Richard (Smitty) Axtell
by Joy Hanes
We’ve always been curious about the lives dealers live after the show is over, the auction has ended, the shop is closed. Do they actually live with the type of things they sell? Do they collect anything? Do they love the stuff, or is it just merchandise? We decided to find out the answers to these and other questions by asking the most interesting dealers in this anything but dull business.
I interviewed Richard (Smitty) Axtell at the York Antiques Show in October. He is full of wonderful family stories and reminiscences, and loves the antiques business as much as anyone possibly could. His shop and home are in Deposit, N.Y.
Joy: How long have you been involved in the antiques business?
Smitty: Full time is 44 years, but if you add on the beginning, it is six additional years when I was in it part time. I started going to flea markets in 1962, and after I graduated from college in ’68 I started full time. Throughout college, I did antiques partly as a hobby, and also it helped to pay my college bills.
Joy: What did you study in college?
Smitty: First I went to SUNY in Albany, where I got a degree in economics and library science, but then transferred to Delhi Ag and Tech College in Delhi, N.Y., which was a two year school. I majored there in agricultural business. My family had a dairy farm, and I always wanted to help my father run the farm and do antiques part time, but after I graduated, my father passed away, so I went full time into antiques. Farming is a 24/7 job, not to mention debt ridden.
Joy: Did you grow up with antiques, or is it something you learned about independently?
Smitty: On my mother’s side, the ancestors came over on the Mayflower, and on my father’s side the family came from England in the 1640s. So we always had an appreciation for anything old. In 1962 I went to a small antiques show in a church and saw all the things that people were selling that were like the things my grandparents had lived with. I thought I might try that too, so I went and bought a few things from my grandparents. I was 15 years old. My uncle, who was a fourth generation drug store owner, let me set up a table in front of his store, and I put things on it and talked to people who came by. I used a coding system that Sliter David Smith, my great-great grandfather, started using in his drug store right after the Civil War in 1869. It was a good experience, and I learned how to really talk to people.
Joy: When did you move from the sidewalk table to a shop?
Smitty: In ’63 I opened a shop in the family home. I used the kitchen, living room, and downstairs front bedroom. Our house had an old creamery out back and I kept rough stuff out there. My mother would help me do flea markets around the area, and my father must have been proud of me because he bought me a special truck to use to go and do the markets.
Joy: I know you do a lot of shows, but what do you do for fun in your off time?
Smitty: One thing I do is run a small museum. I am president and charter member of the Deposit Community Historical Society, which is chartered by the state of New York under the Board of Regents, which gives us our 501(c)3 status and makes us an educational institution. Plus, people can make tax deductible donations. That takes up enough time. We have all historical material, and two buildings. One is the first commercial bank in town, and the other is a historical house that was owned by Dr. Oliver T. Bundy, who was a Civil War surgeon. He was captured and spent time taking care of prisoners in Andersonville Prison; then when he came home, he was coroner for the county of Delaware, and died in Deposit.
Joy: Where exactly is Deposit?
Smitty: It sits on the Delaware River on the border of Pennsylvania and New York, and the closest city is Binghamton.
Joy: And I understand there was a huge flood there several years ago that really did damage to your property.
Smitty: It was six years ago, in 2006. It destroyed the entire first floor of my shop, including 1,000 books from my private library. The working library in the shop lost 400 books and 50 years of records. Antiques were also destroyed. None of this was covered by insurance. Sandy, my wife, had a major collection of advertising memorabilia. Right before the flood she had sold a number of pieces, but over 1,100 pieces of hers were also destroyed, and also not covered by insurance.
Joy: How devastating. How were you able to recover from such a huge loss?
Smitty: The water in the building was six feet deep. Sadly, most of it was not covered by insurance, but I have slowly come back from zip. I just kept at it because I love the business so much. It reminds me of the story in the Bible about Jesus feeding 5,000 men and their families with five loaves of bread and two fish….I brought it back all by myself. And now I have much better insurance coverage with Flather & Perkins.
Joy: You mentioned Sandy, your wife, and I know that she passed away a year ago in October. Can you tell us a little bit about her?
Smitty: I met her in 1986. She was married to someone else at the time. Her husband passed away in 1991. They had collected antiques together, and two different dealers told them that if they wanted to find early lighting, they should come to Deposit to see me. When they arrived at my shop, they were shocked to see so many early things for sale under one roof, so they would come back periodically and buy things, usually putting them on layaway. They had moved to Missouri, and in 1995 Sandy called me and wanted to buy something that was advertised, but it was already sold. But we talked for a long time. I wound up going out to Missouri to visit her, then she came to visit me, then in June of that year my brother and I rented a U-Haul van to bring her stuff back….she had a huge collection. We got married in October of ’96 and had 15 wonderful years together. We traveled all over buying things. She loved collecting, and at that time it was mostly advertising and graphics.
Joy: On another subject, tell us about the most interesting or influential person you have ever met.
Smitty: It was a man who passed away in 1992. He was a dealer, and I met him when I was 15. He had started dealing right after the war in 1945. His name was Jim Cain, and he lived in Roscoe, N.Y. He may not have known this, but he was a mentor to me. I would ask him questions all the time, like “How far do you go with spending when there’s an opportunity?” and he said “Down to the last dollar.” One time there was an auction and there was a set of four painted Windsor bowbacks. I just missed them by getting to the auction too late, and I asked him what they sold for. He wouldn’t tell me because he said he was going to sell them to me; he said never to ask anyone that question. I wound up buying them for a good price, and it was a good lesson: The only thing I want to know is where it came from, whether a dealer, auction, privately, or what? There were a lot of people I could mention as big influences, but I knew him the longest, and I spent a lot of time with him and his wife. They didn’t have kids, so I was sort of their adopted kid.
Joy: He sounds like a wonderful person to have known.
Smitty: He was. And I’ll tell you another story about him. There was an estate in Deposit for sale once. The family had settled from Canada, and had a lot of wonderful things. A lot of it was generic, but there was one thing in particular, a portrait by James Sanford Ellsworth which was a portrait of a little boy. I made an offer of $4,000 on the entire estate and didn’t get it. Mr. Cain offered $50 more and got it. I said “Jim, I know you bought the estate and there’s one thing I wanted and it’s that Ellsworth portrait” and he said it was in his bedroom, but he offered it to me for $1,000. I said “That’s one quarter of what you paid for the whole estate,” but I bought it, and kept it until just a few years ago.
Joy: Talking about keeping things, do you have antiques in your home?
Smitty: I do. Everything is antique except for a few sofas and beds that are new. I have an interest in a lot of different things. I’m interested in books and ephemera as well as antiques, and I now have a bookshop in my shop building in a section that I never used. All the books are used, and there are rare books, books on antiques, histories, all different subject matter. The books go back to the late seventeenth century, and are mostly American but some are European. One of my favorite things in my house is a portrait of Ammi Philips of the man who owned my shop building. His name was Conrad Edick, and he bought the house in 1806. He was the fourth owner (it was constructed in 1783). He was a distiller, and when he got married, it was the first marriage ever performed in Deposit.
Joy: Do you travel much?
Smitty: I’m like my ancestors. I found out that they all loved living in Deposit and wanted to stay right at home. It’s fascinating because so many people want to go away to make a living, but now I bring people in. Since the flood, it died down a bit, but now they are coming back. I had traveled to Canada a few times when I was a teenager, because my uncle had a camp in Quebec. Everyone spoke French and I didn’t understand a word. I remember going into a dinner and ordering something. I got cherry pie and coffee, but that’s not what I thought I’d ordered. the only place I’d really like to go to is England where my family came from. There was an ancestral home that I know was still standing in the 1940’s, but I can’t tell you if it’s still there.
Joy: What about reading? I’m sure that you must be an avid reader.
Smitty: I am. I read mostly nonfiction historical works. If I do read fiction, it is old English books. I love Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift. I recently reread some Shakespeare and it was fantastic. Last summer I read The Old Curiosity Shop and Moby Dick. As far as history, I am mostly interested in history up to WWII. I think after that we lost touch with humanity. I’m a stuffed shirt when it comes to that.
Joy: Back to your ancestors for a minute. Have you discovered any really juicy stories about any of them?
Smitty: I have studied family genealogy and recently acquired documents about the family from the eighteenth century up to 1920. It is diaries and workbooks. This material was sitting right in front of me, but I was never allowed to look at it before. One thing that I discovered was that one ancestor owned a tavern, which is funny because the family always prided themselves as being teetotalers.
Joy: Now for the last two big questions: If you could go back to history and be anywhere, anytime, any person, where would you go and who would you be?
Smitty: I’d like to be my relative Daniel Axtell back in the 1640s. He was a master blacksmith, an armorer, and made weapons and armor for the Cromwellian army and Charles II. He immigrated to Sudbury, Mass. I’d like to have the knowledge and skills that he had.
Joy: Second, if you could save any one thing in your house in case of a fire or flood, what would it be?
Smitty: There’s a little piece of woodenware. It’s a burl sugar bowl with a cover and it has a matching spoon in burl. It has the original patina, and is small, maybe four inches in diameter. It’s one of the first things I ever bought that I never offered for sale. One time I asked Sandy if we should sell it and she would always say, “Money is not the object.” It is sentimental and represents what I really love in antiques. I bought it from a friend in Binghamton, and didn’t pay a lot for it. But it means a lot to me, and my wife clearly loved it. It is like it’s a part of her too…she had a reverence for it, and made me cherish it even more. There is a line between material goods and what people want from you. Sandy had a wonderful sense of the spirit. You can never get that back, and I miss that so much. It’s something that you can’t take anywhere, you can’t put it in a box, and there’s no price on it.
Joy: I sense that you’re also very spiritual.
Smitty: I am. I’m a Methodist, and proud of that fact. I love everybody, and I believe that every person has merit. I don’t categorize people; I just like to look at people for who they are. That’s very important to me. I try to look for the good in everyone. My faith has been my comforter since my wife passed away. I don’t have anyone to talk to, but I have that. I was blessed to have had Sandy for so many years. It wasn’t luck; luck is man-made.
Joy: Thank you.
The New England Antiques Journal
Vol. XXXI, No. 7 January 2013