Vince Jelenic of Green Spot Antiques in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada took the time to answer a few questions I put to him recently. Vince is one of my main Twitter contacts and if you're involved to any degree in e-commerce you ought to make sure you're following him in order to access his fresh and sometimes even unorthodox opinions. Vince isn't shy and he has definite ideas about how to do business online ... and off.
It's that last part that makes this special to me. Adding a layer to his perceptions is Vince's background--unlike so many of us making a go of it online he actually owns a brick and mortar Antiques Shop and beyond that is skilled at restoration.
But Vince and I talk about selling all day, what I wanted to know for this space was about how he got into this line. What the heck was he doing in Italy since I knew he was over there for awhile and did it have anything to do with antiques (it did). What types of items get him excited? Most of all I wanted to fill in that missing Green Spot About page, I kind of know who you are but where'd you come from?
Vince answers the call taking care of all of those questions and a bit more. Hope you enjoy:
You've got a huge online presence between your main hub, your innovative Ning shop, and even Green Ink Diary, an e-commerce blog, but I didn't run into an About page. Could you tell us about how you first came to antiques, how you became involved in it as a business, and how Green Spot landed in Ontario?
Cliff, so nice of you to ask. You're right, there isn't an About page at this time, but we're working on that and soon, hopefully, Wanda, my partner, and I will be up and about in a more personal style presenting the minds and hearts behind Green Spot Antiques.
I'll give some of the story away in answering your question. To begin with Green Spot Antiques looks a lot lot bigger than it actually is--we're just two mad antiquers here. Wanda handles the people side of things inside the retail store and I do the restorations, pickups, hunting and general biz maintenance that's required to keep the store humming.
We have achieved what I only considered a dream back in 1980's.
In my youth I was working at a paper factory in Toronto and needed a dresser. I lucked out and grabbed and old oak dresser from an antiques store. It needed refinishing, and so my mad antiquing was born, right there, in that moment. I quickly set about cleaning it and fixing it, and then proudly used my bow-front quarter-sawn oak dresser with swivel mirror .
The kick I got out of this simple thing was great. So much so that I then proceeded to tackle rebuilding the overhead gaskets on a 1967 Pontiac. What fun that was! NOT... but fixing and restoring kind of ran in the family.
I am the immigrant son of a carpenter from Yugoslavia.
No, that's not me in the hat, and it wasn't 1907 but 1959. I was about 4 when we arrived in Canada and we arrived with a debt to pay for the boat trip here and so it sure felt like this picture! Like in all poorer families, I had to help out on the job sometimes, so I helped my dad when he began restoring homes here in Canada. He was a whirlwind and would sometimes have 3 jobs on the go. Some days he would give me my task, and then take off for hours tending to other sites.
My fondest memory of those days, other than spending an entire day white-washing old basement foundation walls, was of him arriving with a hot Italian veal sandwich as a lunch treat. You know the kind, crusty Italian bun, slab of breaded veal cutlet, slow cooked in tomato sauce and placed in the bun, all wrapped in tin paper to keep it warm for delivery. Yum! That was about the size of my payment for all my work -- the importance of this? Well, early on I was taught that fixing things was the normal way of the world, and even came with some rewards. You can blame my dad's veal sandwich offerings for my current state of affairs.
Soon after fixing that '67 Pontiac, in 1978, I was off to Europe for an extended trip. I fell in love with the continent and ended up living in Italy. While there I decided that YES, I would study to restore furniture. So I moved back to Canada with my then wife to save cash in order to prepare to "apprentice" in Italy on my own dime.
Upon returning to Bologna, Italy, it was very difficult, but I finally found an artisan who took me under his wing -- GianPietro Lambertini. -- our arrangement? Well, it was a true apprenticeship, basically, "I'll work for free if you teach me" which I proceeded to do for about one and a half years. After a couple of weeks of seeing how hard I worked, conscience crept in on GianPetro and he started paying me 50,000 lire per week (a pittance, hardly even as good as a good veal sandwich!) . This wasn't part of the deal, just his own decision.
Upon reaching a certain level of confidence, not to mention running out of my reserve funds and learning that I was soon to be a father, I opened my own shop. The days of working for free came to an end.
The tools of the trade? I still use most of these. And MY workbench came from a restorer's workshop beside a major Bolognese church, circa 1900, and is NOT for sale. I expect they'll build my coffin with it's wood, I hope 🙂
As the shop and business grew, so did family, until in 1988 when we decided to move back to Canada. There were various reasons, but in the end it came down my realizing that no matter how long I lived in Italy, I would never really think like an Italian and I found I didn't want to raise my kids to struggle with that either.
So we packed up our belongings--a 40 foot overseas container full, including tools and my precious workbenches--and made our way to Toronto, Canada. Upon arriving "Olde Boote Antiques" was born and business commenced. It was not long after, perhap a couple of years, that I regretted our decision with regards to work, as it wasn't very interesting here in comparison to overseas. You just don't find many painted "cassone" from the 1500's here in Canada to restore. There aren't really any fresh finds of museum quality here in Canada, but in Italy, that was my daily fare. I burnt out.
With an interest in computers, I moved into software development instead, and created a career as a systems programmer/project manager. This was a fun hiatus from restoring antiques, but I never really left the antiques behind, I just laid them aside for a bit.
After 8 years in the computer/software biz I was kinda worn out and one day, driving on Spadina Road in Old Chinatown, Toronto, I stumbled upon a large butcher's block by the side of the road. The beast weighed 200 lbs.
You have to think, it's 6 a.m., I'm already considering quitting my job, not sure what to do next ... and there, staring at me is a blast from the past. Here I go again, I thought! It's a sign.
I quickly talked two guys who wanted to scoop it for themselves into helping me load it into my trunk and realized that I was back in the antiques business whether I liked it or not. And I still possessed that sweet-talking needed to succeed or I couldn't have walked away with if from right under their noses. Yup, I was BACK.
Here's the culprit:
One quick meeting at the office and I was officially classified surplus and sent on my merry way to my antiques business again. That was 2003 and I've never looked back since. Wanda joined me part-time the first year and soon quit her bank position to go full time with me as well. At the time Wanda had no experience with antiques, but she's great with people. After two years getting our feet wet at markets and shows, we realized we were ready for our own location and opened Green Spot Antiques in a large strip mall location here in Cambridge. Of course, Wanda learned about antiques quickly.
Our first store was largely nondescript. The strip mall where it was located had green tinted windows, green siding, was next to Soper Park. Plus we recycled antiques and salvage--yup it was a very GREEN spot, that's us. Name by chance and intent combined, I guess. But it's a good one!
When I mentioned how my partner, Wanda, and I have achieved our dream it's because now we own our own business inside our own store building. It includes a workshop, has attached living quarters (a spacious 1400 sq ft apartment), and rental units for income. My daily commute is from my kitchen door through a vestibule and into my large workshop. If I get curious the retail store is on the ground level, just down the stairs. Sometimes I forget when the last time I used a gas pump was.
I love this 100 year old building:
(Please note: the signage is a mock-up. We've been too busy to get proper signage, the actual building has NO signs at this time.)
Our business, and lifestyle, is about as GREEN as you can get.
For us, it couldn't get any better. Although the antiques trade has its tough points, I gotta admit it's where we want to be, and will be for some time to come -- our current landlord (the bank), won't let us go easily 🙂
I can see from your stock you handle a wide variety of goods from small ephemeral items right up to big heavy pieces of furniture. Are there any particular areas that you concentrate and/or specialize in?
As an antiques dealer, of course we'll deal in whatever walks through the door that we can make a buck on. Since we do our own restorations we tend to look more for pieces where an added value can exist. Since few dealers still restore their goods for sale there is an abundance for us in terms of furniture and larger pieces of salvage. China, collectibles, ephemera come our way by chance or are simply part of a larger bulk purchase. We do not often attend auctions, buy online, or even travel much to buy stock anymore--it finds us.
We specialize in antique miniature salesman samples, and furniture, and these you wouldcertainly remember, most do. But our stock is quite varied and eclectic, everything from the $1 shelf to the $7K corner cupboard, and our customers range across that field. Our main specialty is SERVICE, but we provide knowledgeable expertise across the board.
Should I say it? we're a service biz which just happens to sell antiques. (Thanks Zappos!)
If I were to visit your shop what would I remember afterwards about it? Something unique where if somebody mentioned it I'd say, "Oh yeah, that's the place where..."
You would be dealing with Wanda on your visit, so you'd remember this as the place where "Wanda treated me swell."
In our first store we had over 7,000 sq. ft. of stock, floor to rafters, so you might have spent a few hours there and remembered great stuff. Our new location is more of an artisan's display area, more akin to my origins in Italian workshop, and although there is much to see, it hinges more on service and fulfillment than actual stuff. You would remember the building, and our story of how we had to gut it of over 45 tonnes of materials to provide the cool store you're now in.
You'd remember how among your travels that day it was one of the few antiques stores where you were actually talking to the owners--"We ain't no antiques mall here," and how you got to try to haggle on price before buying. (Remember, I said try to haggle).
Overall, you would go away feeling that even if we didn't have what you wanted today, you could easily come back another day because it's a good place to do business.
It's funny, but we've had customers who really like us and have come back time and again never making a purchase, but having told us that they really wanted to buy from us. I know they'll find that special something on one of their next trips.
Do you collect anything yourself? If not, are there particular items you handle which you're a bit more attached to than others or those that just make you happier than usual?
When I started back into antiques in 2003 I decided that if I was to make it an interesting experience, I'd deal in something peculiar: In this case miniature cabinetmaker's salesman sample furniture. We made quite a name for ourselves at shows and markets with our stock, and people still remember us as the "little furniture people" throughout Ontario.
They hold a keen spot in our hearts to date and we'll actively pursue any coming on market within local area. Unfortunately, they are easier to sell than find, so our collection has grown a bit slimmer over the years, but we're always hopeful.
At our first antiques show in Toronto, we had a small English trestle table, only 12 inches long, which had a few dozen people attending its showing on a constant basis. That was a long day! I must have shown it at least a hundred times that day, opening, closing, pulling out the leaves, plus there was a dropping leg mechanism. Thank God it sold midday so people could actually look at other stuff and I could catch a break! It was truly a show-stopper. A link to the original show page exists here, on the internet archive.
Unfortunately, you can't run a business on this type of item alone, or I would. Finding one makes me happy, and selling one makes me long for another--I guess if that is a good definition of a dealer/collector, consider me one.
I assume your brick and mortar shop has a good many repeat shoppers. Are you finding that same kind of loyalty online and if so, how responsible has your Ning site been in growing it? Do you have customers shopping locally in the shop as well as online or are they two totally distinct groups?
Our B&M store has many loyal shoppers. Our online presence is actually geared to creating a loyal B&M shopper. We have used our websites to present our store online as best we can, to make the customer feel like they have a peek into our store anytime. Thus our Virtual Tour has been a favourite among our viewers. We know it leads buyers to our door, they tell us so. Like any physical store, our website provides a preview of newly arrived stock, stock which has SOLD, a Virtual Tour of current stock, plus samples of what we carry.
Perhaps that's one reason I've been so lax in preparing an ABOUT page. (Kinda needs work, doesn't it?)
We took this a step further with our Shop-NING, but with the same goal: To reach local or not so distant customers with the aim of bringing them to our store. A typical website does not have the sophisticated communications tools that a NING system incorporates, so we built our new online store on their network. Members get special discounts, but it is open to the public for purchases.
We find that customer loyalty is very high in our business, regardless of online format...but the NING system does make it simpler and easier to maintain relationships with our customers.
Our customers come from mixed sources. They find us online and come to the store. If they are from out-of town (80% of our business), we direct them back online to our sites to keep in touch more often.
Our online customers, we consider these our eBay customers, for example, are in most cases on and off purchases. While these add to the mix, it is not a primary concern for our business. We treat them like any customer, top-notch, but realize that we couldn't maintain a business from that source, it's too fickle and dependent upon the venue.
We talk a good deal on Twitter and I know you have some strong ideas about where e-commerce is going in years to come. Flipping it around to the customer's perspective, if you were a collector what innovations are you looking for in experiencing the perfect online shopping experience?
I think the future wants personal shopping assistants. With the rapid rise and proliferation of chat and video conferencing it is becoming easier by the day to provide an interactive service for customers. As it becomes easier, it will become the expected.
As a shopper, I would like to contact a few of my preferred stores and let them know what I'm looking for, to be able to add a photo, description, pointing to this item, and then leave contact info so the seller can tell me if they find it. And I would buy from that store because I trust their service and judgment. That trust is built with personal contact, not with Powerseller or TRS badges, or favoured featured sellers-- it's being done by one-on-one contact. It is time consuming for both parties, but would you rather be treated as a client or just a buyer? As a shopper I prefer to be a client.
I'll use an example:
Today, a couple came into the store. They had loved a set of doors (already sold) they saw on our online shop-Ning, and were looking for similar. They also wanted ice-box hardware parts. We don't have any in stock right now. They left their contact info should I come across them.
After they left I tracked down, from various sources, two sets of ice-box hardware of the type they requested. One set was on eBay. A simple phone call, a couple of emails with photos and we can close this request quickly.
Had we developed a relationship online, this could be done online using our NING, where they made it clear that they wanted the SERVICE we could provide, they could have taken advantage of our skills and had a set in their hands within days.
I guess more than an innovation, I'm looking for people to get tired of chasing down stuff and realizing that there's an entire group of professionals who know their business and are now more accessible than ever, especially now given the great tools at hand for easy communications. We like to think our Shop-Ning provides each customer an antiques pro available in their living room at the click of a button.
The future collector? I hope he has the sense to return to the Mom & Pop shop, or at least expect personalized service and not the automated kind.
It's where the real action is. Mom & Pop with worldwide clout, at least for a business such as ours.
Wow, thanks Vince! Hope you enjoyed that, not our typical Share Your Collection entry, but one which I personally enjoyed!