Loss of Mount Vernon Antique Center upends lives of vendors

Mount Vernon Antique Center aftermath
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Robert Spence, one of the vendors at the antique center, is seen visiting on Friday.
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Lucia Martinez could not bring herself to visit the Mount Vernon Antique Center the day after a Christmas night fire destroyed the business. 

An antique dealer at the center for seven years, Martinez said she was “in shock” after seeing images and videos of the massive fire. Viewing the destruction in person would take some time.

“When I saw the video, I broke down,” said Martinez. “I was crying. It’s like a death really, that’s the only way to explain it.”

Martinez is one of more than 30 vendors who worked out of the Mount Vernon Antique Center, which burned down Dec. 25. Nobody was injured in the fire, and no cause has been released yet. 

Located at the corner of Richmond Highway and Mount Vernon Highway, the distinctive yellow antique mall had long been a fixture in the community. The Mount Vernon Antique Center opened in 2003, replacing Thieves Market, which had been in the Route 1 area for decades. 

Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said Monday that he felt particularly bad for the smaller dealers who worked in the building. Even if they had insurance — Storck said he’d heard that most did not — rebuilding from such a catastrophe would prove difficult.

“It’s always a shame for any business to go up in flames like this,” Storck said. “And clearly there’s a lot of hardship for the [dealers].”

Del. Paul Krizek said he had fond memories of shopping for comic books at the old Thieves Market, and later browsing the Mount Vernon Antique Center as an adult. He lamented the loss of an iconic local business.

“[It] was full of wonderful eclectic items, both antique and just old,” said Krizek. “A fun place to go back in time and find the stuff your grandparents would have had in their homes when we were kids. It will be missed. A lot of treasures lost forever.”

A community devastated

Betty Blake, 81, opened the Blake Collection at Thieves Market in the early 1990s along with her late husband, James. They continued working there through the transition in ownership, selling turn-of-the-century Americana pieces, vintage clothing and jewelry.

Blake’s daughter, Liz, said the business was part of the family for more than 40 years. Dealer and customers at the antique center were like a second family, and the loss of that community hurts the Blakes more than financial and property losses caused by the fire.

“The antique family is a tight group that supports each other and looked out for one another,” Blake said. “Mom made some great friends from folks that were once her customers. While there is a financial loss, the sentimental loss of the antique center is of greater value and impact.”

Blake Collection antiques

Blake Collection antiques (Courtesy of Liz Blake)

Craig Baker owns The Eldest Geek computer repair service, which operated out of the antique center for the past 10 years. Baker’s stepson texted him about the fire on Christmas, and he drove to the scene, spending a good part of the night watching firefighters extinguish the blaze. 

Baker said he lost a number of personal items in the fire, as well as computers he was fixing for customers. He holds out hope that some of the hard drives inside of the the computers might somehow be salvageable, but said it’s highly unlikely. 

Baker said he was more worried, however, about how the loss will affect the owners and dealers who lost large collections in the blaze.

I feel much worse for the building owner, and I feel sorrier for the dealers who were just getting started or had everything they had in that place,” Baker said. “There’s no chance to save any of that stuff.”

An uncertain future

It’s unclear what the future holds for the Mount Vernon Antique Center. As of Friday, vendors had not been allowed to access the remains of the building to check for anything that could have possibly survived. 

Baker is optimistic The Eldest Geek will survive, either through house calls or by opening in another storefront. Other businesses at the center, he worries, will have a tougher time moving forward. 

Baker recalled seeing one of the dealers walking around the ruins the day after the fire. He was an immigrant who had invested much of his savings into his business, Baker said, and likely had lost everything.

“One of the saddest things I saw [after the fire],” Baker said. “When he was wandering around … he was kind of in a state of shock.”

For Robert Spence, the fire is the end of his business. He had run Heritage Antiques and Military for the past seven years, selling vintage military items, including swords, knives, medals and pictures. He estimates he lost more than $20,000 in collectibles, office equipment and personal items.

Retired after a career in the military, Spence says he’ll focus on a book he’s been working on. He believes he’s one of the few, if not only, vendors who had fire insurance.

“I’m lucky … [but] I lost stuff I can’t replace, personal items,” Spence said, noting that a prized Masonic ring was likelydestroyed in the fire. 

Making a little extra money was only a part of the appeal of the antique center for Spence. The fulfillment he received meeting new customers and bonding with other vendors is what he’ll miss the most. 

I didn’t make much on it. It was my man cave,” Spence said. “The vendors are really … they’re just terrific guys. A lot of my friends, I guess I’ll lose touch with them.”

Helping those in need

Martinez considers herself luckier than many of the other vendors. Her antique antique business, Allure, was a second career after retiring from the Navy.

Others, she said, were far more dependent on the income they earned. Many supplemented social security or retirement income through their businesses at the antique center, and she’s worried about what will happen to the less fortunate dealers. 

At the suggestion of her children, Martinez started a GoFundMe page for the other vendors at the antique mall. 

“I wanted to do something for the people who need it, for the older dealers, the people who were left with nothing,” Martinez said.

On Friday, Martinez was en route to another longtime dealer’s house to comfort her. The fire had left Martinez’s friend shaken, not only by the loss of income, but by the loss of a second home that had meant so much to her for so long. 

“It’s more the loss the of place itself [that hurts],” Martinez said. “It’s what it meant to the people.”