In the Trade
Kris and Paul Casucci entered the antiques business at the beginning of the Great Recession after losing their jobs, so they harbor no nostalgic memories of how much fun the business was for many of us during the second half of the 20th century. “It was the worst possible time,” Kris said. “I was a title examiner for thirty years. I worked for real estate investors. With the recession, I had no work.” And Paul was a contractor—a career category that, of course, also was decimated by the real estate debacle.
So the Brookfield, Massachusetts, couple became antiques dealers, and how they manage to make a living in the trade today tells you a lot about how the market has developed during the past decade.
Once upon a time, if you wanted to be an antiques dealer, you just bought an early house, put some old stuff in your barn, and hung a sign out by the road. But that’s not likely to be a winning strategy today.
The Walker house. The antiques shop occupies two downstairs rooms. During shows on the property, dealers set up in the front and back yards as well as in the fields.
Paul and Kris Casucci.
Part of the flock. The Casuccis raise long-horned Jacobs. Kris sells “hanks” of wool at shows; they are favorite accents for folks decorating in the “simple life” style. They’ve sold as much as 1000 pounds of wool in a year. She said, “When we first started doing shows, wool hanks paid all our expenses—booth, hotel, meals. We brought eighty hanks to the Simple Goods show in Ohio and sold all eighty at ten dollars a hank.” She added that the hardest part of dealing in them these days is finding the right washing machine to clean the wool. “Paul bought me a new machine, and I can’t use it. You can’t agitate wool, and you need lots of water.” (New machines, being environmentally friendly, usually agitate violently and use water sparingly.)
The Casuccis, in fact, do have a nice early house. It’s a classic saltbox, part of which may date to the end of the 17th century. A family named Walker owned the farm until the mid-19th century, which is why the Casuccis have named the place Walker Homestead. They bought it in 1984 with no thought of ever running an antiques business out of it.
While they maintain a shop in the house, that is only one relatively modest component of their business. Nevertheless, the house and its 30 surrounding acres are the linchpin of their operation. They put on two shows of their own at which dealers set up on their grounds (rather like the original Antiques in a Cow Pasture that Russell Carrell ran at his home in Salisbury, Connecticut).
In addition, with Connecticut dealer Ian McKelvey, they mount eight Tailgate at the Walker Homestead shows on the property. And they are partners in another group of seven Tailgate NORTH shows along with McKelvey and Marlo Paju at the Flying Pig Antiques Co-Operative in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, where they also rent a display space.
But wait...there’s more. They recently bought the twice-a-year Simple Goods show in Ohio, and Kris said she also has been brought in to help manage the venerable Fitzwilliam Historical Society show in New Hampshire. In addition, Kris usually sets up at all three Brimfields. She said, “We set up in Central Park with a group called Brimfield Country Roads.” (Paul stays home during Brimfield week. Because Walker Homestead is only about 15 minutes from Brimfield, Kris said, “We usually have a houseful of guests,” and Paul tends to them.)
A flax break, the legs of which are two tree forks. The big chunk of wood on the right is the head of the “hammer” that you drop to pound the flax. Kris said, “I found it in pieces underneath chicken feeders in an Amish barn in Indiana.” (She noted, however, that this find wasn’t quite as serendipitous as it sounds. Amish farmers in Indiana these days are as likely to stock their barns with antiques as with animals.) This piece is $325.
A crewel-on-linen panel with silk backing and wool-flannel filler. Kris said she can’t pin down the date but noted that the use of flannel filler suggests that the piece was meant to keep out the cold and wasn’t just a decoration. The single panel is more than 7' tall and is 4' wide. It’s priced at $295.
Two-sided sign for the longtime Brookfield, Massachusetts, antiques shop of Carrie Ruggles (1900-1998). “It used to be right out on Route Nine,” Kris said. It comes with the “CLOSED” sign that hung from the bottom of it. Price, $625.
Stoneware, some from the Charleston, Massachusetts, pottery that the Casuccis are particularly interested in. Other pieces are from New York and New Jersey. Prices range from $225 to $495. Kris said the stoneware market seems healthy: “I sold ten pieces of stoneware at a recent Illinois show, and two were over a thousand dollars.”
In all, the couple exhibits at some 30 shows a year—with a full van and a big trailer—as far away as Tennessee and Illinois. Also, Kris writes occasional articles for the popular Simple Life magazine. Finally, they also have an online shop on Etsy where they sell craft objects that they make.
