Columbus, Ohio USA
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When Adventure Calls
There's Mary Catherine's Antiques
By Karen Edwards
November/December 2014 Issue

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Melaine Mahaffey and her shop Mary Catherine’s Antiques have been an enduring and endearing presence in the Short North for 35 years. Photo © Larry Hamill

Mary Catherine’s Antiques, the shop that sits at 1128-1130 N. High St., just celebrated its 35th year in business.

Tell me you don’t appreciate the delicious irony in that. You can almost hear O. Henry’s pen scratching its way across a sheet of paper, writing something like: “The treasure hunters surveyed it all, the jumble of curios and gee-gaws, the miscellaneous and whimsical without once pausing to consider the most valuable antique in front of them – the business itself.”

Maybe 35 years doesn’t quite qualify Mary Catherine’s as a true “antique” – a term typically reserved for objects 100 years or older – but it’s at least vintage, and, in the world of antique shops, 35 years is probably as antique as you can get.

Just to reach that venerable age, in fact, involves another irony, or at least an oxymoron, because as every successful antique dealer knows, to make it in antiques, you have to stay trendy. Sure, there are ups and downs in the business, but those roller-coaster rides can be a lot less bumpy if you know what’s selling and what isn’t. And if there is one thing Mary Catherine’s owner Melaine Mahaffey knows, it’s how to stay on top of trends. If you want to know what’s au courant in vintage and collectibles these days just scan her window. Ta-dah!

Ironically (again), Mahaffey was neither an antique dealer nor collector when she and her mother Eva started the shop.

“My mother purchased the building in 1978, and I was looking for something to do after college,” she says. Something other than attend law school, that is, which was Mahaffey’s original plan. The history major decided, however, that opening a business would be more fun, and here was her mother’s building with a large ground floor that needed something to fill it.

“I had always been interested in American history of the 19th century,” says Mahaffey. “So furniture of that period naturally interested me.”

Then came an interest in 19th-century glass and pottery and – the list goes on. Within seven or eight years, Mahaffey had expanded Mary Catherine’s into the space next door.

“Mary Catherine’s was my grandmother’s name,” says Mahaffey. “Mother wanted to name the place for her.”

Evolving inventory
And so for 35 years, Mary Catherine’s has been the place to buy antiques. But there has been an evolution in the store’s contents since its early days. As already noted, Mahaffey knows how to stay on top of trends, and when she saw that the young people coming into her shop were not interested in the ornamental Victorian furniture she displayed, she knew it was time to change inventory.

But Mahaffey did more than that. She brought in a knowledgeable friend who could bring a fresh eye to her business.

Diana Lessner arrived at Mary Catherine’s five years ago – with an apology.

“My daughter (Elizabeth) was working on Surly Girl next door, and she was making a lot of noise getting the place ready to open,” says Lessner. “I went in to Mary Catherine’s to apologize for the noise, and, since I came to see my daughter nearly every day, I’d stop in to see Melaine as well. We became friends.”

Just a note here – when Mahaffey opened Mary Catherine’s, the Short North was someplace “down there” – that is, close to downtown, near the Cap. “We were in a desolate spot up here,” Mahaffey recalls. But with the opening of Surly Girl, and a continuing clamor for storefronts for new businesses, the Short North began to creep northward. “We feel now as though we’re no longer in this isolated spot,” says Mahaffey.

The Lessner-Mahaffey friendship soon grew into something more, a loose business arrangement, if you will. It began when Lessner, who has had no formal training, but an innate talent and some experience in display and decorating (she includes the Wexners among her fans), offered to do Mary Catherine’s windows. Eventually, Lessner began to work on store displays, and to bring in a few items to sell as well – though Lessner says she still is not a dealer or collector.

Nevertheless, Mahaffey credits Lessner for bringing a fresh eye and a brand-new vibe to the store. “She’s more up on what’s trendy,” Mahaffey says. “She brings in different merchandise than I do, so the store is well-rounded now. There’s something for everyone.”

Mahaffey says much of her merchandise comes from estates and private house sales, and occasionally from auctions. There is still plenty of furniture here – secretaries, bookcases, tables, nightstands, chests of drawers. It just won’t be the heavy, Victorian furniture that used to sit here.

“Full dining room sets are no longer popular,” says Mahaffey. Today’s young couples not only want their furniture streamlined, they like their homes that way as well, so no extra buffets or sideboards are required. In fact, says Mahaffey, they lean toward library tables that can serve a dual purpose. Simple desks and small tables are also gaining in popularity – items that won’t make a room feel heavy and cluttered.

“Young people understand the ‘made in China’ label doesn’t give them the same kind of quality that a well-made American piece from the mid-century will give them,” says Lessner.

But don’t think young people are the only ones shopping Mary Catherine’s. Realtor Pat Simakis says she still visits the shop at least 30 years after making her first visit there. “It’s the only place I go for antiques,” she says.

