Living the “militaria dream”
We are all in this together. In an effort to report on the state of different facets of the military collectibles market, Military Trader strives to discover and share the opinions of the hobby’s leading dealers and collectors. This month, we had the privilege to talk with Terri and Larry Stewart. Most will recognize their names as longtime professional, full-time dealers and owners of Stewarts Military Antiques in Mesa, Arizona, as well as the people behind the Antique Gun and Military Show in Tempe, Arizona. We are pleased to offer their response to our “10 Questions on “Living the Dream”
Military Trader: o the outsider, a couple who have had a brick-and-mortar business and transitioned to a full-time web-based business in addition to hosting shows, might appear to be “living the dream.” Shed some light on this: How do you balance a full-time militaria business on the web, put on shows, and still seem to remain happily married?
Larry & Terri: Well, it’s a great help if you happen to marry your best friend. Terri and I will married 40 years this January – a big number. We have had lots of practice through our lives together of working in a variety of businesses. At one time, we both held full-time jobs, were partners with another couple promoting collector shows in Arizona, had a booth in an antique mall, and published a mail order sales list about every other month. So we’re kind of used to it at this point, although we are not traveling as much as we once did.
Military Trader: Did the marriage come first? Or was it always militaria? Tell us how this all came together.
Larry & Terri: I had been a collector of militaria since April of 1971 and Terri has had a longtime interest in vintage photography, so things sort of just worked out. As we pursued our hobbies, we soon found that a successful business could be created through resale of extras from our collections.
Military Trader: You both have your hands in all facets of militaria, but your store seems to be a huge part of the story. Tell us how you decided to open a store for military collectors, and how it emerged into your current base of operation.
Larry & Terri: It was a matter of economics, really. Our booth in an antique mall had grown in size over the years – with an increase in rental costs, as well. Downtown Mesa, Arizona, was experiencing a real estate slump, so building rents became quite reasonable. In fact, it was less expensive to rent a 1200 square foot building in the center of the city, than to continue paying rent at our 500 square foot booth in an antique mall in addition to the 10% sales commissions mall vendors were charged on every sale.
We stayed in that building from 1994-1996 when we purchased a 3,000 square foot building at the other end of the block from where we were, and set up shop there. One thing about having a store is that a big nail is driven through your foot. It really ties you down and commits your time to being open and serving your customers.
We have had a long history in the mail-order trade, with ads in the Shotgun News, and a direct mailer sent to an established client list for many years. Around the year 2000, we started our web page. Over time, it gradually overtook our business model and allowed us to move off of Main Street into a warehouse building several blocks away. Then, we were open only on Saturdays for our local customers to come and visit.
Military Trader: The way people collect has changed dramatically since you opened your store. How has your typical customer changed over those years? What role did that take in your decision to close down a brick-and-mortar operation?
Larry & Terri: I would say that today’s collector is much more informed than years previously. The advent of the internet and collector forums have provided amazing information sources for those willing to spend the time and effort to learn.
The rise of the internet was the overriding reason for the cessation of our paper mailing list, and ultimately the closing down of our brick and mortar operation. By the time a list was typed up, printed off, and mailed out to our customers on our list, we could have had photographs taken, a description typed, and placed on our site, making the item available around the planet 24/7. The downside is that in some instances we have lost the personal contact we enjoyed with the many collectors who used to visit our store.
Military Trader: How does operating an antique gun and militaria show impact your business model? How do you approach firearms in your inventory? Do you maintain an FFL?
Larry & Terri: Our little show is held twice a year, spring and fall, and is co-sponsored with George & Ko Notarpole of History by George. The show came about because we missed the contact we had with many of our long time local customers, and we wanted to give back something to the local collecting community. While not large in size, it’s a lot of fun – more like a family reunion than anything else. While we advertise it as a Militaria & Antique Gun Show, very few firearms show up. Those that do, have to be of pre-1898 production, so an FFL is not necessary.
Military Trader: Maintaining an exciting variety of inventory for your customers must take a lot of effort. Describe what you consider to be one of your most elaborate efforts (either in complexity or distance traveled) to obtain inventory for your business.
Larry & Terri: Arizona is a wonderful place to live, I could think of no other place I would rather be than the Grand Canyon State. That being said, it is a difficult place to be in the antique business, especially such a unique genre as militaria.
Terri and I found that we had to travel in order to find items for our store and web page. For many years from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, I worked in the travel industry. It was nothing unusual for Terri and I to get off work on a Friday, hop on a plane with three or more GI foot lockers full of militaria and fly to Houston, Dallas, St Louis, Tulsa, Kansas City, or the MAX or OVMS shows, and then fly home Sunday night to be back at work on Monday morning.
My mother was also in the antique business in southeast Pennsylvania – the “Land of Milk & Honey” in the collecting world. We would take vacation time to visit her and attend the many antique flea markets around the Lancaster, Penn. area: Kutztown, Shupp’s Grove, and Renningers in Adamstown. Up before daylight and armed with flashlights, we would ferret out our share of the bargains to be found.
Perhaps our most ambitious expeditions for the acquisition of new material occurred in the late 1990s until 2006. We traveled to Germany and shipped seagoing containers back to the USA that were full of WWII German militaria. One even contained a wheeled Wehrmacht field kitchen from Normandy, complete with a bullet hole in the chimney.
We partnered with our very good friend Klaus-Peter Emig to accomplish these projects. In those days Klaus-Peter kept his inventory in a WWII Luftschutz bunker, two stories high in downtown Ludwigshafen. It was equipped with automatic timer lights that would invariably go out when you were half-way down one of the numerous stairs, laden with a heavy box of items.
