"The History of D.C. Riggott, Inc." - A 14 question interview with Don Riggott about the history of D.C. Riggott, Inc.
1. When did you get into the antique business and how did you get started?
It was in about 1974, I had just finished going through Photography school and was working in odd jobs to support myself while I worked on my photography. I sort of fell into a self employed gig as a picker, that’s someone who finds things for Antique Dealers and shop owners.
So for the first couple of years or so my business was me and my 1953 Chevy pickup truck. I would drive the streets of Minneapolis and St Paul hunting for the old buildings that were being demolished or renovated; I would talk to the owners or contractors and buy the old stained glass windows, light fixtures, doors, etc and sell to them to the buyers. At that time the use of old building parts was sort of coming in to its hay day, lots of restaurants for example using old stained glass and lighting fixtures, and there was still a lot of those items going to the land fills, so it was a good niche to fall in to.
I remember doing a flea market in St Paul one Saturday morning with my oldest son Dean when he was about ten years old. We had my old pickup loaded down with lots of old building salvage, a couple women came by and said they would take it all. These two women had a shop called Scroungers Unlimited, which did prop rental and were one of the first shops selling architectural antiques. So I ended up as sort of their main buyer for about the next five years. Then in 1980 they moved on to do other things and I hung my shingle out on the same building and officially opened my own shop Architectural Antiques.
2. Did it come easy to run the business or were you just a natural at it?
I suppose one of the hardest aspects of those early days is I sort of had to do it all myself. I was the buyer, salesmen, clerk, janitor, accountant, etc. I had to learn how to run the business by Trial and Error, and believe me I had my share of the Error. After a couple years of just getting by I was doing well enough to hire some help. And back then I still had my hands in the photography and was sort of torn as to if I would go for the commercial photo work and build my career in that, or build up the antique business. The antique business sort of won out as it was very lucrative and offered a good income and I had gotten married the same year I opened the shop. We were starting to have kids and so in the antique business I could keep a decent schedule and be home with my family most evenings and weekends.
3. Did you eventually find the right people to help out with operating the company?
My first employee was Wally, he was sort of a recluse and an outcast in the eyes of society, I guess you could say. But the man had spirit and loved antiques, and he loved just hanging out at the shop. He wore a large cowboy hat and he loved books and reading and writing poetry. I had sort of taken him under my wing and he would come to our house and join us in for dinner and some social activities.
I guess I would have to say that as I added more employees as the need came, what those people brought to Architectural Antiques is really what made the business unique and prosperous. I had some very creative and brilliant people working down at the shop; they were definitely not your average Joes. These people were real characters, if you know what I mean, and most were very dedicated to making Architectural Antiques one of the largest and best shops in the US. We all worked very hard but we usually had a good time doing it, and for me it was those characters that worked with me that made the business what it was. And looking back on those relationships, I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work along side those people. Often I will be talking to someone who worked at the shop in the early days and they will comment on how much they enjoyed working there and how much fun they had.
One of my first employees was a young man who walked in and said he wanted to work at the shop. I asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he said, I am going to own a business just like yours. I handed him a broom and said O K here is where you start. He was very aggressive in the business and really helped Architectural Antiques grow to a larger level. He worked for me for a couple years and then went off to start his own shop. Today he owns one of the largest if not the largest Architectural Antique business in the US called Architectural Artifacts of Chicago.
It’s stories like that which make it all worth it, because in the end its not about making lots of money, it’s the relationships that we will remember.
4. What was one of the most memorable salvage jobs you did?
I would have to say the Rockledge Estate in Winona, MN. Through one of my good friends in the business we were able to buy the salvage rights to this incredible house that was destined to be demolished. It sat in the bluffs south of Winona, MN overlooking the Mississippi River. It was designed by George Washington Mayer. I think it had 12 bedrooms, a bowling alley in the basement and cages in the yard where it was rumored they kept lions brought in from Africa. It was loaded with lots of great Art Deco marble fireplace mantles and unbelievable china tubs, sinks and light fixtures. We had a great time doing this salvage job; it went on for a couple months. We even took the clay tile roof. I remember the thrill of the hunt as we searched through the tunnels that ran underneath the house. We had some of the wildest characters ever assembled on a salvage crew. First off we had my good friend Jeanette she was my partner on this deal and boy could she run a crew. She could make a US Marine Drill Sergeant cower in fear, but she has the heart of a teddy bear. Then there was Roger, an ex pro wrestler from northern Wisconsin. He was about 7 foot tall and weighed 350 lbs, all muscle he used to pick up horses in the circus. He showed up with his gas powered chop saw and said I can cut those marble mantles out with this. We were afraid to say no so we let him try one, but after the first one we sent him outside to work on a stone gazebo. Dan, one of our more skilled salvage guys, slowly and carefully chipped away the mortar holding the mantles in. It was a lot of fun and we sold lots of good salvage for years to come. As a matter of fact I recently bought back the Rockledge Mansions clay tile roof from the person who had bought it from us. He stored it for the past 20 years, but I recently sold it to an east coast company that restores historic roofs.
5. What about competition? Were there other shops around doing the same thing?
Back then we had very little competition. We were the company that usually got the call when a building was going to be demolished. When I started the business there were only a few Architectural Antique shops in the US. There were Salvage Businesses, but they were sort of like junk yards. Architectural Antiques was defiantly one of the first shops to carefully and logically display the antiques in an organized and orderly fashion. I would like to think that we sort of set the standard for the hundreds of Architectural Antique businesses that since those days have cropped up across the US.
6. Why and how did you sell Architectural Antiques?
It’s not easy to sell an Antique business but I was determined to sell the company. At that time we had about 15 employees and two stores, as well as my farm with its barns full of antiques. My motive for selling was mainly to have more time for my family and to get rid of the numerous headaches that are part of running this type of company. And my idea was to get back to my first love, and that was the Hunt, searching across the US for those treasures waiting to be found. I always enjoyed finding the stuff and then selling for the profit, but I just did not like being tied to a retail business and the regular hours that it required.
So after a couple years of trying to find a buyer, I got an offer from some investors who had nothing to do with antiques. They just saw the profit we were making and realized the potential of the company, and the person I had managing the shop at that time agreed to continue running it. They made an offer I could not refuse and so I sold in the summer of 1995. Today Architectural Antiques is still in business and owned by the same people who now live out of state. And it is still managed by the same person who worked for the company when I sold it.
7. Were you happy about selling and how was the transformation?
The sale was definitely not just a matter of selling off my inventory for a wholesale amount. I received a substantial amount that compensated me for all those years of building the business, and was enough that if I invested it well I could retire.
After I sold the company there was sort of a mass exodus, as many of the old timers left the company and several opened their own shops specializing in architectural antiques and building salvage. Several of those shops are still around and doing well. I enjoy seeing the progression of these people as they move out on their own and put to use all that they learned while working at Architectural Antiques. I can identify with their sense of accomplishment and I enjoy seeing them succeed.
There were lots of regrets at first. I had been doing the shop for so long it was hard to adjust but after awhile as I got back on the road and started to fill my barns up again I started to enjoy the freedom that I was looking for when I sold.
8. How did you end up in the business of Liturgical Artifacts?
I was looking for a niche that I could get in to that made sense, as I had signed a ten year no compete contract for the five state area. So I needed to buy and sell my antiques in a different fashion as I had in the past, and at the same time enjoy this phase of life I called semi-retirement. I had always enjoyed the church salvage end of the business and so I endeavored into the realm of buying almost exclusively Ecclesiastical or Liturgical Antiques and Artifacts, mostly from churches in the eastern United States. I discovered that there were a lot of churches, mostly Catholic, that were in search of the older Traditional Artifacts. Many of these articles were removed from the churches in the early 1960 s as a result of Vatican II and now forty years later many of these churches were looking to replace the older traditional items that they got rid of back then, such as Statues, Altars, Stained glass windows, Candlesticks, Chalices, etc. And as time went by and the more I specialized in this area the more I enjoyed it. I guess I would like to think that my taste sort of evolved into a higher calling if you will.
9. Did you like your new niche?
I found it enjoyable and fulfilling to deal with Artifacts, many of which have an interesting history as to how they came about, and the meaning and symbolism behind their use. Many of the churches are very old and also have an interesting history, and retain their ethnic origins.
10. Why do the churches get rid of their Antiques and Artifacts?
Usually the churches I buy from are either being closed and torn down or are merging with other churches. So they end up with lots of items just sitting in storage collecting dust, and they are very happy to see these items get reused in other churches. At the same time they receive some funds to help out with the budget. And on the other end, the churches that are searching for these hard to find older traditional artifacts are grateful to find them, and usually at a price a fair amount less than buying them new. And almost always the craftsmanship and aesthetics of these older Artifacts are of a much higher quality than the newly made versions. A couple years ago a Catholic Newspaper did a story about DC Riggott Inc. and they subtitled it “Church’s History Being Preserved by an Unlikely Hero”. The point being that although I am not a Catholic the work my company does is beneficial to the Catholic Church.
11. So you were sort of in this semi retirement mode, why and how did you get back into a business that must be a full time deal?
One of the main reasons I had wanted to scale back was to do more volunteer work and get involved in activities that were more meaningful. This was after several years of building up my liturgical artifacts business, while at the same time considering myself semi-retired. I sort of realized my talents, or the thing that came easy for me was making money and in general the activity of finding the stuff. In other words the treasure hunt, and then selling those finds for a profit. I really enjoy this process, at the same time having the realization that I could do more for others such as missions or charities by making money and giving to those organizations and individuals that needed money to do their work or ministry. And also I had several old friends who had worked with me in the business in the past; a couple of them had been with me at Architectural Antiques back in the early days that were after me to get back in the business. So I had people ready to go to work to find things and do some of the work. And that helped motivate me also to start buying again. However I definitely did not want to get back into a retail shop, and so the plan was to start building a website and try to run the business via the internet, and dealing with customers by appointment only.
12. What is different about DC Riggott Inc. than most antique businesses?
I guess you could say that our little company has an unusual little niche, mainly the liturgical artifacts that deal almost exclusively with the churches, but also with a strong emphasis and large portion of our inventory focusing on high end architectural antiques. And our customers being architects, designers, and builders doing projects ranging from small home chapels to large renovations of cathedrals. And we’re also supplying architectural items for new construction, both commercial and high end homes. We do not do walk-in retail business, our main outlet is through our website, and many of our customers are word of mouth. We are open by appointment only.
13. Do you enjoy working full scale again in the antique business?
I guess I like working on my farm putting my buildings to use. We have a very small staff, I like it that way, it makes for a low stress situation, different than back when I started out in the antique business. Then I had the stress of making enough money to pay the bills and support the family, now its more for enjoyment and it gives me the opportunity to be with my son Zach. I really enjoy working with him. Zach is in college and works three days a week during the school year and full time in the summer. It has been satisfying teaching him about the business. He has a lot of good ideas for the things that we do. I am old school, so don’t know much about websites and other computer things and he has a good handle on all of that. So Zach and I sort of almost started over from scratch together and set up the office, displays, and of coarse building the website together with all of the challenges that go along with it. And my right hand man Rick who has been the caretaker of our property and farm now for almost three years. It has been very fulfilling working with him because we sort of brainstorm together, coming up with creative ideas for the business. Rick also has many skills in many different areas, and it’s fun and stimulating to watch him learn about different things and also watch him create and make things happen.
14. What do you see in the future for DC Riggott Inc?
One of our main focuses is to stay small and keep it simple, and to continue supplying churches with liturgical artifacts as well as supplying builders, architects, and individuals with architectural elements for remodeling and construction. Again, our goal is not to become a huge business. I really like the idea of staying small and focusing on quality rather than quantity. And of coarse have a bit of fun doing it.