Simakis says she has always been impressed with Mahaffey, herself. “Melaine is a genuine person who really knows her stuff,” she says. “She gives every person who goes in the same personal attention she gives her friends.”

Simakis is hard-pressed to name her favorite purchase from the store, “There have been so many over the years,” but she says she is fond of the first piece she ever bought from Mahaffey. “It was an oak, quarter-sawn, carved sideboard with claw feet that end in lion heads,” she says. “I still have it.” But to show she is just as pleased with Mahaffey’s current stock, she also points to a new favorite, a recent shop arrival in the form of a Macey stacked oak “barrister” bookcase. She has already put it on layaway.

“Mary Catherine’s has improved over the years, and it continues to improve,” says Simakis. “Right now, I’d say it’s the best it has ever been.”

And right now, you’re likely to find much more variety in the shop than in the past.

What’s in, what’s out
Certainly, there are mid-century furniture pieces to look at now, mixed in with the classic, traditional pieces. And while painted furniture has been trendy for a while, Mahaffey says she doesn’t paint or re-purpose what she brings into the store. “Other people can and do buy furniture and re-purpose it,” she says. She thinks it’s best, however, to leave the furniture as is and let the buyer customize it according to his or her tastes.

Look beyond the furniture, however, and you may be surprised at what else you find here. As with details, it’s the small things that make a difference.

“We want the shop to be fun,” says Mahaffey, so you’ll find books and magazines, jewelry, barware, fishing rods and skis (Mahaffey is an avid outdoors lover who skis and bikes on vacations away from the shop). You’ll also find seasonal items, like warm wool blankets this time of year, and a smattering of vintage clothing. “We had a cape from a Benevolent Society that we put in the window,” says Lessner. It didn’t last the day. Look also for turn-of-the-century mechanical pieces that lend an authentic feel to the “industrial look” that’s been trending for awhile.

Mahaffey also indulges her own interest in photography with a small photography collection. Recently, Mahaffey added to her photography and art collection big time when she acquired the collection of Columbus photographer James Valentine.

“He graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design and stayed in touch with the school and its students,” she says. Valentine became something of a mentor and would occasionally buy student pieces. “Some of those students had gone on to make names for themselves,” Mahaffey says – including Allen “Big Al” Carter.

The Valentine collection was on display during Mary Catherine’s official 35th anniversary celebration in October, and you can still find some pieces there today – works by Carter, Ohio artist Joe Gordon and international artist Benjamin Crumpler.

Goodbye glassware, ciao china
What you won’t find in the shop now may be just as telling as what is there.

For example, you won’t find sets of china, your great-aunt’s glassware, or anything that smacks of “Country” – a 1980s decorating style that has come and gone. Mahaffey buys antiques, but don’t even think of bringing her the kind of bric-a-brac you used to find in mom-and-pop antique shops. That kind of stuff doesn’t fly today. “I do buy pottery and glass but it has to be the best examples,” says Mahaffey.

That speaks to what Simakis has always understood about Mary Catherine’s. “The stuff Melanie carries is quality,” she says. “It’s just a great store with great inventory, reasonable prices and nice people to work with.”

Mahaffey, herself, is reason enough for Simakis to return again and again, she says. “She’s really the heartbeat of this store.” That may explain why so many people have stopped by over the years.

“We have a diverse demographic that shops here,” Mahaffey says. “We used to have an older clientele. Now, we’re seeing more young professionals, even tourists,” she says. And conventioneers often stop by when they’re in town.

The trendsetters
Of course, current television shows like “Antique Roadshow” and “American Pickers” have created a broader audience for antiques, says Mahaffey. The shows, along with new home décor magazines that have flooded the market in recent years, and places like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware are helping to establish what’s in and what’s out.

But it’s the Internet that’s creating true competition for antique dealers and setting the mark for what’s rare and what isn’t in today’s market. “The Internet has definitely had the greatest influence on our business,” Mahaffey says.

And yes, the Internet can be a terrific educational tool – for buyers and sellers alike. But, it also raises a buyer’s expectations, says Mahaffey. Many of the items shown online or on television are one-of-a-kind finds. That means you won’t always find the exact same thing, or even something similar at your local brick-and-mortar store. This isn’t made-to-order stuff.

What you will find, however, is your sense of adventure – and maybe that’s what antique shopping is all about. It’s an opportunity to experience a time and place that appeals to you, to surround yourself with pieces you not only love, but which come with history, and, if you’re lucky, a story attached. It’s also a chance to express who you are in a world that wants to put you into a box that looks just like everyone else’s.

So, when you hear the call, when you feel that sense of adventure rising in you, give in. Go exploring. Mary Catherine’s is still there at 1128 N. High, just waiting for you to explore its treasures. And with Mahaffey at the helm, it’s likely to be there for some time to come.

Mary Catherine’s Antiques at 1128-1130 N. High St. is open Tuesday through Friday 12-5p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Call 614-291-4837 or visit or Facebook to learn more.

© 2014 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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