It was the 1970s. Sherron Francis was a painter in New York City and, like most struggling artists, needed money.
On weekends, she would make the trip out to Orient with friends in a pickup truck. At the time, she didn’t even know what a yard sale was, but she would quickly find out.
“I was driving on Sound Avenue, and I saw a sign that said yard sale and I stopped. There was this beautiful ceramic pitcher, and it was 25 cents, so I bought it,” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘How could anybody make any money selling these things for a quarter?’ ”
It took only $12 to fill the bed of that truck with anything she could find, perusing tag sales, yard sales and even what residents left on the side of the road.
“People used to put things in the garbage that were really great — all kinds of painted furniture, which we would take back to the city and take all the paint off,” she said. From there, she would resell it.
It wasn’t until 2000, when she moved out to the North Fork permanently, that she really got serious about the tag sale business. Now, along with her husband, Walter, she owns the roughly 5,000-square-foot antique store Small Holdings Farm in Aquebogue and runs Long Island Tag Sales, a company that helps people who are moving or downsizing sell their possessions.
Through the years, Francis has seen the local antique business change.
“There’s a lot more people doing sales than when I started,” she said. “But sales aren’t as good as they used to be.”
More people are in the antique and vintage business now, so the market has become more competitive, she added.
“It used to be far more wonderful, far more fun, but the internet ruined a lot of that,” she said. “Millennials aren’t buying things. They don’t collect anything. They don’t want their parents’ stuff.”
For Lori Guyer, who owns White Flower Farmhouse, a vintage home goods store in Southold, the internet changed her business completely.
“It was getting to grow too quickly, so I made the choice of either selling online and having a website, or closing that website and just giving personal service,” she said.
She chose the latter. Now, Guyer’s only internet connection is through Facebook and her Instagram page, which has close to 53,000 followers. A quick scroll through her feed shows her specific style — whitewashed everything.
“I’ve had the store for so long, it’s very curated,” she said. “People expect certain things from me.”
Francis’ store has a different look to it. Instead of a consistent color theme or aesthetic, she’s made her place more general over the years.
“We couldn’t have more different approaches to it,” Francis said. “Lori has a very good eye and a vision. She’s in love with certain kinds of things and she always works within that perimeter. I think that’s what makes her a kind of genius. There’s hardly anybody that could do what she does the way she does it.”
Francis, on the other hand, has what she calls more “diversity” to her store.
“I find interesting objects,” she said. “You have to put it together. It’s up to you to decorate, not me.”
The women use similar approaches, however, when shopping for items for their stores. Both will peruse tag and yard sales and have developed a strategy.
“I never feel rushed. My eye is always looking carefully,” Guyer said.”People don’t like to bend down, and they don’t like to look up. So I always take my time and look on the floor, look up in the rafters, look up on shelves. I open cabinets and look inside closets. I dig for treasure.”
Often, they’ll see each other and other antique shop owners at these sales. “We laugh and carry on,” Francis said. “We stand up at the gate, waiting to get in, and then there’s this mad rush. Everybody has their niche and a lot of us are looking for the same kind of thing, but we’re also looking for different types of things.”
Guyer agreed. “They’ll even say ‘Oh Lori, there’s something in the bedroom I think you’re gonna love.’ ”
Guyer and Francis also have different ways of locating vintage and antique items. Guyer frequently uses professional pickers from Long Island and even Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Francis runs a weekly ad in the newspaper.
“[It] says I buy almost anything, which I do,” she said. “I don’t just buy one thing. I have a vast assortment of things, more than most people do.” From there, either people will send her pictures of what they want to sell or just stop in the store and let Francis decide if she wants to buy it or not.
In her younger years, Francis used to frequent many spots for vintage items — popular drop-off points, the side of the road and even the dump. She’s been able to find and sell everything from a suitcase of Victorian clothes to ship porthole windows.
“At some point you weren’t supposed to take stuff out of [the dump.] But one day, I found this old, painted Victorian dresser with the mirror, so I put it in the back of my pickup truck,” she said. When she arrived at the booth, the worker stopped her. “He said, ‘You can’t take that. You have to put that back.’ So, I just floored it and drove off with my Victorian dresser, which I still use.”
Over the years, Francis has learned what she will and won’t be able to sell. For her, the latter includes antique French china or anything “cutesy.”
“You learn very quickly what you’re not going to sell. I just know. I have a fairly good eye, I think. I’m not bragging, but I think I do,” she said. “It really is the thrill of the hunt. It really does keep you doing this.”
The thrill of the hunt will end, for Guyer, when it’s no longer thrilling. “I still find it fun,” she said. “And when it’s not fun, it’ll be my time to retire.”
For Francis, the question is still up in the air. “How long do I think I’ll do it for?” she wondered. “Depends on how long I live.”
And the fate of that first pitcher she bought so long ago? “I still have it to remind me what it was like.”