We were also invited to travel to Japan several times with Bob Chatt to attend Japanese militaria shows in Tokyo. Collectors are collectors, the same the world over. What a blast we’ve had. We were crazy people then, but, boy, it was a lot of fun getting it done!
Military Trader: Describe the division of labor between the two of you. How do you get the work done while maintaining a good, personal relationship?
Larry & Terri: That’s an easy one. Terri does all the work and I play with the military relics. Seriously though, it’s not too far from the truth. When a customer calls to place an order, Terri picks up the phone and takes the order. She figures the postage and prints the label, she handles the paperwork angle too, paying of bills, working with our accountant, insurance payments, and on and on.
My jobs are item description, shipping, packing and delivering the parcels to the Post Office, also purchasing of new product and any cleaning and repair that might be necessary. When we do shows, Terri holds the fort and deals with the customers, while I am out purchasing new product, so you will seldom see me at our tables.
Military Trader: I don’t think too many people are aware that you are diverse collectors, taking interest in topic ranging from daguerreotypes to the Egyptian Campaign of 1882. Tell us a bit about the things that currently excite your “collecting blood.”
Larry & Terri: Yes, we certainly are collectors, however, in at least my case, I could have been called more of an accumulator with a wide variety of interests. It seems that I have never met a piece of militaria that I didn’t find interesting, so things happened to be put back on our walls and collecting shelves which had very little relationship to one another, theme-wise.
Around 2000 I began to focus my interests on French and German militaria of the Franco-Prussian War, and, most recently, within the past year or so, British Victorian era campaign medals and groupings. The amount of information available online is amazing, using tools like Ancestry.com, or Find My Past, in addition to online forums, can reveal an unbelievable amount of information regarding a solders military service during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Terri on the other hand has stayed fairly constant in her collecting of 19th century photography, and has gathered together a very nice collection.
Military Trader: Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider one of your favorite discoveries.
Larry & Terri: The story of my favorite find is a bit different. We have had so many wonderful items pass through our hands over the years, that it would be difficult to select just one. However, the one item that has had the greatest impact on my life, and which I still own by the way, is a M1915 Prussian enlisted Pickelhaube – a Christmas present from my father in 1963.
That was a hard year, 1963. President Kennedy had just been assassinated, the country was in mourning, and our family was going through some hard times. I had wanted a German helmet in the worst way since I became aware of them. Some of the neighborhood kids had ones their fathers brought home from WWI.
I remember seeing stacks of them sitting on the floor of Jim Schwartz’s gunshop in Doylestown, Penn., for $5 each, but I didn’t have the discipline to save my 50 cents-a-week allowance to purchase one, so they might as well have been $500 each.
At any rate, I wanted a helmet in the worst way, and I pestered my Dad for one. Christmas morning 1963, down the stairs we came running. There, under the tree, was an odd shaped present with my name on it. Quickly tearing the paper away revealed a little, gray-trimmed Pickelhaube. No cockades or chinstrap, but perfect in my 12 year old eyes. I loved it.
Several years later, we moved to Arizona. High school, working at the grocery store, cars, and friends now held my interest. The little helmet sat on a shelf, forgotten but now with broken stitching around the rear visor.
In November 1970, I became seriously ill. A major operation and four weeks in the hospital knocked me for a loop. During my recovery at home, I would stare at that little helmet, thinking about it and wondering if I could get the visor repaired.
There was a shoe repair shop in our town, so I took it down there in early April 1971. The owner said he could “fix’er up, no problem.” While there, I asked him if he knew of any place I could take it to find out its value. He suggested Scottsdale where there were antique shops. He thought that would be a good place to start.
So, the next Saturday, I took the helmet and drove over to Scottsdale and went into the first antique shop I saw: Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe run by a lady named Evelyn (she was later to become a very good friend to Terri and me). She directed me around the corner to a store called Gunsmoke.They had things like that for sale, she said, and would certainly be able to help me. Off I went. Passing through the doorway of Gunsmoke, there, sitting on the shelves, and hanging from the walls were all manner of military collectibles: Helmets, swords, medals – I couldn’t believe my eyes! I purchased my first relic that Saturday, a WWII German M1940 Army helmet for $25. From that day, I was in that store every Saturday for the next three years, helping out where I could and likely being a general nuisance to the owners. Because they were kind-hearted folks, they didn’t give me too much grief.
This is where I started that day in April 1971 – all because of that little spiked helmet.
Military Trader: And finally, share your opinion on how a person can be successful as a full-time militaria dealer today. Based on your experiences, what would you suggest to a person to avoid or to follow if he or she was considering becoming a full-time dealer?
Larry & Terri: Like any other business, to be successful you have to pay close attention to the bottom line. However, it also is very important that you love the business that you are in. That ardor and enthusiasm will transfer over to your customers. Treat your customers with respect and honesty and work as hard as you can, and you will do fine.
A person must also remember that it takes time to build a successful business. We have attended gun shows and antique markets nearly every weekend since 1977, although not so many now.
We applied for our Arizona Tax number in 1988. I quit my day job in 1991, and Terri quit her job in 1998. We opened our first store in 1994, purchased our first building in 1996, and since 2008, now only do internet sales. That’s 40 years of work, and I don’t think we would change a thing if we had to do it over. It’s all part of the journey.
We’ve been blessed in meeting some truly wonderful people during this journey: customers and fellow dealers in the trade. A good many of them have become more like an extended family for Terri and me. Militaria is a wonderful hobby, and like most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it –– Good Collecting!
We are honored to interview and report on prominent players in our hobby. To learn more about Larry & Terri’s business, Stewart’s Military Antiques, or more importantly, to view their current offerings, log onto www.stewartsmilitaryantiques.com or call 480-834-4004