That’s how they make a living in today’s market.
All of this, of course, did not happen at once. Originally, the couple rented out half their downstairs to a woman who, Kris said, had “a lot of reproduction work. Paul made some furniture for her.” Kris started putting some antiques into that shop, but ultimately she couldn’t live with the mix. “It ended up with reproductions and cutesy dolls,” she said.
So the shop became her shop, which she stocked with antiques and some of her homemade craft items. In 2010 they decided to put their charming house and grounds to work and launched an antiques show on the property.
Like much of central Massachusetts, the area where the Casuccis live might be classified as “exurbia.” It’s rural, but not exactly country. There are lots of trees and an occasional small agricultural enterprise, but there are also a healthy number of vinyl-sided Cape Cods, “Colonials,” and raised ranches strung out along the narrow roads.
But any sense that you may be on the fringes of suburbia vanishes when you approach Walker Homestead. The dirt road that you drive in on ends in their front yard by the sheep pasture with a stunning view of their early home.
Their first show took advantage of the property’s rural feel. While the Casuccis deal in a variety of country antiques, Kris clearly has a soft spot for the “simple life” part of the business that values modest objects at (relatively) modest prices.
A corner of one room in the shop. The large “walking wheel” works. “It’s usable,” Kris said. “I bought it from the estate of a spinner.” It’s $200.
Nice silhouette with watercolor highlights, $595. A lot of details are packed into a small package: there are two dogs; the woman on the left, in a blue dress, is holding flowers; the old woman has a fan and is sitting on a stylish fancy chair with her feet on a footstool; and to top it off there’s a monkey sitting on the back of the chair.
Diminutive yarn winder in dry gray-blue paint, $135. Kris said, “It was deaccessioned from a New England textile museum. I like the form; I like the size; I like the paint.” In fact, it would make an attractive tabletop sculpture.
That first show, in 2010, was named Simple Treasures of the Past, and it wasn’t at all like antiques shows of earlier generations. To begin with, it didn’t take itself too seriously, and it still doesn’t. Animals wander around, the Casuccis dress in period costumes, and a bluegrass band plays throughout the day.
The whole point is to make the show an event that doesn’t intimidate people: a place to which you can bring the family, whether you’re an antiques collector or not. “They can make a day of it,” Paul said, and Kris added, “It almost feels like a country fair.”
Also, that first show wasn’t just an antiques show. Kris said, “When we first started, it was half and half—antiques and crafts.” However, she added, “My heart is in the antiques, and now it’s about ten percent crafts and ninety percent antiques.”
She said they are choosy about the craft dealers they let in and look for those whose handmade goods lend themselves to simple country interiors. Paul noted, “We have a woman who does hooked rugs and a couple who do sgrafitto and redware.”
“We had a bookbinder come all the way from Washington state,” added Kris, who herself makes beeswax candles, garlands of dried fruit and gourds, decorative hanks of wool, holiday ornaments, and a variety of small sewn objects.
Paul said they don’t allow any craft imports, to which Kris added, “In our contract we say we have the right to pull anything from the show. If someone comes in and we don’t like what they have, we don’t invite them back.”
New crafts serve a purpose, Paul said. “A lot of people don’t like antiques because mice ran through them.”
After their first show, the Casuccis decided to rebrand the operation as Walker Homestead’s Antiques & Primitive Goods Show. That’s what it has been twice a year ever since. The spring event usually occurs on the Saturday of Father’s Day weekend, and the end-of-summer show takes place in late September. This year it is scheduled for September 22.
The shows each run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and charge a $5 admission. Between 40 and 50 dealers usually exhibit, Kris said. “I send out applications to about a hundred dealers. About half do one show—spring or fall.” And although most dealers are from New England and New York, Paul said, “Quite a few come from the Midwest and Pennsylvania. We’ve got one from Virginia, one from Indiana.”
Their Simple Goods show in Ohio also takes place twice a year, in early November and late April. It started out in Mount Vernon, Ohio, moved to Mansfield, and then to Berlin.
Three hatchels. The large one on the left has inscribed daisy-wheel decoration. Prices, from left to right: $125, $45, $48.
A selection of redware, mostly from New England, $45 to $275. “I’m a redware fanatic,” Kris said.
The couple bought the show in self-defense. “It was always one of our best shows,” Kris said. “When the two girls who owned it announced they were going to stop it, we approached them to see if we could buy the show.” Kris said they partnered with Pennsdale, Pennsylvania, dealer, Christina Hummel and entered into protracted negotiations at the same time that others were seeking to start a similar show in the area.
