Steve Gilmer, the owner of What’s On Second, a new antiques and collectibles shop on Second Avenue North downtown, knows exactly the type of experience he wants his customers to have.
“I want them to walk through the door and be awed by what they see, not in the decorator antique sense, but just in the sheer variety of what they’re looking at in terms of fun collectibles,” he says.
Most visitors will indeed by awed by the enormous number of toys, T-shirts, posters, comic memorabilia, holiday items, antique advertisements, dance cards, luggage labels and match books that Gilmer has on display. His stock includes vintage beer cans, circus posters, a Mickey Mouse watch and an Elvis paper doll book.
He has soda bottles, some for brands I’ve never heard of; Dr. Wells (“It’s different. It’s delicious”) and Black Kow (“Just a swell drink”).
He has campaign buttons for such obscure presidential candidates as Birch Bayh and Mo Udall.
He has a copy of Teen Dream magazine from 1964, with Ringo Starr staring out from the cover (“Vote Ringo for president,” reads the headline).
Gilmer even has a copy of Patti Smith’s album Horses — one of my favorites — and the vinyl is almost pristine (“Don’t do it, Jesse,” I told myself, “you don’t even have a turntable”).
Gilmer has over 100,000 post cards. “It’s probably the largest selection at least in the state, if not in the Southeast,” he says. To make for easy browsing, the cards are divided into hundreds of categories, including roadside attractions, statues, Route 66, U.S. presidents, movies & TV, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not. There are cards for different states and countries and for such obscure areas as quilting, mushrooms and wax museums.
“I’ve been in the business probably 25, 30 years, and I’ve never dealt in decorator antiques,” Gilmer says. “I’ve always thought they were beautiful, but I never felt the need to decorate in them. It’s what everyone seems to think of when they think of an antique dealer. I’ve always enjoyed the fun stuff and I’ve kind of specialized in that area.”
“Need has nothing to do with anything I deal in, really,” Gilmer says. “Some people collect things that are useful, and I collect things that just have some satisfying effect about them that I enjoy having them around me, and I think that’s true of a lot of collectors. Just having them is satisfying.”
One of Gilmer’s current favorite items is guitar man, an old minstrel piece from about 1915 that was once used as a window display at Mayer’s Music Store in downtown Birmingham. It’s the size and shape of a guitar and stands on two human legs and has a human head at the top of the guitar neck. It has metal strings and, Gilmer suspects, was actually played in vaudeville shows. “I don’t know whether you would pluck it or play it with a bow. When you played it, the wire would open and close the eyes.”
I noted that the guitar man’s face was white, which seemed unusual to me given that it was a minstrel piece. “It was probably in black-face at one time,” Gilmer says. “When the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, the store turned it into a Caucasian face. It’s one of the great treasures that we find around Birmingham once in a while.”
Gilmer stocks some traditional furniture and antiques, much of it supplied by other dealers, mostly old friends to whom Gilmer rents space.
Visitors to the shop will also meet Daisy, Gilmer’s 11-year-old Brittany Spaniel.
“She’s my official welcoming committee, he says. “She loves to meet people at the door and everybody pets her, and then she’ll lie down and go to sleep again.”
During most of Gilmer’s years in the business, he was on the road, setting up at antiques and collectibles shows, mostly in the Southeast. However, some of the larger shows he had relied on began to close or be open less frequently in recent years. “I just decided I had been on the road long enough, and I started looking around for a venue for selling here.”
Gilmer’s partner in the venture is Michele Wilson, a long-time friend who teaches sociology at UAB and who has brought a lot of her own merchandise into the store, including jewelry, sculptures, prints and drawings, many by local artists. “I love folk art, way outsider art, and I’ve been collecting it for years,” Wilson says. “I wanted to do a shop, and this is not what I envisioned. It’s nicer. Nicer meaning that it’s more fun. I had something more sterile in mind, a little funky, but mainly art and plants and a few antiques, but it’s the other way around here, and I’m much more at home.”
Plans for the future include more books and a clothing boutique. Gilmer and Wilson also enjoy hosting events, including benefits for local arts and political groups. “We had a fundraiser for Terrific New Theater,” Gilmer says. “We’re doing a Halloween event. When we had our grand opening, we did a tribute called ‘The Great American T-shirt: An Art Form’ and had 200 people.”
I asked Gilmer what attracts people to places like What’s On Second. “I think people come in and see things they remember,” he says. “It harkens back to their childhood and, usually, happy memories. Somebody told me one time that I don’t sell antiques, I sell memories. That may sound kind of smaltzy, but it’s true, I think, to some extent.”
Gilmer evokes powerful memories in Birmingham residents with hundreds of 8.5x 11 prints of historic places around Birmingham, Jefferson County and surrounding areas. “I make them out of images in my personal collection,” Gilmer says. “I started out just making them to share with people and they became so popular I expanded them.”
Gilmer enjoys looking at street scenes in which he can spot what he calls “old familiar places” – one example being Joy Young’s, the old Chinese restaurant on 20th Street North. “I can taste the almond cookies, just looking at the image,” Gilmer says. “The image has a way of bringing back a number of different senses.
“People are buying these pictures of places where they had good times, family times, or it may be places where they carried dates, or where they partied when they were in high school or picnicked as children,” Gilmer says. “They’re nostalgic for old times. That doesn’t mean they want to go back to them. It just means that they look back fondly on those memories.
“The Terminal Station may be the most popular print that we sell, and if I had a nickel for every time someone has looked at the picture and said, ‘That was such a terrible thing to tear that building down,’ I would be a wealthy man,” Gilmer says. “The lesson is we should protect and revitalize what we have left, and that’s one thing that we’re doing in downtown Birmingham.”
That includes Gilmer’s own storefront, which he fell in love with immediately: “It almost felt like I was at home — the beautiful pressed-tin ceiling and the terra cotta tile floors were original to the building and the marble entrance way and that beautiful mezzanine, and then when I went upstairs, there’s graffiti on the stairway going up that dates back to 1942, and it is so charming.”
Gilmer preserved the graffiti. “I didn’t have the heart to paint over it, so we varnished it and painted around it, and people are fascinated.” He loves the sound of the creaking steps, as well. “You can hear the customers walking upstairs. It’s almost as if the place has a few friendly spirits.”
Gilmer is helping to revive another kind of spirit on Second Avenue, because What’s On Second is very similar to Seeds 4, a legendary antiques shop that was located in the neighborhood until the untimely passing of its owner, Jim Anderson, in 1990. In fact, Seeds 4 was located in the still-vacant space next door to Gilmer.
Gilmer remembers going to Seeds 4 and recalls Anderson’s slogan — “the never before store.” “Maybe that influenced me, because it was a fun place to browse, and he indeed had something that had never been done in Birmingham before,” Gilmer says. “I’m trying to follow through on that.”
Even though memory is Gilmer’s business, his focus is on the future: “I am so excited to be a part of downtown Birmingham and the renaissance that I see going on. It may never be the downtown that we remember, but it doesn’t have to be. I don’t know if anybody wants to return to those days anyway. What we’re building is something new and different and exciting.”