For Thea Villaseñor, “antiques seller” may be an accurate job description, but the real mission behind her business is finding a new home for beloved objects. The daughter of two antique dealers, Thea has been treasure hunting since she was a child.
Thea opened her antique store,Thea’s Vintage Living, in 2006, before smartphones and online shopping were the norm. The retail world has changed dramatically in the last decade, and, recently, Thea decided to change her business model. Instead of running a brick-and-mortar antique retail business, she would shift her focus to estate-sales services. We spoke with Thea at the very beginning of her one-year business transition. We will check in with her twice more in the coming year as she transitions.
Thea, tell me how you got into the vintage retail business?
I have loved antiques since I was a child. My parents were antique dealers, and it became second nature for me to collect and then sell what I collected. I went into a partnership on an antique store with my mom after studying visual design at the University of Oregon. In 2006 I opened my own store in Portland’s Pearl District, an area I knew would draw diverse customers, from tourists to locals from the Eastside and Westside.
I remember the day my shop opened. It was a bright, sunny day, and the very first customer who came in was a local. She was cheerful, bubbly and thrilled to have us in the neighborhood. It was what I was hoping for!
What do you love most about working with antiques?
There are two main things I love about my work: First, I love my customers. Second, I love treasure hunting. My customers are always looking for something interesting and different, and I love being able to provide that for them. I also love finding their treasures a new home -- a big part of what I’m doing now in managing estate sales.
Treasure hunting has always been part of my life. Life is just boring without looking for something to treasure!
How did you get into managing estate sales?
I’ve seen a big change in what my customers want, and their age has shifted, too. Ten years ago I had a lot of customers in their 50s. Now they’re in their 60s and not buying anymore. Why? Because they have everything they need, and they have no space left. These customers tell me that in another five years, they’ll be downsizing. Their children don’t want their things -- they only want mid-century or trendy new design.
That’s really how I got into estate sales. People came in needing help with downsizing, and from time to time, I’d accept a job. The number of jobs started to increase -- and I really enjoyed them! I’m good at organizing, researching and working with the customer.
Often, these customers are experiencing the loss of something or someone. It’s painful going from a 3000-square-foot home to something half the size. I’m good at helping with this situation because, personally, I can relate to loss and because I know about working with treasured things. I understand possessions are important because they represent amazing moments from the past. I treat these clients how I’d want to be treated if I was going through an emotional change of life.
You said the next generation doesn’t want the previous generation’s things. How has that impacted your retail vintage business?
I’ve found my customers in their 30-40s are looking for something different than what I sell, and 20-30-year-olds are looking for something even more different because they are into trendy items. I can’t just go order items from a catalog, so my choice of product becomes more narrow.
This was definitely one of the things that made me realize I needed a change in my business plan. I already had this secondary business in estate sales underway, so I took it as a sign I need to make a change. I either needed a business with a strong online presence, or I needed to focus on estate sales.
How is the business transition going so far?
My transition to estate-sales services has been slow, but now that I know it’s what I want to do full-time, I’ve been marketing it more. This new venture works better for my life right now, as I’m raising a young daughter and caring for an aging parent. The flexible schedule allows me to give and take where needed.
I have one more year on my lease of the shop, and I hope to have transitioned full-time into estate sales by then.
What will you do with your store’s inventory?
I’ll probably sell a portion of it to whomever wants to be in the space after me, if they want it. I may highly discount a ton of it. I may do some online sales of specialized vintage textiles and jewelry. No matter what, my retail footprint will be greatly reduced.
What are your tips for treasure hunters?
If you’re the type who loves to spend time at estate sales and garage sales, I recommend looking online to find the upcoming sales, getting some good coffee and driving around to all the sales. Go and have a great breakfast afterward. It’s a wonderful way to spend a morning.
If you go to an antique shop, look for something that calls to you. Have a conversation with the proprietor, ask what they really like or what they just brought in that’s interesting.
I would also caution that antique shops aren’t museums. They’re places where a treasured piece of history is trying to find a new home. I hear people say all the time, “I came in to to see all your beautiful pieces!” But antiques aren’t just to be looked at -- these are pieces that need a new home.
What’s your best insight to share with new business owners?
If you’re concerned about any aspect of a business decision you’re about to make, step away, and ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable. Go with your gut.
QB Community members, when -- and why -- have you needed to transition your business or alter your business plan?
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I've worked in print, broadcast and digital media for 20 years and managed to start a couple small businesses along the way. I love collaborating with and supporting creative folks who have great ideas. As Content Creator for the QB Community team, I’m excited to help other small-business owners be the best they can be!