Antique store transforms into cocktail-culture destination
By Jessica Harlan
From the lasting impact of the hit show Mad Men, to a proliferation of retro cocktail bars and supper clubs, to a growing industry of artisanal makers of bitters, spirits and barware, there’s no doubt about it: cocktail culture is here to stay.
It was a direction that Leigh Greer noticed shortly after opening her Norfolk, Va. antique store, Table 7 Antiques, five years ago. She started out specializing in vintage tabletop items from hotels, steamships, the U.S. Navy, railroad lines, and other origins. After a chance visit to a gift market, she began adding new products to her assortment, including paper goods from Hester & Cook, which had an aesthetic that dovetailed nicely with the retro china and silver she already carried.
The paper goods company invited her to visit AmericasMart, and she began regularly attending the market to source items that fit with her store’s focus and sensibility, developing a product selection that was roughly half antiques, half new items.
Evolving the concept to fit the customer
Greer quickly realized that the sign bearing her store’s name, Table 7 Antiques, wasn’t bringing in the foot traffic she needed to flourish. “People would walk by and think only of brown furniture,” she says.
Since the vintage martini pitchers, cocktail napkins, bar glasses and jiggers were among the hottest sellers in her store, she decided a rebrand was in order. She closed the store for two weeks in the fall of 2017, and when she reopened, it was as Table & Tonic, specializing in home, bar and gifts.
“Everybody’s returning to old-school, classic cocktails like martinis and manhattans,” says Greer. She points out the spirit industry has increased 6 percent over the past year, a good barometer of a growing movement. “And as everyone gets more comfortable with their cocktails, it’s only going to get bigger and better. What I have in my store is on trend, but it’s not trendy.”
Today the store is a source for glass barware, cocktail books, flasks, bar equipment, wine and beer accessories, cocktail kits, and more. She also stocks consumables such as bourbon balls, jarred cherries and olives, and even bourbon-infused toothpicks. Customers can sample around 2 dozen flavored bitters and shrubs at the store’s bitters bar.
Mixing old and new creates distinction
Now that she isn’t beholden to an identity as an antique shop, Greer finds she has the ability to expand more into other categories. Recent additions include a jewelry line and book covers, while her bestsellers include Nest Candles and Louis Sherry chocolates.
“I’ve been able to buy things that I’ve liked for years [but wouldn’t have been a good fit in an antique shop],” says Greer. “But everything still has an old-school feel to it.”
The 1,200-square-foot store itself has a retro air, thanks to its origins as a warehouse: brick walls, exposed beams, concrete floor, an enormous hanging chandelier. Goods are displayed on weathered wooden and steel furniture, with old and new mixed together. Vintage highball glasses are displayed with flavored bitters, and rolls of wrapping paper are corralled in an old ice bucket, and old cocktail stirrers from long-shuttered restaurants might share space with bartending books. The front window of the store features an 8-foot-long table made from an old bowling alley floor. A typical display on the table might feature vintage glassware, a new bar cart stacked with old cocktail shakers and linens, and a stack of newly released cocktail-recipe books.
True to her business’ origin, Greer still seeks out vintage barware, trolling thrift stores and estate stores. She gets a lot of folks calling her to sell their grandparents’ stemware or a cache of old linens. But Greer estimates that at the moment, roughly 75 percent of the store is new merchandise, and 25 percent is vintage.
“It’s so much easier having new things than old things,” says Greer. Acquiring vintage goods entails a laborious task of researching origin, history, and value, and there’s often cleaning and restoring involved. What’s more, in-demand items might be hard to find, whereas a delivery of new stock is just a phone call away.
Thinking ahead creates opportunities
Within months of the store’s transformation from Table 7 Antiques to Table & Tonic, Greer is already noticing a marked difference. “Walk-in traffic is probably up 75 percent,” she notes. She’s also seen an uptick in the number of invitations she gets from local organizations to exhibit at shows and bazaars, which she accepts as often as possible since it helps spread the word about her business.
And in the coming months, Greer plans to add another facet to her business, one that she wasn’t able to do as an antiques retailer: online sales. “You can’t sell online with an antique shop because things come and go out of the shop every day,” she says. “But I think adding online sales now will reach a broader number of people.”