Columbus, Ohio
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Mary Catherine's Antiques
A 25-year treasure hunt
December 2004
By Karen Edwards

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Melaine Mahaffey with her mother Eva in their shop

Step through the doors of Mary Catherine's Antiques and you can't help feeling a bit like Ali Baba discovering the den of 40 thieves.

Treasure seems to wait around every corner of this connected, two-showroom shop – a landmark at 1128 N. High St. (near Fourth and High) for the past 25 years. Twenty-five years! The shop is one-quarter of the way toward being its own antique.

“I credit my mother. She was the visionary,” say Melaine Mahaffey who co-owned the shop with her mother Eva until her mother died two years ago. (If you're wondering where the name Mary Catherine's came from, it was the name of the Mahaffeys' grandmother, although she had nothing to do with the business herself.)

These days, Mahaffey manages the place on her own, but neither she nor her mother had ever really envisioned a lifetime in antiques.

“My mother bought the two properties as an investment opportunity,” says Mahaffey. What? The business didn't spring from a lifetime love affair with polished Chippen-dale highboys or gleaming stoneware crocks?

“I did have a degree in history,” Mahaffey says. But after graduation, she was more interested in satisfying her youthful wanderlust than setting down to a creaky job.

“My mother set up the business to keep me home,” says Mahaffey with a laugh.

After all, Eva Mahaffey reasoned, she had a location for a shop – and how much capital could an antique business require? So, with a $1,000 investment in inventory, along with a few consignments, the shop opened its doors in November 1979. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Mahaffey says she credits the store's reputation and long tenure for bringing a continuous flow of inventory into her shop. “I'll get anywhere from 6 to 12 calls a week from people who want me to check out their antiques,” she says. Many of these calls come from previous customers or referrals. Others just come out of the blue.

Mahaffey says she also works with “pickers” – the industry's “middle men.” Pickers frequent auctions, antique malls and garage sales, then sell what they find to dealers in or even outside their geographic areas. The dealers will then turn around and sell these items to clients. The pickers are an advantage to someone like Mahaffey who says she no longer frequents auctions, antique malls, and garage sales the way she used to. Still, as much as 90% of her merchandise comes from the Columbus area.

“I don't even antique when I travel,” she says. “I'm unique in that regard. But I enjoy skiing, backpacking and other outdoor activities, so I'm not usually around places that sell antiques when I go on vacation,” she says.

No matter how items come into her shop, however, Mahaffey says it's still a thrill when she discovers something special, like the early Ohio sampler that came into Mary Catherine's several years ago. It had been made in 1828 by a Xenia school girl. "And it still holds the Ohio record for highest-priced sampler,” says Mahaffey. The record, incidentally, is $7,000. Then there was the Edwin Lord Weeks oil painting that Eva and Melaine sent from their shop to a local gallery because they knew it was good. They just didn't know how good. The painting finally sold for $22,500.

Of course, not everything at Mary Catherine's Antiques will cost you that dearly. The shop features a general line of antiques and collectibles, ranging from the familiar – furniture, paintings, art glass, pottery, etc. – to the unusual (like one previous item sold: an entire 8' x 10' English pub, complete with stained glass panels, counter and back bar. Yes, assembly was required.)

Currently, good smalls seem to be the shop's best sellers – a rare toy, for example, or a pottery crock. Furniture, however, continues to be the antique dealer's bread-and-butter, and Mahaffey says her shop is no exception. “We often see couples in their 20s and 30s coming in to buy furniture. I think they realize they can buy the solid-built furniture of the mid to late 19th century for a fraction of the cost of buying something new,” she says. According to Mahaffey, people are drifting away from the Victorian oak that was popular in the 1990s, and choosing, instead, more formal pieces built of mahogany and walnut with nice dovetailing and wooden pin construction. “It's the rare and unusual that's selling today,” Mahaffey says, noting that the country trend that reached its heyday in the 1990s has softened considerably. “There will probably always be a market for good pie safes and dry sinks and farm tables,” says Mahaffey.

And if that furniture comes in with some of its old original paint - barn red, yellow or blue - so much the better. But the market for duck decoys and tools and old kitchen gadgets that decorated rooms and walls in magazines like Country Living and Country Home has dropped considerably – “unless it's a rare or unusual example,” Mahaffey says. The problem, of course, is that some of the calls she receives are from people who aren't aware there are trends in antiques - and that their priceless “objet d'art” isn't nearly as priceless as they think it is.

“Some of the television shows about antiques have set people up, inflating their expectations,” Mahaffey says. Then there is the flip side of the problem - the sellers who are simply clueless as to what they have. “I'll ask them what they want for the item, and they won't know. So, I try to offer a price that's fair to both of us,” she continues. That's because Mahaffey was burned herself on a few deals early in her career.

“It was a great motivator,” she says now. “It made me want to do the research and study so I wouldn't be caught again.”

Today, of course, she's much more knowledgeable about the items that flow into and out of her shop - and will even give informal appraisals to customers, friends, and others who simply want to learn the worth of a cherished heirloom or recent purchase. All in all, and despite an economy that has still not recovered from the 9/11 tailspin, Mahaffey says she's happy with the choice her mother made for her 25 years ago. Antiques, after all, are a marginal business - but somehow, for a quarter-century, Mary Catherine's has thrived in Columbus, and continues to ride the current soft market and economy.

“The business has given me much more freedom than most jobs I can think of,” says Mahaffey. “I have a flexible schedule (her sister and a good friend cover for her when she needs a break), and I've never been bored. It's just lots of fun. I've enjoyed the business.”

Mary Catherine's Antiques is open noon until 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday. Mahaffey also opens the shop on selected gallery hop nights. “I don't usually stay open for gallery hop,” says Mahaffey, “but I made an exception for the 20th anniversary hop in October, and I'm always open during the Holiday Hop.” So stop by this gallery hop - or anytime this month - for a quick look around. And by all means, bring your Christmas list along.
You never know what treasure may be waiting for you - or a loved one - just around the next corner.

For more information, call 614-291-4837 or e-mail marycatherines@aolcom

© 2004 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.