Joann and Charles Stewart joke that their store, Attic Treasures Antiques, was conceived in summer 1988 when their car’s headlight beams were the only things they could fit into their garage.
“Our house got very full because, (A) we’re both packrats and, (B) we enjoyed searching for interesting and unusual things and, (C) we had youngsters in the family who welcomed assistance with furnishing their new apartments – but who moved back home (more than once) and brought it all with them,” Joann writes on their website (www.attictreasureantiques.com).
Attic Treasures started with a nine-by-twelve-foot booth at the old Madison Antique Mall, where they relocated some of their surplus. They did not intend to keep collecting and selling once they thinned their home’s content, but realized they enjoyed passing on items and looking for more.
“We seemed to have a knack for it,” Joann says. “In those first years we traveled a lot on business, and everywhere we went, in our spare time we visited antique stores, flea markets, and malls looking for things to add to our booth.”
Three years later their single booth multiplied to nine and it was obvious their hobby had gotten serious, so they moved their collection to a store front on Main Street in Madison. They were there 19 years before moving the collection to its present location on North Main Street in Watkinsville, ten minutes from their home.
“We named it Attic Treasures because our initial inventory did seem to be mostly attic contents,” Joann explains. “As we upgraded our inventory, we acquired and sold better quality furniture and jewelry, but we liked the name well enough to continue with it when we moved to Oconee County.”
Charles mentions that Mike from the popular History Channel series “American Pickers” has stopped by the store. “He saw it while he was passing through town on personal business, so he came in, looked around and bought a couple things for his personal collection.”
While the series popularized the term “pickers,” Joann is quick to point out that the tag has been around a long time, and that she and Charles are not pickers. “We’ve known and used the term since getting involved in antiques some 35 years ago,” she says. “A true picker is selling to a businessperson, who then offers it as inventory. They depend on store owners as customers. They ‘pick up’ things for customers they know purchase such items for their stores. They may have other employment, but most are full-time pickers and have a range of antique store customers in a several-state area.”
The Stewart’s have their fair share of pickers who keep tabs on their collection. “We have buyers for jewelry, firearms, WWII memorabilia and others, all looking for specific things to sell to their customers,” Joann says.
Charles and Joann had long and involved careers outside of their collecting. Charles was the first Dean of UGA’s School of Social Work in 1964 and stayed in that post for 31 years until retiring. Before that he was admissions director for a few years at the state mental health facility in Milledgeville. Joann has two master’s degrees, in geography and education, and a doctorate in geographic education. She was a researcher at the University of Nottingham in England, a high school teacher in Scotland and taught geography at UGA.
Collecting co-existed with and overlapped their careers in education, but now, in retirement, it is all about the learning.
“It’s literally ‘learning in retirement’ for us,” Joann says. “It is more relaxing than our careers. We learn something from every person who comes through the store and we both enjoy meeting new people, finding out their interests and helping them if we can.
It is easy to see and feel the enjoyment the couple gets from operating the store together. Each of them has their areas of expertise: she became a certified personal property appraiser and knows, among other things, jewelry, glassware, and art; he knows military weapons and equipment, vintage signs, native American artifacts, and other oddities. They fill in the gaps for each other and there is overlap in their knowledge.
Their joy in sharing information with customers is apparent. When a new customer walks in, they may be greeted by Charles, holding one of his many pipes, who will say, “Let me show you the four items in the store that I will absolutely not sell you.” He then shows four different items, explaining the history and provenance behind each and why he will not sell them, drawing the customer deeper into the store, down the narrow rows bordered floor to ceiling by overflowing shelves and display cases.
If a person wanted to truly comprehend the quantity and quality of items in the store, it would take most of the day, or several re-visits, or both. It is like walking into a museum of the weird and wonderful where most everything is for sale.
Like many other businesses, COVID devastated the antique community. Some were not able to bounce back, but not so Attic Treasures. “We closed for a year, but from the day we reopened, business was good,” Joann comments. “The market has changed, but a good dealer keeps an ear to the ground and knows what is happening. It is simply not possible to only buy what you like for resale. You must know what people look for and gear your buying toward them.”
As they get older (he is 91, she is several years younger) they find that demands of keeping the store open enough days and hours to accommodate customers becomes more taxing each year.
“So far, so good,” Joann says, “But it’s time that we begin to execute an exit plan.” She emphasizes that, while she is ready, “Charles really enjoys being at the store, interacting with people and showing off his finds.”
Randy Gaddo is a recent retiree to Athens, having previously been a Marine Corps combat correspondent and later city parks and recreation director.