In the Trade
A dealer I know who likes large, unusual, striking, or just plain odd pieces suggested that I interview Tom Seaver. When I walked into the Seavers’ shop on the very busy Main Street of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, I saw why. Although Tom Seaver, who works with his daughter, Sarah, and son, Jared, sells plenty of what we could call “normal” antiques, his large shop might be a good place to start if you happen to be looking, say, for a 500-pound Javanese cabinet hewn from a single tree, or a bear’s skull, or a pair of driving gloves made from beaver fur, or a human-size piece of petrified wood, or a collection of dead insects.
The three Seavers are equal partners in the business. It’s a family operation that’s relatively unusual to come across these days in the antiques trade. You may occasionally find a dealer in business with one child, but rarely with two or more. (Stephen McLellan was a former partner of Tom Seaver. Tom said that he bought his partner out in 2001, but they remained friends and he kept the original shop name.) Jared and Sarah are long-term partners in the business. They are raising families of their own and have worked at the shop for most or all of their adult lives. As you spend time talking to the family, it quickly becomes clear that each member has a distinct role in the operation.
Tom, Jared, and Sarah Seaver.
The shop on Main Street in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
A very partial view of the shop’s interior.
Tom clearly acts as the major buyer. When we suggested that at some point Tom might want to retire, the siblings groaned. Sarah said, “That would be the worst. If he had nothing else to do, he’d be out shopping all the time.” As it is, she said, Tom’s purchases can be overwhelming. Tom agreed, “Stuff is coming at us so fast it’s ridiculous.” He added that the problem is that “it’s so much harder to sell stuff.”
Jared, who has worked at the shop since he was “eighteen or nineteen,” is nicknamed “Dr. No.” His job is to restrain his father’s acquisitive impulses. “My job is to tell him no,” Jared said. Since his father has a particular weakness for large things, Jared said he finds himself saying to Tom, “Yes, I know it’s nice and cheap, but it doesn’t fit in the truck, and by the time we go home, rent a truck, come back and drive it home, it won’t be so cheap anymore.”
Sarah, who did a short stint in data management (“That was enough to put me off regular employment”) before joining the business in the early 2000s, said, “Most of my job is to figure out how to sell the stuff when it gets here.”
She handles the website. “I’m the web master,” she said.
Tom rejoined, “And we’re the clog masters.”
Sarah noted that she’s always running behind on the website because of all the buying that goes on. “I’ve taken something like 34,000 pictures for the website. Decorators ask, ‘Is everything on the website?’ and I laugh. We’ve got at least 300 things on there, but we have 4500 items in inventory.”
To which Jared added, “Then they [the decorators] say, ‘Can we have pictures and dimensions on the rest?’”
In the end, the trio works well because “we’re a family of aesthetically motivated people. We just like stuff.” Stuff takes up space. The Seavers have been in the current shop for 11 years. It’s roughly 10,000 square feet, with the large shop in front, an equally large warehouse space in the back, and a full basement that runs under everything. If you have space, you fill it up. As Jared said, “Our inventory is three times what it was when we moved in.”
A really big (70" x 42") baroque looking glass. It’s second period. Tom said it dates from the 1880s and belonged to A. Conger Goodyear, a founder and first president of the Museum of Modern Art. Goodyear’s house in Old Westbury on Long Island, New York, was designed by Edward Durell Stone and is considered one of the best International Style houses built in America. It’s on the National Register and was recently restored by New York real estate developer Aby Rosen. The mirror is $7200.
Period English mahogany bookcase, 7' x 4', from the late 18th or early 19th century, $2950. All the drawers are false; they are actually cupboard doors.
Pen and ink drawing by Gregorio Prestopino, $350. “He was a New York artist who ended up in Peterborough [New Hampshire],” Tom said.
Before coming to Jaffrey, Tom had shops in nearby Dublin, his hometown, where he initially worked as a carpenter. “I started as a carpenter, then as a restorer, and slowly and surely I drifted from buying parts to buying antiques. It was a gradual transition,” he said, but by about 1980 he considered himself an antiques dealer.
If you were a New England dealer in that period, there was a good chance that you’d sell mainly country stuff, and Tom said he did indeed sell mostly American country, but he added, “I always liked European and Asian. I was buying it when nobody else was. They laughed at me. It was great.”
Given the highly eclectic nature of the Seaver inventory, you might assume that it would be a good place to detect hints about what trends might be just over the horizon. Yet the Seavers don’t see anything unusual in the offing. “It’s hard to say where the next trend is going to be. There doesn’t seem to be any one market that’s particularly hot,” Jared said.
Erzgebirge-style candle pyramid. When the heat from the candles hits the windmill blades, the whole carousel starts turning. These are often German, but this red, white, and blue version appears to be American. It’s 45" x 53" including the fenced base and is priced at $4800.
A mineral collection with a lot of crystals, $575 including the cabinet.
A cabinet of curiosities in the back corner of the shop. Tom said that there’s a brisk business in natural history material. Besides the bear skull pictured above, this corner is where you’ll find sundry bones, medical impedimenta, and insect or rock collections. One of Tom’s most popular items is his jar of human teeth. “When the dentists come in they go on and on about how they used them to learn to do fillings,” he said.
On the other hand, a couple of areas seem to have cooled off. “Modern’s not as hot as it was,” according to Jared. Neither is the industrial look. Tom said, “We used to do a lot of industrial stuff—Jared’s good with metal—but at least our part of it has faded.” The fading, Sarah added, began when mass retailers such as Restoration Hardware began saturating the market. Nevertheless, Sarah added, “Lots of stuff is selling to young people who’ve bought homes. I’m starting to see more people our ages [that is, folks raising families], our generation.”
They are even selling some formal material, but it’s unlikely to be used in a traditional way. Nobody’s doing period rooms with historic wallpaper and swagged curtains. A deluxe pier table may be featured in a room as a piece of sculpture rather than as part of a museum-perfect interior. And it’s more likely to have a modern vase on it than a sinumbra lamp.
“Opulence is still big, but the house is almost empty and all glass,” Sarah said.
As is often the case with dealers who have open shops, the bulk of the Seavers’ business is not derived from retail customers, despite the large display space and predictable store hours.
Sarah said, “We’re mainly a dealer-to-dealer operation.” She estimated that “random people off the street” may account for about 20% of their business, but Tom added, “Walk-ins have picked up.” Sarah agreed, “It has been quite a summer.”
Being located on U.S. Route 202, which joins Main Street for a couple of blocks and sends a constant stream of traffic by the shop, certainly helps. According to Jared, it generates more business in the summer, but he also noted that Route 202 “goes a long way and a lot of people use it going skiing.” Typically, walk-ins don’t spend lots of money. “Usually under a hundred dollars,” Jared said, although he fondly recalled the time in their previous store when a man walked in off the street and bought $40,000 worth of stuff.
Although most sales go to dealers, the Seavers say you still have to keep reminding them that you’re still in business. “They’re not getting into their vans as much as they used to,” Sarah said. Regular contact is important. The Seavers maintain a substantial e-mail list that generates about a third of their business. “You have to do something to remind them that they have to get out on the road,” Jared remarked.
The Seavers view their website as an ancillary tool. Clients check it and then maybe call or come by or send an e-mail. A sale, said Jared, “might be initiated on the web, but a random person clicking though to a sale is a very small percentage.” Decorators account for “a good part of the business.”
Tom agreed, but with a reservation. “Decorators are quite a bit of the business but not as much as before.”
Part of the explanation, according to Jared, is that “decorators don’t carry an inventory anymore.” They don’t have to. They can browse the Internet for what their clients need.
The Seavers exhibit at a small number of shows—spring and fall Rhinebeck, three Brimfields, and Washington Depot in Connecticut. They also used to do the “Other Armory” in New York City and some Stella shows and venues in Nashville and Washington, D.C. Tom said that they cut back because “the shop’s doing fine and shows sort of get in the way.”
For a few years the Seavers also co-promoted the Dealer’s Fair, a show in Connecticut that featured a quick round of selling in a no-frills fairgrounds setting. Jared said that it seemed as if it was a good idea at the time. “We figured if we did it on a Tuesday, what else would you be doing on a Tuesday morning?” But the reality was not as simple as they expected. “A hundred dealers—that’s a lot of cats to herd.”
Pair of beaver gloves, $75. Tom said they were used for driving horse-drawn vehicles or early automobiles.
Two large pieces of petrified wood. The taller one is about 5½' tall and is priced at $3200. The shorter piece in the foreground is $1800.
Relatively rare swivel version of a Charles and Ray Eames DKW-2 chair with its original brown “bikini” pad, $1500. The D stood for “dining height”; the K was code for “wire seat,” and the W denoted wood legs. The “-2” referred to the two-part pad, which the Eames shop called “Postman’s Brown Bag.”
The Seaver family has deep roots in this part of New Hampshire. Tom and Jared live in nearby Dublin at their family homestead, parts of which date to about 1760. Jared said, “Only two families have owned it since it was built. My kids are the seventh generation to grow up in our house.”
Dublin became a well-known art colony in the 19th century. “It was where you came when you got tired of Newport,” Sarah said. The family contributed some notable figures to the art and design world. Tom said, “My grandparents [Thomas and Thea Brush Cabot] were designers, builders, and decorators for wealthy people. They worked for the Fricks [that is, the Fricks of the Frick Collection fame] in Connecticut, New York City, and Newport.” His great-grandfather was George de Forest Brush (1854/5-1941), known especially for his paintings of Native Americans and for his interest in art pottery. Brush was a longtime friend of fellow Dublin resident and artist Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921). Together they developed designs for military camouflage. Brush’s wife, aviator and artist Mary Taylor Whelpley Brush (1866-1949), and their sculptor son Gerome Brush also made contributions to that arcane artistic genre.
So the question is: Does it look as if there might be a third generation joining the Seaver endeavor? Jared said his two kids, nine-year-old Ryan and ten-year-old Maya, are too young yet to have expressed interest. Sarah isn’t sure but notes that her 17-year-old daughter Peyton likes vintage clothes.
In the interim, “We’ll keep trudging on,” said Jared.
For further information, contact Seaver & McLellan Antiques, 2 Main St., Jaffrey, NH 03452. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; phone (603) 532-8500; website (www.smantiques.net).
Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest