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Antiques Tourism and the Selling of Heritage in Eastern North Carolina

Authors:
Antiques Tourism and the Selling of Heritage in
Eastern North Carolina
Kimberly L. Jones and Derek H. Alderman
Department of Geography
East Carolina University
Antiques tourism is a form of heritage tourism, wherein people travel in pursuit of antiques, or stop to shop for
antiques during a trip for another purpose. It is an increasingly popular development strategy for cities and towns
across North Carolina and throughout the United States. There have been few attempts to inventory or understand
antiques tourism from an academic perspective, thus creating a need for site-specific empirical studies. This study
describes the place of the antiques tourism trade in three eastern North Carolina communities —Selma, New Bern,
and Wilson. Surveys, personal interviews, and general observation reveal significant differences in the ways in which
entrepreneurs define what is “authentic” antiques-based development. There is variation in the scale and spatial form
of antiques districts, the level of town involvement in promoting the antiques trade, the marketing strategies of owners
and operators, the use of the Internet in promoting and selling antiques, and the types of antiques and customers.
Introduction
Heritage tourism is a growing market sector in
North Carolina and the United States. Heritage
tourism takes many forms, including museums,
memory trails, war memorials, historic downtown
districts, community festivals, and state and national
parks. An increasingly important form of heritage-
based development is antiques tourism. Although the
collecting of antiques and historical artifacts is not a
recent emergence, its popularity has been augmented
as of late by the Antiques Roadshow, a television program
where ordinary citizens bring family heirlooms and flea
market buys to appraisers to learn the history and
market value of their items. This show and others have
encouraged people to travel to antique shops, malls,
and auctions in search of treasures. Jim Tucker, director
of the North Carolina-based Antiques and Collectibles
Associations, has observed an increase in the number
of antiques retailers in the country despite a recent lull
in the economy and competition from e-commerce
(Jares 2003).
A comprehensive count of the number of
antiques establishments in the United States is difficult
to obtain. Yet, a recent search of a national business
directory revealed that there are at least 40,283
establishments in the United States with a Standard
Industrial Classification of “Antiques-Dealer” (SIC of
5932-02). According to this data, North Carolina
has the tenth largest number of these establishments
with 1,156 (Table 1). Even more impressive than the
sheer number of malls and shops is the extent to which
cities and towns have devoted entire districts to
antiques tourism. An interesting example of such
development is Havana, Florida, which markets itself
as “North Florida’s Art and Antiques Capital.”
Havana’s antiques district began in the mid 1980s,
filling an economic void left behind when cigar
production moved to Central America several decades
earlier. With more than 30 shops, the city represents
itself as a “haven for shoppers and art lovers who are
tired of malls and big chain stores.” The relationship
between large retailers and antique stores has taken
on an interesting dimension in Colleyville, Texas,
where entrepreneurs are converting a vacant Kmart
building into an antiques mall with Tuscan-style décor
(Jares 2003). Historic Depot Town in Ypsilanti,
Michigan offers numerous antiques and collectible
shops as well as a Farmers’ Market, and several
museums. Antiques are an increasingly visible part
of the tourist landscape in Kentucky, where
approximately 40 of the 281 attractions listed on state-
approved interstate signs are antiques shops or
The North Carolina Geographer , Volume 11, 2003, pp. 74-87 74
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State
Antique
Dealers State
Antique
Dealers State
Antique
Dealers State
Antique
Dealers
CA 4,014 MI 1,102 AL 620 MS 353
TX 3,569 NJ 1,037 CO 615 NH 341
NY 2,769 MO 994 OK 613 NM 278
FL 2,162 WA 939 LA 594 NE 264
PA 1,948 TN 882 SC 579 WV 213
IL 1,371 WI 874 IA 552 MT 205
OH 1,273 IN 743 KY 520 VT 202
GA 1,221 CT 729 AR 490 ID 194
VA 1,158 OR 725 KS 467 RI 183
NC 1,156 MD 714 AZ 435 UT 161
MA 1,134 MN 661 ME 427 Total 40,283
antiques districts. In 2002, antiques and souvenir
shopping contributed $220 million in direct spending
to Kentucky’s economy (Baxter 2003).
Despite the popularity and economic
importance of the antiques industry, it is a grossly
under-analyzed topic in the geographic and tourism
literatures. Like heritage tourism in general, the
selling and buying of antiques can take a variety of
different, sometimes conflicting appearances and
meanings within communities. Even what is
considered an antique is open to multiple
constructions and interpretations. Documenting this
variation is an essential step in assessing the
sustainability and importance of antiques as a
platform for economic development.
This paper explores the place of antiques
tourism in three eastern North Carolina
communities— Selma, New Bern, and Wilson
(Figure 1). We used information collected from
surveys, personal interviews, and archival resources
to document and analyze the diversity of the antiques
trade in form, function, and scale; and differences
in entrepreneurial approaches to tourism and the
business of antiques. The lack of uniformity in the
antiques business in these communities illustrates
the extent to which heritage and authenticity are
inherently dissonant and contested concepts.
Antiques as Heritage
Antiques tourism is a form of heritage tourism
wherein people travel in pursuit of antiques,
collectables, memorabilia, old wares, curios, or
second-hand items; or stop to shop for these items
during a trip for another purpose (Michael 2002).
Heritage tourism, as defined in this paper, refers to
travel for the purpose of experiencing places,
activities, and objects that offer a way of connecting
with the past—whether it is for the purpose of
nostalgia, creating a distinctive place or self identity,
researching family roots, spiritual or religious
enlightenment, or the general understanding of
historical events and people (Olsen and Timothy
2002). Antiques tourism falls within the realm of
heritage tourism since many antiques are marketed
Table 1. Antique Dealer Establishments By State, Sorted by Number (Source: American Business Disc 2003)
76 Jones and Alderman
as historically significant objects or artifacts, and the
buying of these goods allows people to use ideas
about the past to fulfill their present needs and
desires (Graham et al 2000).
Despite the widely held belief that the United
States suffers from “historical amnesia,” there
appears to be growing public interest in heritage.
Rosenzweig and Thelen (1998, 3) suggested that
Americans frequently engage in “popular history
making,” in which they “take an active in role in
using and understanding the past.” They found that
while studying history in school bored many
individuals, these same people were eager to use the
past on their own terms and in ways that contributed
to the construction of their identities. Of the almost
1,500 people they interviewed, two-fifths had a
hobby or collection related to the past. Some
scholars have suggested that the growing popularity
of heritage is related to the fact that the world is
becoming more globally oriented. Distanced from
their historical and geographical roots, people
increasingly reach out for things to link them to those
who came before. Shortridge (1996, 10) used the
term neo-localism to describe the “deliberate seeking
out of regional lore and local attachment by residents
(new and old) as a delayed reaction to the destruction
in modern America of traditional bonds to
community and family.” Implicit in this yearning
for place in neo-localism is a desire to return to an
earlier time. The concept of neo-localism runs the
risk of overly romanticizing the division between
local and global. At the very least, however, as Aplin
(2002, 16) observed: “We need connections with
both place and time to locate our present lives
geographically and historically; heritage helps in both
the temporal and spatial sense.”
While neo-localism is a useful concept for
understanding why people value old things and
consume history, it does not capture all the reasons
behind why people yearn for the past and desire to
Figure 1. Location of Selma, New Bern, and Wilson.
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bring it into the space and time of the present. Almost
thirty years ago, noted geographer David Lownethal
(1975) discussed the growing popularity of nostalgia
among all levels of society, noting the expansion of
antique buying to the middle class. In an attempt to
explain the social importance of antiques and other
tangible forms of heritage, Lowenthal (1985)
suggested that there are several benefits to engaging
the past. First, the past is used to make the present
familiar, providing a framework for comprehending
contemporary features and patterns. Second, the past
allows us justify or validate current practices and
attitudes by referring to tradition. Third, the past is
integral to our sense of identity, whether on the basis
of family, region, race/ethnicity, or nation. Fourth,
the past is a means of escaping the present, creating a
distinction between now and then. The past becomes
“a foreign and exotic place where people did things
differently” (Lowenthal 1996, x). Conceivably,
antiques tourism fills these needs and many others.
Indeed, Goulding (2000) found that people
consumed heritage for a variety of existential, aesthetic,
and social reasons.
Antiques as Economic Development
At the same time that heritage has important
socio-cultural functions, it is also a resource that is
increasingly being used to promote economic
development in both urban and rural areas,
particularly tourism development (Graham 2002).
According to the Travel Industry Association of
America, tourists who engage in historical activities
spend more, do more, and stay longer than other
types of U.S. travelers” (Hargrove 2002, 10). Antique
shops and stores are important sites in the production
and consumption of heritage because of their role in
transforming historical objects into saleable
commodities. Yet, geographers have virtually ignored
the antiques tourism sector. Site-specific empirical
studies such as the one reported here are needed to
inventory and understand this growing industry. This
is particularly the case in North Carolina, where the
Department of Heritage does not officially recognize
antiques tourism and state officials have not attempted
to document or evaluate its importance statistically
or otherwise. This is odd given that shopping is the
number one activity of tourists visiting the state
(North Carolina Department of Commerce 2003).
There are early indications that the economic pay off
from antiques tourism could be significant. In one
of the only economic impact studies of antiquing as a
tourism recreation activity, Grado and his colleagues
(1997) found that the industry brought southwestern
Pennsylvania $3.36 million annually.
The antiques industry not only promotes local
economic growth with the presence of shops, but also
supports artisans who prepare the antiques for market.
Michael (2002, 121) suggested that the antiques
industry is not simply the recycling of used goods
but represents a “complex mixture of retailing,
wholesaling, and physical production...It generates
employment across a diverse range of skilled
occupations and . . .preserves skills that are often not
required for contemporary manufactures.” This point
is particularly relevant to antiques in North Carolina,
since the state is known for its skilled furniture artisans.
Michael (2002, 123) suggested that the antiques
industry generates tourism arrivals in at least two ways.
First, it serves as a primary trip generator, drawing
people whose predominant reason for traveling is to
search for antiques, thus making antiques shops or
districts “a destination like any other tourism product.”
Second, antiques tourism is a secondary trip generator,
providing “an ancillary activity at a location that induces
the visitor to extend the length of their stay.” Although
Michael’s work took place in Australia, his general
findings appear to be consistent with antiques
development in the United States. For example, among
the three North Carolina communities examined, we
observed that antiques had a largely secondary influence
on the attraction of travelers to Selma while Wilson
would be considered a primary generator of tourism
arrivals. New Bern had an even mix of primary and
secondary antiques tourists.
Antiques tourism is not single, monolithic
industry but a diverse collection of establishments and
entrepreneurs. Tunbridge and Ashworth (1996) have
suggested that heritage is inherently “dissonant,”
meaning that it is characterized by a lack of consistency
or agreement in the way people produce and consume
the past in the present. Similarly, Graham (2002)
noted “heritage has multiple uses and interpretations
78 Jones and Alderman
which immensely complicate any assessment of its
role.” Heritage tourism does not simply exist in some
universal, objective way. It is a “selective re-creation
and re-interpretation of the past based upon
contemporary values and ideas” (Olsen and Timothy
2002). This is not to suggest that heritage is somehow
“bogus history.” The past is always remembered and
represented in reference to the present. The
production of all heritage—including antiques
tourism—can take any number of different forms and
meanings since the needs and demands of the present
vary socially and geographically from place to place.
In analyzing antiques development, we felt that a
comparative approach would yield the greatest insight
and allow us to document the dissonance and diversity
intrinsic to this emerging form of tourist development.
The Nature of Selling Antiques
According to Barthel (1996, 345), historical sites
and artifacts are heavily sought because the paying
public desires an “unmediated” encounter with the
past, “to get in touch with history in a very real,
literal sense.” While the antiques industry puts us
in close, physical contact with historical objects, it is
not an unmediated experience but one shaped by
selection, contextualization, and interpretation
(Barthel 1996). As Barthel (1996) also pointed out,
representation of the past is mediated by the
attitudes, motivations, and actions of powerful
individuals who manipulate the exchange of cultural
meanings. In the case of the antiques industry,
dealers and storeowners frame how the public values
and interacts with historical items. Like museums,
antiques shops are not simply repositories of
artifacts but “carefully managed realms of
classification” that play a critical role in determining
what counts as an historical treasure and who has
the power to assign value to one object over another
(Handler and Gable 1997, 3). Although there are
many actors involved in the production and
consumption of antiques, we feel that any critical
analysis of antiques-based tourism must examine the
role of antiques entrepreneurs.
Authenticity is a popular theme within heritage
tourism studies since attractions are often marketed
with emphasis on the genuineness or legitimacy of
the historical experience or product they offer to the
public (Chambers 2000, 97-99). Authenticity takes
on even greater importance with the selling of
antiques since the dollar value of an object is often
directly related to its age, documented history, and
rareness. However, authenticity is not an inherent
quality or condition but rather a socially constructed
concept that “varies with different people, at different
times, and in different places” (Dylser 1999, 604).
Handler and Gable (1997, 223) pointed out that
notions of authenticity are based on “an ever-
changing historical sensibility that is a product of
the present, not the past.” Objects, such as antiques
and artifacts, become historically significant when
identified by authorities, who are not only guided
by knowledge of the past but also the desire to project
a marketable, believable image to the public (Bruner
1994; Handler and Gable 1997).
Although the 100-year rule appears to be a strict
and reliable yardstick for deciding what is an
authentic” antique, our conversations with dealers
reveal that authenticity is frequently based upon
other criteria and that the term “antique” is open to
multiple, and sometimes competing interpretations.
While some shop owners include a broad range of
goods under the label of antiques, including
collectible and vintage items, other dealers pride
themselves on the “purity” of their shops. Clearly,
because of the dissonant and potentially contested
nature of the antiques industry, entrepreneurs target
different markets and use different strategies to sell
heritage. In the sections that follow, we document
the varied ways in which entrepreneurs in eastern
North Carolina have envisioned and carried out the
selling of antiques.