The show continues to be a good venue for them. Paul said the gate was always modest—400 to 450 people—but “the people who came were buyers.”
And they weren’t all looking for antiques. Kris said, “We get regular antique buyers, but a lot just have a simple enthusiasm. A lot of them are buying a ‘look.’ They’re people decorating their homes.”
Since the Casuccis and Hummel took over, attendance has grown. At their most recent show, Paul said, “We had over 850 though the gate.”
The Ohio shows are one-day events, but they come with two days of setup. “We want their booths to look awesome,” Kris said. “Some dealers come with almost nothing and buy for two days to stock their booths. Not a soul is allowed on the grounds during setup unless they’re a dealer doing the show.”
Then there are the Tailgate shows, which go in a very different direction. They bear a resemblance to venues such as Jackie Sideli’s Danbury Dealers Show of decades ago, in which there were a couple of hours of furious deal-making and then it was pretty much over.
Kris said, “I share a booth with Ian [McKelvey] at Brimfield, and he wanted to do a walled show. But we wanted to make it so it wasn’t a thousand-dollar booth rent.”
That didn’t prove possible, so they went in the opposite direction: set up a short, cheap show once a month on the Walker Homestead grounds and see what happens. “We did a trial run in October 2016.” It seems to be working.
Kris said, “Some really wonderful things have come out of the field. At the first one, there was one of the best pieces of stoneware I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The show begins at 9 o’clock, and dealers can’t even put out a display table before that time, Kris said. Only antiques are allowed. “It’s pretty much over before noon,” Paul said. The setup fee is $45. There’s no preregistration. You call ahead, and, if there’s space, you’re in. Just about everyone who sets up is a dealer, but you don’t have to be. You could just be someone cleaning out your attic. There’s no admission charge for the public.
The Walker Homestead tailgates run one Thursday a month—usually toward the end of the month—from March through October. The tailgate shows at Flying Pig in New Hampshire run one Wednesday a month from April through October. Marlo Paju shares a booth with Kris Casucci and Ian McKelvey at Brimfield, while Casucci and McKelvey share a booth in Paju’s Flying Pig group shop, which suggests how important personal relationships are in the antiques trade.
Kris said that taking care of dealers is the key to a successful show: “If you don’t have dealers, you don’t have a show.” To that end, there are dinners for vendors, coffee and doughnuts during setup, and pizza as needed. Paul said dealers “enjoy coming. It’s not just ‘pay the booth rent, do the show, and leave.’ We love our dealers. We can’t survive just on selling antiques alone.”
And they advertise. Kris said, “I believe strongly in advertising and in direct mail.” And of course there’s Facebook. “We couldn’t do what we do without Facebook,” she said. “Wherever we go people say, ‘I follow you on Facebook.’”
The Casuccis exhibit at the Days of the Pioneer show at the Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee and other shows in Illinois and Ohio that highlight the “simple life” aspect of the antiques business. They also like the Danielson, Connecticut, Country Antiques in Connecticut’s Quiet Corner show.
They no longer do shows at Antiques Week in New Hampshire Week venues in August. Kris said, “We dropped them to concentrate on our booth at the Flying Pig because a lot of New Hampshire week dealers stop there.”
The Casuccis both grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts. Paul worked for the town and had no particular interest in antiques or early architecture. But Kris did. “I always wanted an old house,” she said. “When I was a kid, every Sunday we’d take a ride in the country and look at old houses. I’d draw pictures of old houses with fences and horses.”
After their marriage, they were living in the Boston suburb of Millis. They searched the real estate listings for early homes, but all proved too expensive. Then, Paul said, they discovered the area west of Worcester: “We were looking through the MLS book and saw antique homes out this way for a lot less money.”
The couple is guardedly optimistic about the state of the market today. “Sales are getting better,” Kris said, to which Paul added, “People are starting to pay for something that’s nice.”
And what’s it like having ten antiques shows a year on your property? “It’s great,” Kris said. “There’s nothing I like better than shopping in my backyard.”
For information contact Kris and Paul Casucci, Walker Homestead, 19 Martin Road, Brookfield, MA 01506. Shop open by appointment. Phone (508) 867-4466 or (508) 341-6870. Website (www.walkerhomestead.com).
Originally published in the July 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest