Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Treasure Keeper
Sharon O’Brien has been preserving America’s antiques and collectibles for 15 years.
For 10 years, she’s been actively preserving the Short North. Meet the treasure keeper.

By Karen Edwards
July/August 2012 Issue

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Sharon O’Brien with Short North Alliance Director John Angelo. The pair have worked on many community projects together.

Keeping any business alive for 15 years is a remarkable achievement for anyone – but Sharon O’Brien’s success in keeping GrandView Mercantile a popular Short North destination for 15 years is nothing less than amazing, given the obstacles she’s faced along the way.

Obstacle One: More space
A decade ago, the Short North was hardly the trendy and well-developed hot spot it is today. At that time, vagrants were still squatting in derelict buildings and tourists were scarce, save for the monthly Gallery Hops. O’Brien, however, was willing to uproot her well-established business in nearby Grandview and move to the area. It was a risk and she knew it. But “I needed more space,” O’Brien says simply.

That’s because she wanted to open a consignment shop in addition to her antique store.

“There was a demand for a furniture resale shop,” she says. “People would tell me, I have this item or that I want to sell” – but without more room, O’Brien knew she would be unable to take on any consignments. “I was on a five-year lease in Grandview, and I knew at the end of that time I’d either have to expand the business or shut it down,” she says.

So she began looking for some place that would give her the room she wanted at a price she could afford. The Short North seemed the best option. It wasn’t as developed as other areas of Columbus – Westerville or Worthington, for example, or Bexley – which meant space was not only more available but more affordable as well. Besides, she lived nearby: “I believed in the community. I felt it was at a turning point,” she says. “There was a strong business association here and the Gallery Hops were bringing more people to the area.”

Obstacle Two: The building
One day, while out driving the area looking for a location, O’Brien saw a rental sign on a 20,000-square-foot building at 873 N. High St. The building had once served as a car dealership (hence the large picture windows in the front and along the side), and while it offered her the space she craved, the building had issues. The roof leaked and many of the large windows were broken or damaged. As with any treasure, however, O’Brien could see its potential. She bought the building. “The rehab took six months,” O’Brien recalls now. “We did it in stages.”

“Sharon made a big investment buying the building,” says Scott Graner, one-time GrandView Mercantile customer and now one of the shop’s 70 dealers. “She took a huge leap of faith.”

But “that’s Sharon O’Brien,” points out John Angelo, former executive director of the Short North Business Association and now head of the Short North Alliance. “She’s a seize-the-opportunity kind of person.”

What O’Brien seized when she moved into the Short North location in May 1997 was a chance to turn the antiques and consignment business on its ear.

Obstacle Three: The business

The White family joins in the anniversary fun:
Emma and Cooper (children) with Karyn and Tim White.

Antiques have always been an up-and-down market and most antique malls are, as Graner puts it, “a step above a glorified yard sale.”

But O’Brien isn’t just any antique mall owner, and GrandView Mercantile isn’t just any antique mall. Oh sure, O’Brien loves and has collected antiques (she still has a few pieces of her transfer ware collection in the rare black mulberry pattern), but with 40 years of retail merchandising behind her, O’Brien knows that in order to keep on top of the marketplace – be it retail or antique – you need to be a keen observer of today’s consumer. And a shop needs to reflect the marketplace.

“People today are editing their belongings rather than acquiring them,” she says – and design trends reflect that. Current design magazines show simple, clean and open spaces where every object stands out because there isn’t a collection of similar objects nearby. Mixing trends is also big right now – industrial sits beside traditional; rustic alongside contemporary.

If you don’t know that, you won’t sell. That’s why, from the start, O’Brien has focused on bringing professional dealers into her business. “If you just antique for fun on the weekend, you won’t last,” she says.

The importance of change

Sharon O’Brien with David Magers and Jean Hannon.

Her years of retail experience have taught O’Brien that static doesn’t cut it. “You have to constantly keep things fresh and moving,” she says. For example, if an item has been in a location for as long as 30 days, it needs to be removed. “Or at least moved somewhere where it looks different.” It’s an incredible challenge to keep GrandView Mercantile looking fresh and interesting week after week, and it’s why she says some dealers find her demanding. “But it’s for their own good,” she says. “I want them to sell, but also it’s true that if the quality slips in one space, their neighbors are affected and their sales may go down. So it’s in everyone’s interest to keep things moving.”

Graner agrees. “She knows what she’s doing,” he says. “She sets very high standards for her business.” And that’s what keeps customers returning.

Gloria Kinder, a GrandView Mercantile dealer from its inception and also an employee, says O’Brien is the reason “mall” is a term that doesn’t fit O’Brien’s shop. “Sharon is a visionary,” she says. “And her standards are superior. When I talk to customers who come into the store, they tell me they don’t have any shops like this where they live.” And Kinder, who has dealt antiques from other malls across the city before arriving at GrandView Mercantile, says she’s never been at another antique mall like it.

“I don’t even like calling it a mall,” says Graner. “It’s so far above that. It’s really a collection of dealers.”

That sterling reputation – along with a steady client base – is why O’Brien never changed her shop’s name, although she’s no longer in Grandview. “I had built up five years of customer faith, so I decided to keep the name,” she says.

ReVue, the consignment shop next door – the one O’Brien envisioned back in Grandview – opened in September 2002.

O’Brien feels strongly that she can sell anything – if it meets design trends. “You name it, we can sell it,” she says, whether that’s a grand piano or an 8-foot tall Brutus Buckeye.
“We have the space. We have tall ceilings. We can bring anything in here and sell it,” says O’Brien enthusiastically.

In fact, she recently sold an unusual art item – a painting by a listed artist that covered a car hood. Yes, that’s right. A hood from a car. “It created quite a stir,” she says.

Uncovering a gem

But it’s not the rarest item she’s sold. That distinction goes to a small sketch that came to her from an estate sale she had been called in to liquidate. “The painting was on butcher paper and it looked like a child’s drawing,” says O’Brien. Still, it looked familiar, so she did some quick research. She found the painting on the Smithsonian’s Web site – a work by one of the African-American artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Surely a reproduction, right? But O’Brien wasn’t sure. The clarity of the colors, the texture of the paper made her wonder if she might not be holding the original. She called the Smithsonian office of African-American Art for possible verification and was told to send an e-mail along with a photo.

O’Brien sent the e-mail, “I thought that was that. But within five minutes, I got a call back from the Smithsonian,” she says. The head of the department was interested in the possibility that O’Brien was holding the original art work and told her to contact another expert at Duke University. That expert flew to Columbus to check out the piece for himself. “He told me it was the original art and he appraised it at $60, 000,” she says.

The painting was sold at a private auction at GrandView Mercantile, the first and only one of its kind. Phone bids raised the price of the painting well above the appraised amount. “It sold for $100,000,” says O’Brien.

The celebrities
Of course, word of the painting spread out into the art community and art lovers began to frequent the shop, but GrandView Mercantile already had a well-heeled clientele, thanks to its reputation as a place for real treasures. “We’re known for our jewelry as well as our art,” says O’Brien, and of course, for those one-of-a-kind antique items that stand up well in today’s décor. “We’ve had jewelry buyers fly in from California to check out our items, and we had an interior designer from Boston who visited us frequently,” she says.

Then there are the celebrities – everyone from Shabby Chic’s Rachel Ashwell to singer k.d. lang. “If a celebrity is in town, they often come by to check us out,” says O’Brien. Elvis Costello, for example, pulled up in his tour bus on the way to a concert. He and his entire crew climbed out, shopped for three hours, then piled back on. “There was a piano for sale at the time, and he sat down and played a few impromptu songs on it,” says O’Brien.

Yet one of the most memorable celebrity visits was paid by Carrie Fisher, actress and author. It wasn’t what she bought that made her visit memorable to O’Brien. It was what she said. “She told me that it’s very hard to find areas like this anymore, this eclectic mix of people and this combination of rehabbed buildings and new development,” says O’Brien. “She told me the area is really one of a kind.”

The community leader
But you don’t have to tell O’Brien that. As a resident of the area, she’s been aware of its charms for years. It’s what drove her to open her business here in the first place. And it’s the reason she has become such an active community leader.

Six months after moving her business into the Short North – and at the urging of realtor Sandy Wood – she became a board member of the Short North Foundation. In that role, she also served as a liaison to the Short North Special Improvement District (SID). “I’d attend all of their meetings,” she says. Eventually, she became a member of SID’s board of directors as well.

But serving a role on two boards, in addition to operating her shop, eventually became too much for her. She reluctantly resigned from the Foundation board. This was seven years ago and, at the time, SID was in the middle of a capital campaign that, if successful, would mean massive improvements to the entire Short North. O’Brien was made the campaign’s chair. Then, two years ago, when the current SID proposal was up for renewal, she became the board’s president. With another large project looming over her, O’Brien called on John Angelo for help.

O’Brien first met Angelo on a dreary April Gallery Hop in 2005. He and his partner had brought some developer friends to the area. “We went into GrandView Mercantile, and Sharon met us at the door,” he recalls. Because so few people attended Gallery Hop that evening, Angelo had a chance to chat with her.

“She’s passionate about the area, and it shows,” he says. After mentioning to her that he had seen an executive director job posted for the Short North Business Association, she encouraged him to apply for it. He did and was offered the job. He and O’Brien have been working together on community projects, like the SID renewal project, ever since.

“It took us two and a half years to get SID renewed,” says O’Brien – but in her eyes, it’s all been worth it. Carrie Fisher isn’t the only one to remark about the area’s uniqueness, she says. “Others have told us the community is a gem that we need to protect.”

O’Brien is justifiably proud of her work and of giving back to the community. And she never stops giving. “She has been an amazing donor in terms of time and resources,” Angelo says. “She’s helped sponsor the Short North Gala and High Ball. And her store has become an anchor for the Short North. It’s the kind of place that’s become a destination for many.”

But O’Brien knows when it’s time to say ‘when.’ “I’ve been working 30 hours a week on my community work and 50 hours on my business,” she says. It’s time for a breather. “I will start backing off (community efforts),” she says.

The family and the future
After all, she wants to be able to devote more time to family. She and her husband Thaddeus, a corporate psychologist, have five children and seven grandchildren.

O’Brien’s doubtful she’ll be the owner of GrandView Mercantile after another 15 years. “I’d like to sell the business and retire,” she says. Presently, none of her children are interested in carrying it on. “They are spread out geographically and none of them want to move to Columbus to take over the store.”

Still, it’s a while before retirement, and O’Brien continues to evolve the business, to keep it fresh. The shop’s Web site, for example, which combines both GrandView Mercantile and ReVue, is her latest business venture, and it’s already meeting with resounding success. “We’re now selling to buyers all over the country,” she says.

“The wave of the future may be online,” says Graner. “But I think there will always be a brick-and-mortar store.”

GrandView Mercantile is, in many respects, a metaphor for the Short North itself. Filled with unique treasures; caring, professional people; and a constantly evolving and eclectic landscape – watched over and attended to by a vibrant, tenacious and passionate Sharon O’Brien – it’s no wonder the shop, and the Short North itself, has become a Columbus destination.

GrandView Mercantile, 873 N. High St., is open Monday through Saturday 10-6, Sunday 12-5. Visit grandviewmercantile.com

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