Methods
This study sought to find out why antique shops
are flourishing, where this development is taking
place, and what relationship antiques has with
tourism in general and heritage tourism in particular.
Three North Carolina towns—Selma, New Bern,
and Wilson—were chosen for thi study because it
was believed that they each represented a different
style of antiques tourism. The research began with
a search for literature on antiques, both regionally
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Selma New Bern Wilson
Size 3.25 sq. miles 26.98 sq. miles 23.44 sq. miles
District Revitalized historic uptown Historic downtown Hwy. 301
Type of Visit Passing Through Overnight Tourist Business
Type of Visitor Casual Shopper Casual Shopper Dealer
Town Involvement Heavy Moderate Light
Marketing Dealer's Association Visitor's Guide Billboards
Billboards Pamphlets Newspaper
Internet Town and Dealer Town Town and Dealer
Advertising and Sales Advertising Advertising and Sales
Trip Generator Secondary Primary/Secondary Primary
and specifically in the towns chosen for the survey.
It was quickly discovered that there were only a few
academic studies about antiques tourism. What little
that has been written is for a general magazine
audience. The research then led to visits to each town
to observe the layout of the antiques districts and
the style of the businesses.
Because of the influential role that
entrepreneurs play in constructing the heritage
experience of antiques tourists, we focused on the
perceptions, motivations, and business approaches
of antiques proprietors. This was done through a
preliminary paper survey of five to seven
entrepreneurs in each of the three towns. These
respondents represent approximately 45 percent of
all antiques establishments in each town. This survey
collected general information about each business
and the entrepreneur’s observations of the antiques
industry in their local area. The survey was followed
by in-depth personal interviews with two different
proprietors in each town. Our results are drawn from
these interviews as well as our own observations. It
is important to note that this is a preliminary study
better suited for creating hypotheses for future, more
rigorous studies rather than drawing firm
conclusions. At this point, given the lack of any
substantive geographic research on antiques—
quantitative or qualitative in nature—our goal was
to conduct a largely exploratory survey of three
antiques tourism clusters. In the next several pages,
we provide historical background on these
communities and compare/contrast the spatial form
of their antiques districts, the level of town
involvement in promoting antiques, the style of
marketing, use of Internet technology, and the type
of tourists served (Table 2).
Historical Background
The small (3.23 square mile) town of Selma is in
Johnston County, which is easily accessible from
Interstate 95. Smithfield, famous for being the home
of Hollywood legend Ava Gardner, is nearby. Selma
was chartered in 1873 and was a booming railroad
town. Even early on, Selma was a town with an interest
in culture and the arts. The downtown area was home
to two opera houses, remarkable for a place so small.
Selma was also the birthplace of the medicine Vicks
Vapo-Rub, which was created in a small downtown
pharmacy. The town was noted for having two
different rail lines cross in the middle of downtown.
These rail lines sent cotton and tobacco from rural
North Carolina to the mills where they were
Table 2. Overall Comparison of Three Antiques Towns
80 Jones and Alderman
processed. With the advent of the automobile and
the declining importance of the railroad for shipping,
Selma began to decline. The once thriving downtown
was falling apart, and citizens were searching for a
way to bring Selma back to life. In 1997, the town
manager, Bruce Radford, came up with the idea of
making Selma an antiques center (Hajian 1999).
Selma’s antiques development was facilitated by
the fact that it was located close to a major interstate
and had an historic downtown. Radford pointed to
the importance of downtown when he said: “People
don’t expect to shop for antiques in buildings that
are made of brass and glass. They want an older
feeling. Our buildings were tailor-made for antiques”
(Quoted in Westbrook 2000, 18). Radford offered
one year’s free rent to anyone who would move into
one of the downtown buildings and open an antiques
store. The town council approved the idea and
started courting proprietors. “I chose Selma because
of the concentration of antiques shops and because
of town support for this concept,” said Tonia Harris,
the owner of Visual Pleasures Antiques. However,
many of the new investors wanted to buy their
buildings instead of just leasing them, because of
the amount of the expense of repairing damage
inside buildings. One shop owner described the
purchase of her building in a state magazine: “At
closing, you know how they give you keys? I couldn’t
get keys. The building didn’t have any doors!”
(Quoted in Westbrook 2000, 19). Massive
renovations were eventually completed, and today
Selma has a thriving uptown antiques district.
New Bern, the second oldest town in North
Carolina (after Bath), was settled by German and
Swiss immigrants in 1710 and named after the town
of Bern in Switzerland. Situated between the Neuse
and Trent Rivers, New Bern became the site of
Tr yon Palace, North Carolina’s colonial capital, in
1766. The palace was named for Governor William
Tr y on, and famous for having hosted George
Washington for a night’s stay during his tour of the
new United States. This long history is still very
visible in the downtown area. New Bern has the
oldest working clock tower in the state. It is also the
place where Pepsi was created in a downtown corner
pharmacy. New Bern’s already active heritage
industry has provided a strong infrastructure for the
development of its antiques district. The district is
in the downtown blocks, one street over from the
waterfront and within walking distance of historic
homes and the bed and breakfast area.
Wilson is famous for being the home of North
Carolina’s heralded Brightleaf tobacco. However, with
the decline of the tobacco industry, Wilson has had
to explore alternative income sources, including
antiques development. Wilson was settled in the mid-
18th century by small farmers, and has enjoyed fairly
healthy growth. The town was already home to the
noted Boone’s Antiques, which was started in 1951.
A dealer-oriented antiques district has grown around
the area of the original Boone’s establishment along
Highway 301. Today, Wilson markets itself as the
“City of Antiques” and is host to several large antiques
stores and auction houses. Boone’s is still in operation,
now housed in a multi-building complex.
Antique Districts
The Uptown Selma antiques district is a
revitalized historic downtown area with a cluster of
shops. Most of the antiques stores are centered on a
four-block area (Figure 2). There are over 10 antiques
stores in the town as well as boutiques that specialize
in items like handmade soaps and quilts. There is a
parking area at the immediate edge of the antiques
district, and parking is also available along the street
within the Uptown blocks. Visitors are encouraged
to park their cars for the day and explore the town on
foot. Selma is a day-trip oriented antiques town, with
several supporting restaurants and cafes, but no in-
town bed and breakfasts or hotels. There are many
places to stay overnight in neighboring Smithfield,
and many visitors choose to visit Selma after shopping
at Smithfield’s outlet mall. There are other heritage
attractions in Selma. One is the newly restored Union
Depot Train Station, which was restored to working
order in 2002. Another is the Atkinson’s Grist Mill,
which is just outside of town. The historic Rudy
Theatre offers two shows daily, reminiscent of Selma’s
opera-house legacy. Selma also hosts a Railroad Days
festival each fall to celebrate the town’s railroad history
and attract additional customers for the antiques
shops. The opening of new antiques stores appears to
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be progressing steadily as more of the historic buildings
are refurbished.
New Bern’s antique district, which consists of
approximately 12 shops, is also located in the core
area of the downtown historic district (Figure 3). Also
located in the heart of the historic district is the
Chelsea, the pharmacy where Pepsi was created. Today
visitors can sit at the counter in a re-creation of Caleb
Bradham’s store and taste “Brad’s Drink” which was
created as a hometown version of Coca-Cola. The
antiques district is within walking distance of the
historic homes district, where many of New Bern’s
famous bed and breakfasts are located. A common
weekend trip is to stay in a bed and breakfast, visit
Tr y on Palace one day, and then explore the antiques
district the next day. Scattered among New Bern’s
antiques stores are specialty shops, boutiques, and
eateries. Because the antiques district is close to the
new waterfront convention center, many people who
visit the antiques district are business tourists. As one
entrepreneur observed: “When people come to
downtown New Bern and stay at the Sheraton or go
to the convention, they gravitate down here on Middle
Street [the antiques district].”
Wilson’s antique district consists of
approximately 11 antiques stores with several other
establishments specializing in reproduction and
refinishing. The district in Wilson is quite different
from the ones in Selma and New Bern in that it is
not located in the town’s historic downtown area.
The stores are very large and dealer-oriented. In
other words, while the stores are open to the public,
they tend to sell to other antique establishments. In
fact, some antique dealers in Selma and New Bern
buy their stock in Wilson. In addition to antiques
stores, Wilson is home to several large auction
Figure 2. The revitalized historic downtown antiques district in Selma surrounds the intersection of Anderson and
North Raiford Streets. (Photograph by authors)
82 Jones and Alderman
houses, including Langston Antiques. The antique
district in Wilson is along Highway 301, near
Interstate 95 (Figure 4). Stores have their own
parking lots, and are too far apart to walk from one
store to the next. Wilson has the largest square
footage of antiques space of any of the three towns
and entrepreneurs have the reputation for carrying
expensive, high-end items. There are several hotels
and restaurants near the antiques district, including
the well-known Parker’s Barbeque, but visiting these
establishments requires driving as well.
Town Involvement
Selma, New Bern, and Wilson demonstrate
significant differences in the level of town
involvement. In Selma, the antiques district is
being used by local leaders to revitalize a crumbling
historic downtown. The town pays for all of the
outside advertising, including billboards and
directional signs. Selma has invested a significant
amount of money in its antiques district and has
been successful in creating a themed historic
downtown area with the antique stores. Most of
the antiques dealers in Selma belong to the Uptown
Selma Antiques Dealers Association, which exists
primarily for advertising and promotional purposes.
This organization pays for group advertising for
the dealers in over 30 publications along the eastern
seaboard. The president of the Antiques Dealers
Association observed that: “Without town support,
the dealers could not be prosperous.” Selma is
growing at such a rapid rate that downtown
business merchants are organizing a second
association. This association will include the
restaurant and boutique owners as well as the
antique dealers.
Figure 3. The antiques district in New Bern is located in the historic downtown area, one block from the waterfront.
(Photograph by authors)
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The North Carolina Geographer
Raleigh come here.” Most of the buyers who shop
in Wilson are from out of town, so advertising
through billboards and pamphlets does bring in
business. At the same time, however, most of the
antiques stores in Wilson advertise individually in
antiques magazines of their own choosing since
dealers are their primary customers.
Marketing
The Uptown Selma Antiques Dealers Association
does most of the marketing for the antique district in
Selma. They have adopted two slogans—”Antiques
Mecca” and “Selma: A Charming Place to be”—for
billboards and flyers used by the city. Billboards, the
main advertising medium, are placed along Interstate
95 near the Selma exits. One of these exists is
connected with the large Carolina Outlet Shopping
Center in Smithfield, which is popular among
travelers headed north and south on the interstate.
Selma’s billboard marketing strategy aims to catch
people who are stopping in Smithfield and bring them
over to Selma. The newest addition to Selma’s
interstate marketing plan is directional signage. These
signs direct people to the Uptown Selma Antiques
District after they exit Interstate 95.
Billboards are important for marketing Selma
and its antiques district, but they are not the only
strategy. Selma has an easy-to-navigate website that
showcases the town and provides a printable map
of the antiques district. The Antique Dealer’s
In New Bern, there is no association established
specifically for the antiques dealers, but the downtown
businesses all belong to the New Bern Preservation
Foundation and Downtown Merchants Association.
The Preservation Foundation and the Merchants
Association do not advertise outside the town, but
they do host events such as Alive after Five and the
Antiques Show and Sale. Alive after Five is an event
where all the downtown businesses, most of which
close at five o’clock p.m., stay open until nine o’clock.
There are musicians, food vendors, and other outside
activities in the downtown area, and people are invited
to bring their families and come down to the
waterfront and historic downtown area for the
evening. The Antiques Show and Sale is held at the
Riverfront Convention Center for the purpose of
raising money for the Preservation Foundation. Many
of the antiques dealers participate in this event by
either selling at a booth or volunteering for appraisals
or talks on specific types of antiques, such as pottery.
The city does not pay for billboard advertising, but
the New Bern Visitor’s Bureau maintains a website
that provides tourist information.
Wilson advertises itself as the “City of Antiques”
on billboards along all the major highways that run
into or near the town. The Chamber of Commerce
and the Visitor’s Bureau pay for this advertising. A
Wilson antiques store manager stated: “The town is
supportive emotionally but not financially . . .people
like to go out of town to buy things . . . people from
Figure 4. The Wilson antiques district lines the sides of Highway 301, anchored by Boone’s Antiques and other large-
scale establishments.
84 Jones and Alderman
Association also purchases advertising space in 30
newspapers. This form of advertisement invites
people to include Selma in their travel plans before
they leave home. The Uptown Selma Antiques
Dealers Association claims to advertise in magazines
that go from New England to Florida, and also in
the central part of the United States. Some of the
shops also do independent marketing in newspapers
or magazines. One shop owner holds clinics and
classes on antiques in her shop to attract tourists. “I
hold appraisal clinics that are free to the public, like
little mini antiques roadshows....I usually [advertise]
when I have an appraisal clinic coming up.”
New Bern’s advertising strategy is quite
different from Selma’s. Instead of emphasizing
billboards, it relies mostly on print advertising aimed
at people attracted to Tryon Palace and other historic
sites in the area. The visitor’s guide and the Visitor’s
Bureau website both feature the New Bern antiques
district. The New Bern Magazine is a small,
complimentary publication found in the town’s
stores, restaurants, and hotels. It presents articles
about the current events and activities in town as
well as advertisements for individual establishments,
including many of the antique stores. Most of the
stores here do their own advertising. Many stores
advertise in the New Bern Magazine, regional
newspapers, and on the local radio station. However,
the most common advertising seen in New Bern is
in the form of posters and handouts that are found
throughout downtown. For example, when the New
Bern Preservation Foundation held its annual
antique show and sale, many downtown businesses
advertised the event with posters in their windows
and flyers distributed to customers.
The Visitor’s Bureau in Wilson handles group
advertising via billboards along the area. The bright
yellow billboards proclaim that Wilson is the “City of
Antiques, Barbeque, and So Much More,” thus
illustrating the commitment of town authorities to the
antique district. The antique district is currently the
biggest marketable area in Wilson. The Visitor’s Bureau
also produces the Visitor’s Guide, which features several
pages listing the antique dealers found in town. This
pamphlet is available upon request from the Visitor’s
Bureau. However, most of the direct marketing of the
antiques stores is done individually. Each store handles
this a bit differently, but most advertise in regional
newspapers and many advertise in national or
international antiques publications. Trade paper
advertising is the medium of choice for large auctions.
Advertising in antiques publications such as the Maine
Antiques Digest allows the stores to reach the antiques
consumer directly. Many of the stores, and especially
the auction houses, have established customers. These
dealers repeatedly travel to Wilson to buy antiques in
Wilson. Many of the stores use a mailing list to inform
loyal customers about upcoming events.
Use of the Internet
Although the evoking of heritage can be
conceptualized as a reaction to globalization, it is
worth noting that trade in antiques is a global business
has been enhanced rather than threatened by new
Internet technology (Michael 2002). Selma, New
Bern, and Wilson all use the Internet to promote their
antiques districts. Selma’s site, www.visitselmanc.com,
taps into a niche market and is used for promoting
the town, its antiques district, and heritage festivals.
The site features photos of the historic area, a calendar
of events, a map of the antiques district, and links to
the individual shop websites. Most of the stores have
individual websites. Some are used only for
advertisement, but many are used to sell antiques as
well. In general, surveyed shop owners said they are
pleased with their use of the Internet.
New Bern’s website, www.visitnewbern.com, taps
into a general heritage tourism market by providing
information and links to the historic sites in the area,
including Tryon Palace. This site is solely for tourism
promotion in New Bern, and while it includes the
antique district, it does not focus on it. Also, many
of the shop owners in New Bern are retirees who
operate their stores as a hobby, and they generally do
not use the Internet. Therefore, the town website
provides no links to specific shop sites.
In Wilson, the antiques district is just one part
of a broad tourism strategy that includes a variety
of attractions. Wilson’s town website, www.wilson-
nc.com, promotes all forms of tourism in the town.
A significant section of this website is devoted to
the antiques district, and includes the address,
85
The North Carolina Geographer
telephone number, and website (if available) of every
antique store in town. Many of the stores in Wilson
have individual websites. All the stores with websites
use them for promotion and advertising, and many
sell through their sites as well. Wilson proprietors
also commonly use larger websites such as Ebay for
selling their antiques. Storeowners stressed the
importance of the Internet in today’s antique market,
and stated that they had nothing but positive
experiences and increased sales by using the Internet.
One storeowner pointed out that the Internet has
had a huge impact on the antiques industry. She
said: “in your shop you may not have someone who
will walk in your door and pay you $2,500 for a
platter. It may sit in your shop for two years, but on
the Internet, you can find that buyer tomorrow . . .
That’s the real difference.”
Types of Antiques and Customers
The antique shoppers who visit Selma are usually
only there for the day and most are just passing
through Selma on their way to another destination.
Shoppers commonly spend some time shopping at
the outlet centers in Smithfield. However, many
people do spend an entire day in Selma. Many of
them are on their way to or from Florida. They stop
in Selma because it is on their way and many are loyal
customers who visit every year, according to one
antique entrepreneur we interviewed. While young
people do enjoy shopping in Selma, most shoppers
are over forty, and many are retirees.
The shops in Selma carry a variety of antiques,
but some proprietors specialize in something specific,
such as country primitives or a certain type of furniture.
Most stores have the ability to ship purchases
worldwide, and many will hold purchases for customers
who are traveling and wish to pick up their purchases
on their way home. According to one storeowner in
Selma, an antique’s authenticity or historical
marketability is not simply a product of its sheer age
but the extent to which it can be connected to a
prominent family or an interesting story. This same
entrepreneur places story cards on pieces for sale in her
shop. Many of the stores in Selma offer Wish Lists, a
form that customers fill out if they are looking for
something specific. The proprietor will then make an
effort to find the piece for customers and notify them
to arrange a sale. If the customer has changed his or
her mind, the proprietor will put the piece in the shop
and sell it to someone else. Most proprietors in Selma
buy antiques nationally and internationally, so they are
usually able to find what the customer is looking for.
According to one shop owner in Selma, she interacts
with dealers in France, England, and Chicago.
The visitors to New Bern’s antique district are
usually tourists who are in New Bern for reasons other
than antiques shopping. Many come for the historic
sites, an event at the convention center, or a getaway
weekend at the bed and breakfasts. Some even arrive
by boat and stay in New Bern’s marina for a while,
and visit the antique stores while they are docked in
town. Since most of the shoppers are travelers, and
shipping is available (though not encouraged), most
of the shops in New Bern sell “smalls.” “Smalls” are
antiques that are small enough to be put into a bag or
a suitcase. Therefore, although furniture is available
for purchase in New Bern, it is not as common. Most
shops are eclectic, and only a few owners specialize.
Most of the antiques for sale in New Bern are bought
by proprietors at regional auctions or sales.
Many of the stores in New Bern are very small-
scale enterprises. Quite a few entrepreneurs moved
to the New Bern area after retirement and opened a
store because they love antiques. As one shop owner
explained: “We retired here, and I always wanted to
have a folk art antique shop . . .we’ve done it for a
hobby.” This is usually the reason for the shops
being small and the advertising being limited.
Like the dealers, the shoppers in Wilson are serious
about antiques. Many shoppers are actually dealers from
somewhere in the southeastern United States, and they
come to Wilson specifically to buy antiques. According
to one major antiques dealer in Wilson, visitors usually
spend the night and visit multiple antiques houses
during their stay. The proprietors of a few of the stores
in New Bern and Selma occasionally buy the antiques
they sell in Wilson. Some visitors to Wilson are even
international buyers, traveling from Asia and Europe
to buy antiques.
There are some small stores in Wilson, but they
are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the stores
and auction houses in Wilson are large-scale business
86 Jones and Alderman
operations. Stancil’s Antiques focuses on high-end
“smalls” like silver and English porcelain. The specialty
at large auction houses like Langston Antiques is usually
furniture. Wilson has been an antiques area for a long
time, and this has allowed some of the antiques stores
to move into their second or third generation of
ownership. Almost all are family-owned and operated,
but many have multiple full- or part-time employees.
The proprietors in Wilson buy antiques all over the
world and ship internationally as well. This also
encourages business on a large scale.
Conclusion
Antiques tourism is an increasingly important
yet under-analyzed component in the booming
heritage industry. This neglect is due, in part, to the
varied nature of antiques-based development. No
doubt there is a growing national fascination with
collecting antiques, collectibles, and other historical
artifacts. At the same time, however, antiques tourism
is not carried out in an uniform or consistent way
across the landscape. It plays out locally in shops,
malls, and auctions run by individual entrepreneurs
who target different markets and use different
strategies. As our anecdotal evidence from Selma,
New Bern, and Wilson suggests, antiques districts are
diverse collections of establishments and entrepreneurs
that defy broad generalizations. Future studies should
focus on documenting and explaining this variation
in more comprehensive and rigorous terms. It will
be particularly fruitful to produce a national map of
major antiques tourism clusters, places where
antiques-based heritage development takes on great
cultural and economic importance.
Variation in the geography of antiques districts
results not only from the place-specific development
needs of communities but also the dissonant and
contested nature of heritage and authenticity. Rather
than communicating a universal vision of how the past
should be produced and consumed, the antiques
industry in Eastern North Carolina—from the large
corporate-like auction houses in Wilson to the small,
retiree-owned shops in New Bern—demonstrates that
heritage is multi-sold and multi-interpreted (Graham
et al. 2000). While the inherently loose nature of
authenticity has allowed for the rapid establishment of
antiques establishments of varying sizes and styles, there
is some concern that a lack of standardization may
eventually hurt the sustainability of the industry.
Dissonance or discord over what represents an authentic
or legitimate antique occurs not only among
entrepreneurs but also among customers, who may feel
cheated if an item is later independently appraised for
less than the purchase price. Future studies will need
to provide a more complete unpacking of how
authenticity is conceptualized, commodified, and
consumed in the antiques trade. This will require
conducting in-depth interviews and participant
observation with antique dealers and shoppers. History
is made in antique stores—like museums—when
objects are put in the context of the past, given meaning
through stories and narratives, and framed in relation
to the needs of the present (Handler and Gable 1997).
In this respect, antiques tourism involves not only the
trading commodities but also the selling of ideas about
heritage and how the past is a resource for the present.
Acknowledgements
The authors wish to thank the two anonymous
reviewers of this paper for their very helpful comments
as well as the generous help and support of the
journal’s editors. This research would have not been
possible without the assistance of several other people:
(1) the antiques entrepreneurs who participated in
this study, (2) John Wesley House, who assisted with
field observation and surveys, (3) Nathan Wood, who
provided valuable cartographic support for Figure 1,
and (4) Matthew Mitchelson, who collected data on
the antiques dealers by state. Any omissions and errors
are solely our responsibility.
End Notes
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the
2003 East Carolina University Undergraduate Re-
search Symposium and the 2003 “Research in the
Capital,” an undergraduate research symposium for
the North Carolina General Assembly.
87
The North Carolina Geographer
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