By Jessica Isaacs | [email protected]
Reprinted from High Country Magazine, December 2016. Click here to see the full spread.
The stoic mountain town’s untroubled charm abides, although an air of excitement begins to filter through the still quiet streets. Spreading swiftly from one corner to another, it moves like the wind along the sidewalks, passing as it flows storefronts that have been closed and secured until the morning comes. Daytime shoppers and visitors have long withdrawn from Main Street Blowing Rock, but with the setting sun came a bevy of new characters — a medley of wealthy jetsetters, summer residents and local thrill seekers.
The haut monde of the American South have sojourned to the hill country seeking not only cooler temperatures, but also the indulgences and rarities up for grabs at the three competing auction houses that anchor the town’s flamboyant nightlife.
Brilliantly dressed, donning fur coats and dripping with their most resplendent jewelry, throngs of eager patrons spill out into the streets as they work to infiltrate the crowded galleries on a bustling Friday night in 1976, their Rolls-Royce cars parked alongside the curbs. Having slipped over from the neighboring town, college students line the walk to watch the action through large windows from across the street.
It’s standing room only in the Fincke Art Gallery, which plays to a packed house of enthusiastic buyers waving cash in the air, the sounds of vibrant conversation roaring in a smoke-filled hall. At the podium stands 21-year-old Charlie Travis, the youngest auctioneer in the state of North Carolina.
Rich, dramatic oil paintings drape the walls, Persian rugs are piled high and delicate, ornate porcelains hide behind glass cases and stand tall atop antique furniture, lining the space with mountains of heirlooms awaiting their turn in the spotlight.
Trays of precious jewels and diamonds in hand, well-dressed employees of the auction house weave in and out of the seated rows, drumming up interested parties and reminding folks not to let those precious pieces slip away. Buyers are ready to bite, and the crowd stirs as the next item up makes its way to the auctioneer. Travis announces the opening bid, and the dance begins.
Deals are closing right and left, in-demand products still circulate the room and new pieces are shown, contested and sold quickly as the fast-as-lightning auction process carries past midnight, despite the scheduled closing time that has long since been surpassed. The Fincke auctioneers could go all night with a crowd like this, and that’s exactly what they’ll do.
Forty years later, just across town on King Street in Boone, Charlie Travis is still selling treasured nonpareils at his own store, now named Village Jewelers. With his wife, Joy, and a team of trusted experts by his side, Travis has built an enterprise that can and will continue to stand the test of time.
The Auction Life
Charlie Travis has owned and operated Old World Galleries in the High Country for the better part of four decades, and, thanks to his keen businesses sense and his focus on the customers he serves, the gallery has been able to change with the times and adapt to growing social trends and cultures over time. In fact, the transformation continues now as the store adopts is new name, Village Jewelers, in order to better represent its specialties for its clientele. Long before the transition, however, Travis got his first taste of the fine art world as a teenager working in the Fincke Art Gallery, a bustling auction house in downtown Blowing Rock, in the 1970s.
“I grew up in Blowing Rock, and it was a sleepy little summer town then. During the wintertime, you might see three cars on the street — and that’s it, all day long. You knew everybody, and we missed a lot of school because we played in the snow a lot,” Travis laughed. “We went sledding down Echo Park and ended up at the pharmacy. There was no traffic because nobody had four-wheel drives, so it was fun growing up in Blowing Rock. At the same time, it was hard for people to make a living. In the wintertime I worked as a carpenter, and in the summertime I worked at the auction.”
By the age of 17, Travis was working two auction sales a day at Fincke, which was formerly the Fincke-Sobel Art Gallery and had moved to the High Country from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“Blowing Rock was a funny place back then. There would be crowds of people spilling out onto the street at these auction houses, because there was nothing else to do in the whole county, except maybe go to a movie theater,” he said. “It was really live entertainment. We sold everything from umbrellas and steak knives to five-carat diamonds and everything in between. At the time, people really loved to collect things. They collected oil paintings, porcelains, silver, diamonds, fine jewelry, Persian rugs. People still bought silver tea services.”
Operating from the building that now houses Kilwin’s at 1103 Main Street, Fincke was one of three competing auction houses in the downtown community. Down the road at 1053 Main was the Blowing Rock Art Gallery, which also drew large crowds.
“We had two auctions a day — one at 10:30 a.m. and one at 7:30 p.m. — and we gave away prizes. The college kids would come for the free ice creams and Coca Colas,” said Travis. “The majority of the people there were summer residents and their guests, and then people that would come up to stay there — I guess you would call them tourists.”
“They only operated from, say, the first of June to the middle of October, and that’s it. Then the people would go back to Florida. Most of them were from the Miami area. They would travel back and forth and do Florida in the winter months and Blowing Rock in the summer months. They were all crazy people, but it didn’t matter how sane they were, because the business was just that way. It was a crazy business, you know?”
Two sales a day six days a week meant a lot of activity for summertime on Main Street, and a lot of work for the folks behind the auction houses.
“Especially on weekend nights, people would come up and we would have crowds. The seating capacity was probably close to 200, and then it would be standing room only with people spilling out on the streets,” he said. “As long as clients were interested in buying things, we’d stay there and sell. Many nights we would close after midnight because the place was packed and people kept bidding on stuff and asking for things to be sold.
“We really worked our asses off, you know? We’d have one sale in the morning until about 1 o’clock. We were supposed to go home and take a nap, but I’d usually get on my Moto Guzzi and ride out 221, take a little nap and go back to work at 7. It’s really hard to describe because it was almost surreal.”
Auction sale culture in the High Country thrived in the ’70s, particularly in the otherwise quiet community of Blowing Rock.
“It was such a different time in the whole country, for one thing, and in this area in general. Everything was more seasonal here, and Blowing Rock was really just a little summer resort town that basically folded up in the winter,” Travis explained. “Most of the businesses closed. Most of the people left. In 1970, I think the population of Blowing Rock was about 900 people. It was hard to make a living.
“The auction life was almost like a carnival, you know, because we were showmen. We were entertainers. Part of the appeal, for most people, was that you could go there with your friends and have good, clean fun and be entertained by these crazy people. We always told a lot of jokes and sold things at really reasonable prices, and sold things that you couldn’t go to the store and buy. These days you can go out to Wal-Mart to get steak knives, if you will, but, back then, where did you go to buy steak knives? We would sell everything. Perfume, steak knives, umbrellas. Especially if it was raining, we sold the heck out umbrellas.”
Naturally, with such an interesting business came plenty of interesting characters.
“We had one guy who was an auctioneer named Artie Fincke. He cold remember everyone’s names, where they lived, the street they lived on and he kissed all the women when he came in the door,” Travis said. “Artie Fincke was a great guy and he was from Fort Lauderdale. He came over to me one night and said, ‘Charlie, don’t put your hands in your pockets. Put your hands in somebody else’s pockets.’ I think they were really from the boardwalk in New Jersey.”
By 1976, Travis was working as the youngest auctioneer in the state of North Carolina at age 21, and continued to be part of the Fincke Art Gallery’s success until it closed a few years later.
“We stopped having auctions by 1978 because the Fincke could see the writing on the wall. People weren’t buying that way anymore, so he started doing more of the antique shows and selling directly to the customer,” said Travis. “In retrospect, the whole culture changed. It started in the early ’80s, and by the mid ’80s/early ’90s those venues were no longer a viable business model. Today, if you’re looking for an auction gallery like that, where they operate on a regular basis and have auctions every day, I think there’s one that I know of in the state of North Carolina that’s down near Hendersonville.”
Times They Are a-Changin’
The Fincke family saw change on the horizon, allowing them to transition into business practices that would better suit the next generation of shoppers; and, during his time with them, Travis picked up on their vision.
“People changed and their buying habits changed, especially when they stopped collecting things. It happened over a long period of time. When this was going on, you couldn’t just go to Wal-Mart and buy stuff because we didn’t have stores like that,” he said. “As more and more companies entered that marketplace, it almost diminished the value of those collectible things and people stopped looking at them the same way. The buying public began to look at things differently.
“Now, granted, you can watch the TV and see Antiques Road Show and some items are worth a small fortunate, but a lot of the pieces that you see on that show have gone down in value from 20 years ago, 15 years ago, partly because nobody’s collecting them anymore. People used to collected dolls, everything. It was a crazy time, and then they began to evaluate that and think, do I really need that?”
The growing number of mainstream shopping stores made many product areas increasingly available to the general public, effectively pulling business away from auction houses like Fincke.
“People changed their buying habits, and people became skeptical of products that were sold in that type of environment and they don’t want to buy that way anymore because of that, I think,” said Travis. “If someone wants to sell an estate at auction, that’s a different kind of environment; but where you’re actually filling a store with product and inviting people to come in and sit down and auction every day, people don’t want to buy that way anymore. Their tastes and preferences have changed. There’s not a pretty way to put that, it’s just what happened.”
When the auction house closed, Travis took his interest in fine art and his business sense, both of which were fostered under the Fincke gallery, and set foot on a journey toward a career on his own terms.
“I had no knowledge of those things when I started, but just by being around it you become interested in certain forms of art and study those art forms and learn about them,” he said. “I love learning about antique jewelry and porcelains and Persian rugs, so those are the things that I concentrated on.”
The year following Fincke’s last auction sale, he opened Old World Galleries in a Foscoe shopping center that was, at the time, called Country House Village and now houses Gilded Age Antiques.
“I didn’t have two pennies to rub together in 1979. I couldn’t hardly pay rent. My mom loaned me $800 and her good wishes, and that paid rent for a couple months and bought some office supplies,” he said. “We had mostly antiques and Persian rugs, mostly because we knew people in that business and they’d give us stuff to sell.”
Travis was 24 when he opened his own business, and it was generally well received in the community.
“It was good. We had clients who wanted to business with us right from the start,” he said. “People we had relationships with from the auction days and people who supported us. Clients who wanted to buy product from us.”
From the get go, Travis had his eye on the storefront at 1053 Main Street, which still housed the Blowing Rock Art Gallery by the time he was out on his own. He knew the space would eventually become available, but in the meantime continued to grow his business in other locations while keeping a watchful eye on his target property.
In 1980, Old World Galleries relocated to downtown Blowing Rock next to Sonny’s Grill, the local hangout, in a building that is now home to Six Pence Pub.
“After we moved to Blowing Rock, we still had the same product mix, and it was probably about 1985 when we got back into the jewelry business. We sold a really big estate from Chicago, and that’s how we got back into it,” he said. “They had beautiful things from the Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods. All kinds of things, like cut glass, fine jewelry, Persian rugs.”
The company would grow over time in its lean toward fine and estate jewelry, and the storefront he’d been waiting for eventually made for an ideal jewelry store, too.
Although Fincke had closed up shop more than a decade beforehand, the Blowing Rock Art Gallery was still in the auction game by the early ’90s when Old World Galleries made its way to Main Street.
Based on its reputation for less than honorable business practices, Travis new that the still functioning auction house would eventually close its doors, and he was prepared to make his move when it did.
“I knew that one day he would screw up and we’d have a chance to get that building. We made an offer on it and he laughed at us,” said Travis. “A couple days later, he accepted our offer because the department of revenue served papers on him.”
Travis purchased the building in 1994 and reopened it as the newest home of Old World Galleries.
“It was the perfect showroom for our products. We built a jewelry store within a rug store, so we had a big showroom for Persian rugs with beautiful displays,” he said. “We began importing directly from the weaving centers in India and Pakistan and developed the estate jewelry business by liquidating estates from New York to California.”
The store enjoyed success in that location for nearly a decade before Travis sensed that change was again on the way.
“The reason I like the business I’m in is because I know that we offer a product that will last a lifetime and hold its value and be appreciated for generations to come,” he said. “That was the basis of why I went out on my own in the first place, but the whole thing about running a business on your own is that it’s hard to get away from it. That’s why corporations have boards of directors — they’re not in the pits every day and they’re stepping away from it to make decisions.
“It’s challenging when you run your own business to see how to change it to meet the demands of a changing marketplace. I love working with the public and I love working with products that have lasting value and helping people with them, but I had done it for a long time and I could see the marketplace changing.”
Anticipating the recession that would a few years later drastically impact the United States economy, he closed the doors on Old World Galleries for the time being and sold the storefront to Capel Rug in 2003.
Stepping out of the fine art world for the first time in his career, Travis and his wife, Joy, explored other ways to make a living after the store closed in the 2000s. He completed graduate school and tried his hand at the corporate world, but they were ready to jump back into their passion for jewelry and art by the time another decade had passed.
“We actually did real estate investment. We’d buy a house, fix it up and sell it. That’s what we did at first, then I went back to school and got an MBA and I worked for a couple of big corporations before I decided that I’m not cut out for that kind of environment,” he said. “In other words, I like to be able to keep my promises and work with people. The corporate life was not for me, so that’s when we decided to go back in business.”
In 2013, Old World Galleries reopened in its current spot at 697 W. King Street in downtown Boone, which had served as a jewelry store for many, many years.
“Old Man Walker was a watchmaker back in the 1930s and he moved his family here and got into the jewelry business,” Travis said. “It had been a jewelry store forever, maybe 70 years.”
The store, and the Travis family, have since found a home in the Boone community, offering a variety of new and antique, vintage and estate pieces. They also specialize in restoring antique jewelry and building completely custom, modern pieces, many of which are created in the styles that were popular during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods.
These high art eras of jewelry making are often the inspiration for custom-created pieces at the store, like an engagement ring that Charlie recently developed using a 1930s diamond and modern technology, which resulted in a one-of-a-kind family heirloom for the client.
Travis has been careful and intentional in making sure his business has changed with the times over the years, and he’s perfected both his craft and his operation in many ways since he first opened in 1979.
“It was hard starting out — even starting out the second time was challenging. Although we had a pretty good following, a lot of our clients weren’t around anymore. That’s one reason we decided to reopen with the name Old World Galleries, because people knew us and they knew what we did,” he explained. “Today, we have the ability to do more to accomplish more to make sure that we can create exactly what the customer wants. In the other store, we were really more of an estate jewelry business, so we bought and sold things. We did some jewelry work, but custom work is more important to us now than it was then.”
Some things haven’t changed, however, like the businesses core values, and Travis guarantees that they never will.
“I have always been one with strong faith and hope and a vision, so those things haven’t changed. We concentrate on offering clients quality at a good value and service,” he said. “One of the guiding principles of what we do in stocking the store is that we will not buy anything to resell if we wouldn’t want it for ourselves. The whole reason people want to do business with anyone is because they feel a connection to that person. They feel like that person is going to take care of them, and that’s what we want to do.”
Although much of its work lies in restoring antique and estate jewelry and creating custom pieces, the store also represents local artists.
“We have Wes Waugh, who is from North Carolina and has lived in the area for about 35 years. He loves to paint watercolors and uses brilliant colors very effectively,” Travis said. “We have Jane Miller, also a North Carolina native, who lives on Beech Mountain. She uses oils and concentrates on portraits, primarily. She does commissioned work for clients, as well as painting portraits of the people and the dogs that she loves. We also represent Gale Champion, who lives in Blowing Rock, and also works in watercolors. She paints beautiful local scenes.”
Finding balance between constant change and lasting virtue hasn’t been an easy job, but Charlie Travis continues to do it year after year. Most recently, he changed the name of the business from Old World Galleries to Village Jewelers in a total branding overhaul aimed at better reaching potential clients in a digital world.
“In trying to adapt to the new social order, we realized that, because our specialty is fine jewelry and our name didn’t have the word jewelers in it, people would get us mixed up with companies that are in some other business,” he said. “So, as far as Internet searches go and the way people look for and decide who to do business with, all that has changed. When people go online to find someone to work with, if the name comes up as jewelers, they will assess that you’re a jeweler. I think we were missing out on some business — that’s the short answer.”
The new name better reflects the specific services the store offers, but, after decades of doing business in the High Country, the name Village Jewelers means so much more than that.
“We have always felt that it was important to be part of a downtown area or a village. I’m really happy that we could get the name, for one thing,” Travis said. “The concept of a village is that everybody takes care of each other, and it takes more than one person to make things happen, so we rely on suppliers all over the world and we rely on a community that supports us.
“The name Village Jewelers just seemed to come together — it was kind of like magic. We’re really thankful to be able to live in Watauga County and make a living here and support our friends and customers.”