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What's old is new again

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JON HOUSE - Christine Palmer of Palmer and Associates.In a few weeks, Christine Palmer and her crew will welcome 16,000 people to the Portland Expo Center for the biggest antique and collectible show in America.

The event, July 12-13, brings together show-goers with 1,400 exhibitors selling everything from neon signs to jukeboxes, vintage jewelry and clothing to antique woodworking tools, dinnerware and Marilyn Monroe posters — all dating from the 1970s and earlier.

Randy Coe, a Hillsboro collectibles and antique merchant, will be among the vendors.

“The Palmer shows are in a category all by themselves because of their size and breadth as well as the demographics of the people who attend,” he said. “In three days, we see everyone from the elderly in wheelchairs to 20-somethings who have flown here from Japan just to go to this show.”

Palmer and Coe are part of the collectible and antique resale industry that has been adjusting to changing times since the late 1990s when online platforms such as eBay gave sellers and buyers a new way to connect. The Great Recession, an evolving market dominated by aging Baby Boomers and the changing tastes of urban dwellers continue to affect who is buying and selling and what’s hot and what’s not.

Lately, vintage clothing from the early 1900s to mid-century has been a top seller. Also in vogue — 1950s kitchenware in avocado green and bright orange, Vera tablecloths and napkins, and colorful glassware. Show attendees also may be on the hunt for vinyl records in good condition and period lighting fixtures.

The July Expo show is the largest of seven shows put on annually by Portland-based Christine Palmer & Associates.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JON HOUSE - Adorned on the office wall of Christine Palmers antique-dealing business is a display of small, cute things.“Four years ago, I lay awake at night wondering where we were headed,” Palmer, 64 said. “Now, with (show) attendance and booth rentals both holding steady, I see us on stable ground. While shopping on the Web may be convenient, many buyers want the experience of seeing an item, touching it, getting the background story about it,” she said. “It seems to us that the Web has found its place (in the market).”

The July event is one of three Palmer shows in Portland. The others are in March and October. There’s also a show in Vancouver, Washington in January and two at the Puyallup Fairgrounds near Tacoma. That’s along with a six-day 400-booth Christmas Bazaar at the Expo Center starting the weekend after Thanksgiving for two consecutive weekends.

Industry adjustments

Palmer’s show line-up is smaller than the 12 big shows the company hosted in the late 1990s. Since then the number of vendors has been in decline with some antique dealers closing their doors and leaving the industry, others cutting back on shows they attend, while others turned to the Internet.

Palmer has seen it all. She’s been part of the Portland-based company since the early 1980s when she began working for Don Wirfs who launched the Portland Antique & Collectible Show in 1981. Since buying out Wirfs a few years ago, Palmer only recently changed the company name. She operates with a staff of five in offices in Portland’s Hollywood District.

Palmer & Associates generates most of its revenue from ticket sales and from exhibitor booth rentals at $200 for an inside booth, $150 outside It also sells a $30 early admission ticket to those who want first crack at the show on Friday evenings when vendors are setting up their displays before a Saturday opening to the public. That pre-sale “opportunity” attracts 2,000 people, Palmer said. Last year the company grossed $1.5 million.

“Don’s concept was to put a big event under one roof as a form of entertainment,” she said. “It’s been a great formula. Thank goodness he included the word ‘collectible’ in the show title. That has made all the difference in attracting younger attendees” (who may view collectibles as more interesting than antiques).

“This has always been a trendy industry...what was hot a few years ago, may fade,” Palmer said. “Right now, mid-century garden items and kitchenware are popular.”

She said exhibitors selling items made as late as the 1970s means that a 39-year-old show attendee could be in the market for Star Wars or G.I. Joe memorabilia or a Bionic Woman lunch box.

To remain successful, Palmer & Associates invests a lot of money into marketing.

“Our goal is to bring together exhibitors and buyers ... for exhibitors to make money so they return,” she said. “To do that we send out tons of event reminder post cards, we use Facebook, broadcast media and we still run print advertising,” she said. “We feature cool collections and offer an educational component with our identification-valuation table.” The $5 appraisal fee goes to the Portland Food Bank.

Palmer estimates that only 20 percent of show exhibitors are making a full-time living from their antique-collectible sales. Many do it as a profitable hobby.

“We recognize that our exhibitors are getting older but many are hanging in there,” she said. “They like seeing friends at the shows; they’re living longer...a lot of people work really hard at this.”

Younger vendors

Palmer notes that the show is attracting some new younger vendors such as Elizabeth Meyers, 25, who sells vintage clothing and accessories from the 1930s to the 1980s and toys. Doing business as “Dapper Descendants, Meyers offers her merchandise only at shows and online.

An exhibitor at the March show, she noted that vintage clothing “is huge in Portland.” “Our generation is recreating old-fashioned style,” Meyers said. “People want to return to a more romanticized time...they want quality but they don’t want cookie-cutter clothes or to be wasteful. Being a ‘thrifter’ is part of the dress-up subculture in Portland,” she said. The business is breaking even after only five shows, she said.

Looking ahead, Palmer thinks the resale industry will be doing well, supported by face-to-face shows like hers, online sales and well-located rental display space in antique malls that showcase consignment items.

“My advice to dealers is focus on 40-year-olds who are still acquiring things rather than the 60-year-old who once had to have that last Hopalong Cassidy lunch box,” she said.

Randy Coe of Coe’s Mercantile in Hillsboro agrees that malls have pretty much replaced free-standing single-owner antique stores.

“Some of the less-well-sited malls now are closing and are being replaced by online sales,” he said. “Meanwhile, some items are just tailor-made to sell online such as lightweight dolls, small pieces of glassware and maps.”

But Coe, who does more than half of his business online, sees a future for the resale industry in general and for shows like America’s Largest Antique & Collectible Shows.

“To duplicate the Palmer shows you’d have to spend two weeks driving around the country, hitting every mall you could go to for the amount and the quality of what you find at this show,” he said. Coe sees each generation establishing a unique connection to the past through antiques and collectibles.

“Since the dawn of time, people have liked owning and acquire things that make them feel good,” he said. “When we buy antiques or collectibles, we are buying back memories...either something we had as children or something we wish we had had.

“Like the flea markets of the 1800s in Europe, the industry will morph into something that we don’t know what it will be, but it will be there,” he said.

Christine Palmer thinks shows like hers will change with the times as new generations become interested in their slice of the past. She emphasizes the larger economic impact of her shows in Portland for their draw from throughout the West.

“People now want things that fit their lifestyle,” she said. “That means formal tableware is out but that unique the avocado Pyrex bowl is in. Who knew?” she said with laugh.