more correctly, businesses) is (are) centered in Palmer and adjacent Monson, Massachusetts.
For more than 45 years these folks have been running a whole pack of antiques-related ventures—usually simultaneously. They have their own antiques business; they own a large active group shop; and they operate a restoration business that, even in these less-than-thriving times, appears to have a backlog.
The Braskies’ most visible venture is the Quaboag Valley Antiques Center on Knox Street, just off U.S. Route 20, in Palmer. When we visited recently, the center, which has space for 60 to 70 dealers, was chock full, with only two unrented spaces—this at a time when many centers have simply vanished.
The center is also the location of the family’s antiques business. The building contains 11,600 square feet, and the Braskies reserve about a third of it for their own inventory. In its salad days, the business shipped tractor-trailer loads off to destinations far and wide, with much of the material going to outfit Cracker Barrel shops and restaurants around the country. Nobody’s doing that sort of volume any more, but the Braskies still stock lots of furniture, from early and Federal material to 20th-century modern.
The restoration business is located in nearby Monson where Dave Braskie was born and brought up and where he still lives.
The principals in this family operation are Dave, Dan, and Lorraine. Dave started it all back in the mid-1960’s. He’s married to Lorraine. Dan is their son. Figuring out exactly who’s responsible for each business might test the skills of a forensic accountant. As near as we could figure, Dan and Lorraine run the antiques center. Dan and Dave run the antiques business. Dave runs the restoration shop, but Dan works there a couple of days a week too. “I prefer to work on early and unusual pieces,” Dave said. Dan added, “He does most of the woodwork; I do mostly finishes.”
When it comes to the bottom line, they figure about 50% of their net is generated by their antiques inventory. “We’re out there buying all the time,” Dave said. Approximately 30% of the profits come from the antiques center and 20% from restoration. “I could make a living off the restoration. We have about six months of work backed up,” Dave said.
The Braskies started the group shop three decades ago. In fact, this is their 30th anniversary, and they’ve been holding a giveaway contest to celebrate. They rent the building from Dave’s brother-in-law (keep it in the family, right?). Dan said, “Our core dealers are excellent. Some have been here for twenty or twenty-five years.” Space can cost anywhere from $60 a month to as much as $500 for a large space to display furniture. An 8' x 8' booth runs $165.
Dave said, “When new dealers come in, we tell them, ‘Start with a small booth.’” There’s always room to grow. Dan noted that one current dealer started out with a tiny space and now has three booths. “It’s a credit to him and his business,” he said.
Dealers who rent space come from throughout the Northeast. The dealer who’s farthest afield is a woman from Delaware, but she doesn’t hold the distance record. Dan said, “We had a girl from England who shipped over bone china, and we’d unpack it and put it in her booth. But she got married and is out of the business.”
When the Braskies opened their group shop, they were riding a wave. “Centers were hot,” Dave said. Nearby, group shops had already opened in Sturbridge and in southern New Hampshire. “Lorraine and I went around to other centers to see what we liked and didn’t like,” he said. “We went to shows to talk to dealers and sign
Dealers apparently liked what they heard. “The first floor filled up in one day,” Dan said. The second floor was filled within a month. And the place has been pretty much full ever since. The center’s longevity means that there are not only repeat customers, but repeat generations of customers. Dave said, “We’ve got people coming in now who came in with their parents when they were little.”
The center is a bare-bones affair, which may account for its survival in troubled times. There are no fancy booths; no fancy lighting. If you like smalls, it’s paradise. “Some people spend three or four hours looking at smalls,” Dave said. Booths are crammed with inventory. There’s no artful gallery-look presentation here, nor are there leases. Dan said, “We don’t do leases or take commissions on sales. That’s just a lot of bookkeeping. And we don’t require dealers to do floor time.”
Dan noted that running a group shop isn’t always as simple or pleasurable as his description of it might suggest. Customers can be a pain, and because the Braskies, as owners, represent all the dealers, they can’t kick the bad customers out. “We have to put up with some bad ones,” he said. “If you had a booth at a show you could tell them to get out.” Here, you have to hold your tongue. Dave agreed. “I have trouble dealing with people who don’t know what they’re looking at.” That may explain why he isn’t the family member in charge of the center.
The early success of the center and Dave’s deepening involvement in the antiques trade (back then, the family was also running a monthly auction with Bruce Smebakken) meant that he could leave his “real” job. He said, “I was the number two maintenance guy for Diamond International [Corporation]. We made egg cartons.” In addition to running the group shop, the family plunged into the antiques trade full time.
They will buy just about anything, from jewelry to art and large furniture. Dave said, “I started out doing country and early stuff, but I learned quick you can’t do just that. We have variety. Everything from five dollars up.” Dan said that because his father has established so many contacts in the business, they can feel confident about buying almost anything. “He knows so many people that you can always have somebody to call.”
We noted that there doesn’t appear to be much mid-century modern in either the group shop or their own inventory. Dan admitted that it is not as popular in central Massachusetts as it may be in other areas. He said, however, that the primary reason that there is not much of it on display is that “it’s pretty much all sold. We have four chairs going off to San Diego that sold off our Web site.”
The Braskies said that they don’t sell a lot off their Web site, but Dan, who handles the site, said that it serves an important function. “It’s how people find us.”
It’s the earlier material that isn’t selling as it once did, and Dave lamented that fact. He pointed to a Sheraton mahogany chest and a New England bag table and said, “Nobody even asks about them.” Dan agreed. “You can see good Windsors for less than a hundred dollars at auction.”
Dave has been wheeling and dealing since he was a kid. “I used to dig bottles,” he said, “then I started trading bottles for furniture.” Right from the start he did restoration for dealers. “I learned a lot from those good old dealers,” he said.
Just as he rode a wave in opening the antiques center, Dave was adept at finessing other waves that swept the business. “Oak took off; then walnut took off,” he said, and he sold lots of both. He fondly remembers the days when haulers from the Midwest and South roamed New England. “They used to be here for a month before Brimfield,” Dan said.
He swept his hand around the large office in which we sat for our interview and said that it used to be the storage room for a single buyer who would stock up at the center with 20 to 30 banana boxes full of smalls and then leave them there until he was ready to go home.
“We used to ship tractor-trailers full to a guy who had movie rental places in California and Las Vegas,” Dave said. And, of course, there were those Cracker Barrel shops that needed cute “old-fashioned” material for their so-called “country stores.”
During part of this period in the 1980’s, Dan was at Keene State College in New Hampshire majoring in business. “I used to pick on the side,” he said. His father remembered, “He’d call and say, ‘Dad bring the truck up empty.’”
Dave said there’s still the occasional hauler who comes by. “I just opened a check from a guy in Iowa,” he said, but the “biggest change is that dealers don’t need stock anymore.” Nevertheless about 60% of their business is with dealers.
For many years the family would also exhibit at 20 to 25 shows a year. The Gurley shows and Farmington were favorites. “Farmington used to be great,” Dave said. Pointing to Dan, he added, “When he was four or five years old, he’d come to the shows with his sister.” (Dan’s sister, Susan, avoided being ensnared in the family business. She’s a special education teacher.)
And there is always Brimfield. The Braskies once occupied three booths at the entrance to the J & J Promotions field. They still do Brimfield but have moved to the New England Motel show.
A substantial portion of their business still revolves around Brimfield. The Palmer exit of the Massachusetts Turnpike is where you get off if you’re heading to Brimfield from the west. “A lot of dealers still come in a week or ten days before,” Dave said. During that period, the center is open seven days a week and keeps longer hours. “We’re here at least till six-thirty or seven. Of course, we used to be here as late as ten-thirty,” he added.
Dave also noted that many dealers stay at motels in Chicopee to the west and pass the shop as they go back and forth to Brimfield.
Dan sees some upward movement in the business. He said, “It’s starting to pick up a bit where dealers really do need stock.” That’s a welcome change from the recent past. He said, “For a year or two our inventory was like a savings account. We were selling stuff at whatever price we could get.”
So things may be looking up, but whatever happens, this family no doubt will still be selling antiques in some manner for a long time to come. Dan said, “Are we rich?” Dave answered, “No,” and added, “Are we famous—no!” But are they happy and surviving? The answer would seem to be a definite, “Yes.”
Contact the Braskies at the Quaboag Valley Antiques Center, 10 Knox Street, Palmer, MA 01069, (413) 283-3091, Web site (www.quaboagantiques.com). Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest