A Passion for the Past

Nancy Lindemeyer had a vision — a vision not of the future, but of the past. That vision paid off nicely and Victoria, the magazine she edited from its beginning in 1987 until she resigned in 2000, made publishing history. Not only did Victoria attract a loyal following, its lavishly photographed pages frequently featured small businesses devoted to old-time, romantic lifestyles. Its advertising pages were filled with dozens of other small businesses offering products that recall an earlier time. Although Victoria ceased publication in June 2003, its success demonstrated that there are vast opportunities for those in love with the past.

It’s not just romantics and history buffs, however, who are cashing in on nostalgia. My 18-year-old niece became quite an authority after taking a job in an antiques mall in California. “The baby boomers are buying up their childhoods,” she confided knowingly when I visited the mall. My seatmate on that same trip had been a young Englishman living in Los Angeles who told me that he and his wife were avid collectors of things from the Fifties, and it was his wife’s dream to become a serious dealer of these artifacts.

All of this comes as no surprise to trendspotter Faith Popcorn, who writes in her book Clicking:

Good old-fashioned nostalgia with its sweet longing has a major place in the Down-Aging trend. It seems that we’re always wanting everything back that we used to have. The same toys you played with as a pup are making a steady comeback for this upcoming generation. And they’re consistently anti-technological. Erector sets are selling by the tens of thousands. … Stamp collecting, too, has returned as a hobby.

If you’ve got one foot planted firmly in another time or place, you may also have the makings of a fine profit center, one that allows you to indulge your passion and keep building your expertise — and that pays you handsomely while you have all this fun. Here are some ideas to consider:

Research and write. Before Sarah Ban Breathnach dazzled the bestseller charts with Simple Abundance, she had turned her passion for Victorian domestic arts into a lovely book called Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions: Nostalgic Suggestions for Re-Creating the Family Celebrations and Seasonal Pastimes of the Victorian Home. The growing interest in times past will fuel the market for guidebooks, retrospectives and, even, biographies.

Your unique interests may very well fill a void. I once saw an author on The Today Show who turned his unusual interest into a book. It seems that since childhood, he’s drawn floor plans of the homes and apartments featured in early television sitcoms. (No kidding.) The Today Show deemed it interesting enough to give him an interview twice as long as most authors receive on that show.

Writing about the past for magazines that celebrate various times in history, as well as shelter publications, is another income possibility for those with expertise. If you’re a history buff and you know a lot about your local area, regional publications offer another possibility for publication.

Rummage. Gathering and selling antiques and collectibles seems to be an occupation that knows no bounds. For several years, I’ve been lamenting the deterioration of the little town where I grew up in southern Minnesota. On every visit, I would notice another storefront that had become vacant. Now, however, there’s a revival going on, with antique shops popping up all over the place. Even the little Episcopalian church is finding new life as a refuge for antiques. It is hoped that this concentration of dealers will attract out-of-town buyers, as it has in other parts of the country.

Opening a shop is, of course, only one way of marketing the past. Flea markets, antique malls and, also, mail order are popular ways of selling. Online auctions such as eBay have created fabulous new marketing opportunities. Marilyn and Rocky Rockholt market the perfume bottles they collect through networking, mail/phone orders and at collectors’ shows. As they grow more knowledgeable and meet more people who share their interest, new ideas for marketing keep presenting themselves.

Reproduce. While the supply of antiques may be finite (even though it doesn’t always seem that way), craftspeople are finding enthusiastic buyers of reproduction works of the past. At the moment, the Arts and Crafts Movement is enjoying a lively revival, with artisans copying all manner of home furnishings from this era. You can find everything from hand-hammered copper hardware, to wallpaper, to lighting and furniture. The interest is so high that Elaine Hirschl Ellis has built a successful tour business specializing in arts and crafts tours to Britain.

Although rich collectors may thumb their nose at anything less than an original, thousands of enthusiasts are happy to furnish their homes with the more affordable reproductions. And after several decades of mass production, more and more folks are assembling one-of-a-kind items, creating vast opportunities for artisans who lovingly invoke earlier times in their work. Stencil artist Amy Miller has built a thriving business doing custom stenciling in the Arts and Crafts style. In addition to creating fabulous decorations for homes and businesses, she also produces a line of pre-cut stencils and teaches classes to others interested in preserving this style.

If you share a passion for the past, give serious thought to turning that love into a profit center. “Whether they’re craftspeople or collectors,” says special events coordinator Mary Alcott, “the desire to share a personal passion drives these businesses.” The time couldn’t be any riper as we rediscover our appreciation for the things that decorated our pasts and now enliven the present.

There’s more where this came from.
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