“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
— Leo Tolstoy
When Tolstoy made this point, I’m sure he wasn’t foreshadowing the modern antiques tourism industry. Even so, there is a lot of “coming and going” occurring in the U.S., and in the past year such travel has been responsible for making cash registers ring to the tune of more than $2 trillion.
While big tourism projects garner lots of press and attract lots of political attention, small towns across America attract millions of visitors per year, and a contributing component of their success has been antique stores. A 2001 paper by Ewen Michael titled “Antiques and Tourism in Australia” (there are precious few such American studies) states, “The antique trade is an example of a niche market that appears to enhance visitation to some regional localities in a way that is compatible with the social and economic needs of small communities.” In other words, it brings in a lot of people without over-taxing a town’s resources.
Antiques tourism is a trip generator
Indeed, Michael’s research deems the antique trades to be a tourism “trip generator,” attracting tourists to areas where antique dealers operate. He goes on to say that antiques generate visitors on two levels:
• As a primary generator that draws antiques enthusiasts searching for treasures.
• As a secondary generator providing visitors with a reason to extend their stay. Even for travelers with only a peripheral interest in antiques, the very existence of antique dealers at a location adds value to a destination.
Antique stores are good for a town’s overall economy. According to “Antiquing as a Tourism Recreational Activity in Southwestern Pennsylvania” (Grado, Strauss, & Lord, 1997), “for every dollar of expenditure created by antiques tourism more than three dollars were generated in flow-on income effects for that regional economy.” In plain English, for every dollar tourists spent at antique stores, they spent three dollars at restaurants, hotels, gas stations and other local businesses.
Antiques tourism at work
In Galax, Virginia – population 7,042 – antiques tourism has become an important and growing part of the tourism plan. According to Assistant Tourism Director Jessica Milby, this little town attracts more than 55,000 visitors per year on average – almost eight times the resident population. These visitors bring new money into the Galax economy; the Virginia Tourism Corporation reports that tourist spending in Galax totaled $16 million in 2013; not bad for a small mountain town.
Galax is a short drive from Interstate highways I-77 and I-81. The downtown Galax commercial district is a registered national historic district encompassing 67 buildings. Galax’s strong heritage tourism component works symbiotically with its antiques offerings. Billed as “The World Capital of Old Time Mountain Music,” Galax has hosted the Old Fiddlers Convention annually for the past 80 years. The weekly live Bluegrass & Mountain Music show on WBRF FM 98.1 titled “Blue Ridge Back Roads” draws a crowd to the historic Rex Theater on Friday nights. Bluegrass jam sessions may be found regularly in downtown establishments year-round. Recently, the town has attracted media attention as the home of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Company, the subject of the best-selling book “Factory Man” and the Tom Hanks HBO mini-series project based on the book (to be released in 2016).
The city’s eight-square-block central historic district is ideal for antiques tourism: it is currently home to six antique stores, two antique malls, four consignment showrooms, seven restaurants and an assortment of gift, book, art and wine emporiums. There is also a School for the Arts with its nearby woodworking and pottery facilities, where visitors and residents can work independently or take classes. Two motels within walking distance of downtown and several just a short drive away enable visitors to extend their stay.
The Virginia Tourism Corporation helps Galax and their local partners leverage their marketing dollars by providing matching state grants. Galax Tourism Director Ray Kohl intends to spend these funds by advertising Galax as a travel destination in upscale regional magazines.
Of course, to benefit from these funds requires both a city plan and merchants dedicated to getting the job done. As Mike Goodson, owner of The Vintage Vendor reminds us, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Merchants have to be involved in promoting the town as well as their individual businesses. To that end, Goodson spearheaded an effort to print and distribute a walking tour map of downtown shops, and recruited four other store owners to join him in advertising in The Sunday Driver, a regional antiques directory.
Kohl and his staff have booked 21 events for 2016 in and around the downtown area including vintage car shows; the Virginia State Barbecue Championship; the Rhythm, Brews and Vine Festival; and the Galax Antiques Fair. Kohl also actively markets Galax as a destination for bus tour companies. Kohl is enthusiastic about the place of antiques in the town’s overall tourism plan. Having a generous number of antiques emporiums lends the town a certain retail gravity that makes it easier to attract other destination retailers, which in turn makes Galax more of a draw for tourists. Kohl would like to expand the downtown mix, perhaps adding gourmet foods, quilts, crafts or other specialties. Says Kohl, “Personally, I’d love to see an antique toy shop. I’d be a regular customer.”
To attract new businesses, Galax is prepared to offer qualified potential shop owners incentives based on their business plan and the city’s needs. Incentives may include utility or tax abatements and assistance with obtaining licenses and finding a location. The Crossroads Institute, a rural entrepreneurial initiative located in Galax, can help aspiring owners with market feasibility studies and a business plan.
Certainly, all this support is for naught if the merchants don’t make the tourist experience a pleasant one. Martin and Molly Warr own and operate three antiques locations in downtown Galax: the Briar Patch Mountain Marketplace (antique mall), Knob Fork Creek Antiques and Farmer’s Branch Antiques and General Store (formerly the Golden Gallery of Galax, featured in my Behind the Gavel column from 2010).The Warrs’ enthusiasm for antiques is common among shop owners in Galax. Says Martin, “At the end of the day, what we want customers to say when they leave here is ‘Wow! What a great place! I can’t wait to visit here again!’”
The formula for successful small-town tourism…
…seems to be adequate infrastructure: highway access with directional road signage, upscale restaurants and an ample selection of antique and complementary shops. Helpful but not critical is the availability of state tourism funding and national grant and loan programs. Absolutely essential are a committed local government and enthusiastic merchants who deliver a good customer-level experience.
American towns that languish with empty downtown storefronts would do well to consider antiques tourism as a fundamental ingredient in their tourism recipe.
Previously published by Antique Trader Magazine