Monday, May 24, 1999, Munford, Tennessee - J.B. Curtis knows "The Deal" so well, you'd think he'd invented it. For four decades, he has lived his life making deals; some big, some small (most of them small.) What is his secret to The Deal? "I'll give you back more than you paid," he says, implying that he simply sells his goods at bargain prices. Believing in this could very well be his secret for success as one of western Tennessee's most noted antique and anything-else dealers. He is about to know if that is the success he treasures most, as he makes the biggest deal of his life.
Midway through a career as a U.S. Navy instrument technician, Curtis opened and ran a small jewelry repair shop on the east side of Hwy 51, in Munford, until "it got out of hand," he says. Then he moved into an old ice house on this one-acre lot across the street, and bought and sold used items. He retired from the Navy in 1964 and quickly outgrew the ice house, and nine other small buildings on the lot. The items he has for sale are packed into those ten buildings, and have taken over the grounds, leaving only narrow walking paths for brave bargain hunters. A visit to the trading post is, to say the least, an adventure.
Curtis has sold everything from rocking horses to a 1921 Mack truck, from baby carriages to a horse drawn hearse, even caisson guns. Occasionally, he will have a windfall, such as the sweet deal he made on an "Owensboro wagon" which he says is a rare, horse drawn wagon. He bought it, sight unseen, for $800, then sold it to the museum which had it on loan, for $2,500, he says. Such deals are what people like Curtis live for, they only need air to breathe, bread, water, and great deals like this.
And then, there are the bad deals. Have you ever put an ad in a newspaper to sell something, and sold it the first day? Did you feel like you didn't ask enough? This happens to Curtis every day. "I may have lost two or three fortunes in this business," he says. Each time a customer quickly takes his offer, he must wonder if he should have asked for more. He still regrets selling any Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the 1970's, because he knows he could get much more for them now. He has dumped hundreds of collectibles and antiques for fractions of their true value. But that is his job, in a way. He plays a specific role in this industry - he is a clearinghouse - and bad deals for him are good for his customers, which keeps them coming back. People come to J.B. Curtis' "Keep-on-Antekin" trading post for good deals on common items, such as tools or old appliances, and great deals on rare items.
Some of his favorite items are musical instruments, which he keeps in the rear of the "Music Studio." To enter the studio, he removes the padlock and chain from the steel-bar door, then we work our way to the rear of the trinket-filled hall. Curtis not only sells musical instruments, but he plays them as well. He has been playing the piano since he was ten years old, and can play "a thousand" songs from memory. He sits down at a small Kawai piano and microphone, both hooked up to an amplifier, and I relax on the deep-pile, red shag carpeting, beneath a mirrored ball and a chandelier. He works his way through a few tunes for me, starting off the set with "God Made a Man, God Made a Woman, and finishes with "Over the Rainbow" before a few customers walk in, and he sets off for The deal.
Curtis doesn't buy as much as he once did - he is trying to liquidate the trading post - but he still buys from people who call or bring items to him, preferring to buy in quantity, which gives him leeway in his pricing. He may buy a large lot of, say, furniture and other items, for $1,000, which he may be able to earn back by selling only three or four of those items. This gives him a break on the rest, much of which he may have to hold onto for years.
Whenever we talk about dealing, or making deals, or anything about the business side of his business, he breaks into his street-smart voice; "Shoot, man. What you talkin' about?" he'll say (in an agreeable way) or, when he greets a customer; "Talk to me, now." He is now talking with one of his more regular customers, an antiques dealer, who has toured the compound and collected items which she may want to buy. But first, she needs to know the prices. Sometimes people will make offers, and, as his sign out front says, he won't take offers less than a dollar. Curtis doesn't have a single price tag in the entire place. First, he has thousands of items. Second, he has had so much of it for so long (years and years) that the prices change, and third, he enjoys the art of The Deal.
She shows him a plaque. "six dollars," he says, and she takes it. A milk glass vase. "Forty." She turns it down, but doesn't make a counter-offer. A wooden box, made like a Coca-Cola cooler. "Twenty." She takes it. An, elaborate, heavily painted, antebellum, wall sconce. "Seventy-five" - she would like the other one in the pair, which sets them off on an hour-long search of the property, digging through the rubble like rescuers through a bomb site.
He probably loses many customers by not price tagging his goods, but then, if he has to tag every item, he may price them too high, and never sell them. "I'm sure he always gives you the best price," I tell the dealer. "Sometimes, I don't know!" she laughs nervously. But she has been buying from Curtis for years.
This position gives Curtis control over the sale. Sure, he sizes someone up. If you were to pull up in a limo, step out in an expensive suit, with a wad of hundreds in your hand, and say; "I've got to have that rocking horse!" Why, Curtis would be a fool not to let you part with one or two of those bills. And if an elderly woman pulls her grandchild from a 1972 Pinto, and the boy just loves the pony, but she only has a handful of ones from her waitressing job, he'd be a schmuck to take more than twenty for it. Especially if he bought it in a pile of other items for which he only paid twenty dollars. All dealers will deny such price practices, but as a customer, it is wise to play The Deal right.
This antiques dealer is either too proper or too timid to dicker with Curtis, counting on an ongoing relationship with him to keep his prices low. She will take the items on a tour through New England antique shows, where she may make a 100 to 1,000 percent margin, but that's her business, and Curtis doesn't mind. He knows his role in this industry, and he plays it well.
Burt Curtis is in his early eighties, and has been married to Christine for 61 years. They have a son who is an orthopaedist, and who has invited his parents to retire and come live with him. Curtis is very proud of his son and talks often of him, and how he and Christine may spend their sunset years with their son.
So, Curtis is about to sell the trading post, little by little, then the whole kaboodle. A few fast-food franchises have been eyeing the parcel, which may bring him the greatest deal of his life, and if one does move in, with its sparkling clean windows and bright lights, people may say; "remember that eyesore that used to be on that corner?" But some people, the ones who know J.B. Curtis, may remember hours of sifting through America's attic, may remember listening to his zealous piano playing, or may note his lifelong caring for his wife, or the treasure he now has in his son. But he hopes they will remember his insistence that he "always gives you back more than you paid."
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