There’s no denying that eBay and the rise of online antiques sites such as Ruby Lane and TIAS hurt the antiques shows and the brick & mortar shops early on. There are, however, disadvantages to antiquing online, and in some respects those disadvantages have grown even as the sites themselves have grown.
Shopping at 2AM in attire of your choice does have a certain pleasure of its own, as does the general anonymity of online shopping, but we are also social creatures, and the world of antiques, from auctions to shows includes a very social side. Originally, eBay included some of that social interplay with buyers and sellers chatting, helping one another. It really was a socially interactive marketplace, open, lively, and fun.
As eBay grew, they began to take more control of not only how listings could be done but how people could communicate. Direct communication became impossible, and eBay now even controls payment methods that can be mentioned in listings (unless the lister gets creative, of course). Now, eBay’s income is largely through corporate listings by companies with their own customer service, and the mood itself is equally corporate.
Friendly chats over listings are gone, and it’s even difficult to get a high percentage of buyers to respond to direct e-mails. Auction ends, total figured, payment via Paypal, item shipped. Interaction with an individual seller auctioning a piece of Limoges is the same as an interaction with a corporation selling overstocked wrenches. It may be efficient, but it isn’t as much fun. Antiques are often as much about their history, the people who made them, owned them, loved them as they are about the item itself. Dehumanizing antiques just seems wrong in so very many ways.
Much of the internet has become so impersonal that Etsy now makes the personal aspects of their site into advertising points. Still, the fact that Etsy also makes all storefronts essentially the same means you’re adding social interaction to a site with much visual personality of the average shopping mall. eBay, Etsy, 1stDibs, and others have taken more and more control over the communication between buyer and seller, or just conversation. In comparison, each booth at a show is a new look, new items with a new layout, some strikingly well done, some rather less so, but personality abounds, and conversation is always a possibility.
Admittedly, when you go to an antique show, you find some dealers reading the newspaper rather than greeting people who enter their booth, and some dealers simply don’t have the most refined interpersonal skills. At least there’s a human being there to answer questions be it grudgingly or garrulously. You can get a bad joke along with some information about that fishing lure. (And recognize that dealers do sometimes have to leave their booths for a bit of shopping, eating, or other essentials.) On top of meeting the dealers, you may bump into friends or make new friends when you discover they share your interest. All in all, it’s worth getting dressed for, and it’s an advantage that shows might do well to promote among dealers and to shoppers.
An advantage of online shopping is the quantity and variety that you can find, and the biggest antique shows in the world don’t have as many items as eBay does at any given time. On the other hand, too much is too much, and it’s hard to find the right piece when you’re drowning in pieces. There was a time when it was possible to look through the entire Pottery and Glass category on eBay, a time when it really was all one category. There was great variety, including items not common locally, but you could find things, and your items for sale could be found.
Now online shopping isn’t about the search so much as the search words, and if it’s an unmarked, unattributed piece of pottery, you aren’t likely to find it to buy, and others aren’t likely to find it if you’re selling. If you know the right keywords, you can find what you’re searching for, but you are very unlikely to stumble across the great finds that you never knew to look for.
Once again, the quest is quite different when you go to a show. Small or large, the entire show is there before you, waiting to be explored, slowly for those determined to find that near hidden treasure or full speed ahead for those competitive shoppers determined to find the best bargains before anyone else. You may not know the name of the maker, and you may not even know what the doohickey, thingamabob is for, but you can still find it there waiting for you. And you can even ask the dealer what they know about the whatchamacallit.
I’ll never give up shopping online, but I’ll also never give up shopping “live”. It’s still a special experience to get together with friends, all wearing real clothes, and going out to chat with the friendly dealers, make fun of the grumpy ones, pick up an old, old iron or marvel and the color and form of a piece of blown glass that looks so much better in person than it ever could in the best photographs, much less the out of focus, poorly lit examples listed by some seller that you can’t make direct contact with….much less eye-contact. Shoot, at a show, some dealers even shake your hand.
(Although the essay is written specifically for the Collectors Carnival site, the opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of anyone from Collectors Carnival Antiques & Collectibles Shows.)