By Wayne Jordan
Orignially published in Antique Trader Magazine
Read Wayne’s column Behind the Gavel bi-weekly in Antique Trader!
Progress comes slowly to the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. It was not until after WWII that highways, electricity and telephone service became available to many of the rural areas between the mountain metropolises of Roanoke and Bristol, VA. The cultural stewpot of Scots-Irish and German immigrants simmered there for over two hundred years, cooking up a culture of independence and self-sufficiency. The area became known for its moonshine liquor, coal mines, lumber mills, and mountain music.
In 2010, the local mines are tapped out; the lumber mills and most of the furniture factories have closed. However, the mountain music, now known as Bluegrass, is thriving and keeps the local economy alive. Bluegrass music has become so popular that the Virginia Tourism Board has organized the Virginia Heritage Music Trail (“The Crooked Road”), a winding corridor of southwestern Virginia highways and back roads that takes visitors on a self-guided mountain cultural tour.
Midway along the Crooked Road lies the city of Galax, Virginia, with a year-round population of 6,700. Located near mile marker 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a short drive from Interstates I-81 and I-77, Bluegrass music brings several hundred thousand visitors to Galax annually. The Old Fiddler’s Convention alone (the second week of August) brings over 60,000 visitors in one week. The visitors come to participate in the local music festival, hike the mountain trails, eat southern style barbecue, and shop in the local antique stores.
Galax boasts five antique stores in a two-block area in the center of town, plus LaRavierre’s auction gallery at the edge of town. A sixth downtown store, Bonaparte’s, recently closed when the owner retired. Four of the five remaining stores, A Finishing Touch, A Place in Time, Antique Apple, and Serendipity Antiques, carry inventories of country collectibles and mountain primitives, glassware, furniture, and reproductions. These four stores rely entirely on walk-in traffic from the tourist trade. None of the four have dedicated websites, although they do have single pages in the city’s online directory. The city of Galax only recently acquired broadband service; with such reliable foot traffic, few shop owners in Galax have felt the need to employ internet marketing.
Only one store in Galax has embraced the internet as a marketing tool: the Golden Gallery of Galax. Only seven years old, the Golden Gallery has carved out a product niche and marketing system that separates them from all the other shops in town. The Golden Gallery of Galax has clientele that come from as far away as Florida, and regular weekend visitors from Charlotte and Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Washington, DC; and Atlanta, Georgia. While most Galax antique shops close for weeks during the winter season, the Golden Gallery of Galax remains open for business all year. On a snowy Saturday in March, with the Blue Ridge Parkway closed and Galax under two feet of snow, the Golden Gallery welcomed nearly 60 shoppers into their store.
Golden Gallery of Galax is owned by Erwin Klee and his wife, Angie Mischel-Klee. The Klee’s principal residence and the original Golden Gallery are in Wiesbaden-Breckenheim Germany. For thirty-five years, the Klee’s have travelled extensively across Germany, Austria, France, England, and Scandinavia buying estates. All the estate items are personally handled, inspected, cleaned, catalogued, and photographed by the Klee’s. The Klee’s use no pickers; Mr. & Mrs. Klee personally select everything they are going to sell. Anything that is broken or unusable is discarded. “It costs as much to ship broken items as it does to ship the best items” says Mr. Klee. “I want everything we sell to be decorative and functional”. Once cleaned and catalogued, Mr. Klee personally packs the shipping container for the trip to Virginia.
The Golden Gallery of Galax carries only German and European antiques and collectibles. No American antiques will be found here. “I deal in what I know best: European antiques” says Mr. Klee. “I know the history of the items we sell at Golden Gallery. I personally visit the estates and speak to the owners. I know where the items come from, and the stories about how they were acquired and used. Our customers are fascinated by these stories; without the stories, these are just “things”. The stories make the merchandise come alive. We are like a museum where you can buy the displays”.
The Klee’s grounding in the European antiques trade is evident in the pricing of their merchandise. With over 13,000 items in stock in the Galax store and 10,000 more in the adjacent warehouse, items are priced to move. “I don’t know anything about American antiques; I don’t know how much to pay for them or what to sell them for” says Mr. Klee. “I price the merchandise I sell in America the same way I price the merchandise I sell in Germany”. This pricing strategy turns out to be a boon for local buyers and the American dealers who buy from the Golden Gallery. Antique dealers and Interior Decorators in large metropolitan areas are able to take substantial markups over the Galax selling price, plus have access to a steady source of quality European antiques.
The Klee’s made the leap from Germany to Virginia by way of their friendship with Americans Chuck and Cathy Steffes. The Steffes’ met the Klee’s while travelling in Germany. Their mutual passion for antiques led to a fast friendship. The Klee’s visited the Steffes in Galax, and fell in love with the town. The Steffes own the Galax shop Bearly a Memory, which specializes in new and antique Steiff bears. The foursome hatched the idea for the Golden Gallery of Galax during this visit, and the rest is history. The Klee’s travel Europe and handle the buying and shipping, and the Steffes stay stateside and run the day-to-day operation. For the sake of convenience, the Steffes’ have moved their inventory of German bears into space in the Golden Gallery.
Currently, the Steffes have no plan to add a shopping cart to the Golden Gallery website. “If we added a shopping cart, we would have to raise prices” says Chuck Steffes. “As quickly as items move through our inventory, it would take at least two full time employees to keep up with the changes. We currently have a system that works well, and I see no reason to change it”.
The Klees and the Steffes have built a business based on unique, quality merchandise in the heart of a mountain cultural center. German antiques, Bluegrass music, and friendship appear to be a winning combination.
The Golden Gallery of Galax is located at 211 South Main Street, Galax, VA 24333 and open from 10-5 Tuesday through Saturday. They can be reached by phone at 276-236-1970, and their selection can be viewed online at http://www.goldengalleryofgalax.com.