Where do they find all that stuff? A peek behind the scenes of Chattanooga vintage marketplaces

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Falkor, a prop used in the 1984 fantasy film "The NeverEnding Story," protrudes from an interior wall at The Refindery on McCallie in downtown Chattanooga. Though not for sale, the luck dragon is popular for selfies, especially with customers who have look-alike dogs.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Falkor, a prop used in the 1984 fantasy film "The NeverEnding Story," protrudes from an interior wall at The Refindery on McCallie in downtown Chattanooga. Though not for sale, the luck dragon is popular for selfies, especially with customers who have look-alike dogs.

In the market for a midcentury-modern sofa? A jade coffee mug? A Waterford chandelier?

How about a giant Falkor head used as a prop in the 1984 fantasy film "The NeverEnding Story"?

From furniture to kitchenware to home decor, Chattanooga-area antique stores may have just what you need — though it's safe to say The Refindery on McCallie has cornered the market on 6-foot "luckdragons" locally.

Because of its size and novelty, it's not for sale, but employee Marcella Rea says customers are often enchanted by the furry white figure they discover floating over shelving. "They ask about bringing their dogs in" for selfies with the magical movie creature, she says.

While big-box stores and other mainstream retailers offer the latest mass-produced goods, some customers prefer the harder-to-come-by, throwback inventory that is an antique store's stock in trade. Keep in mind, though, that "antique" may be a bit of a misnomer. While some merchants may strictly carry items of a certain age, many of these marketplaces are not just a nod to nostalgia but an ode to eclecticism. There may be a Howdy Doody lunchbox in one vendor's booth, a Star Wars toy in the next. Vintage Christmas ornaments down this aisle, TikTok-trending freeze-dried candy down another.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Customer Stacy Zirkle takes a photo of the Falkor prop at The Refindery on McCallie in downtown Chattanooga.

The selection of vendors is curated by each store's owner, and the goods vary widely.

"I try to keep a variety — a little bit of something for everyone," says Robin Nave-Montero, owner of The Robin's Nest in Ringgold, Georgia, a 15,000-square-foot space filled with 35 vendor booths.

Jessica Wheeler, owner of Dept. One Three in the East Ridge Antique District, says the eclectic offerings draw customers in all demographics.

"We have kids, moms, older gentlemen — all ages — come in," she says.

With dozens of destinations in the area and multiple aisles to explore, you never know what may turn up in such stores. Sure, it's possible to find merchandise in a digital marketplace, but part of the thrill of the hunt is being able to immediately lay hands on whatever treasure you've happened upon.

"People love weird stuff," says Carrie Eaves, who runs Tortoise and Hare Vintage booths at Mercantile at the Ridge in East Ridge and The Mustard Seed in Red Bank with business partner Anne Smith. "Not necessarily weird, but something different than what everybody else has."

On any given day, a visit to these stores can feel like a trip down memory lane or a journey into the unknown. Here's a peek behind the scenes.

 photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Tortoise and Hare Vintage at Mercantile at the Ridge regularly stocks classic and Asian-inspired furniture and decor. The owners say their particular interests can be found in the eclectic mix, including bunnies and lamps for Carrie Eaves and the roe deer skulls for Anne Smith.

— The merchandise comes from all over. "They source from everywhere," depending on what their booth sells, Wheeler says: "the Marketplace, estate sales, yard sales, the market in Atlanta, online, everywhere."

Smith and Eaves say that list checks all the boxes for their searches, along with auctions and acquaintances who reach out when they're redecorating or helping their parents downsize. Tortoise and Hare Vintage specializes in Regency and grandmillennial decor, which they characterize as bright colors, Chinoiserie and other Asian influences, as well as classic pieces.

"We're kind of traditional and preppy, but maybe a little bit updated," Smith says.

Nave-Montero says if customers see the same merchandise on successive visits to the store, they may think there's been little turnover. But a vendor "may have 12 sets at home" that they put out as the pieces sell. Not all merchandise is one of a kind.

— Vendor waiting lists are long. "I think [finding vendors] was my biggest concern, that we were not going to have enough people to fill the store," says Wheeler. "That has not been an issue. We generally have 20-plus on [the waiting list] at all times."

Katherine Schurer says she has kept a record of all interested vendors since she and husband Paul opened their first Vinterest store in Hixson in January of 2015. Other Vinterest locations have followed on Chattanooga's Southside and in Nashville. Her running list now has "nearly 1,000 people on it," she says.

— Diversity is key. Unless a store specializes in a particular type of goods, an owner wouldn't want aisle upon aisle of the same merchandise. The variety benefits the vendors too.

"You don't want to have competition under the same roof," Wheeler says.

To jump to the head of the line, a new vendor must offer "something we don't have that's trending," Schurer says. "If it's something we haven't seen in town before, we'll get them in."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Carrie Eaves, left, and Anne Smith of Tortoise and Hare Vintage say customers regularly ask for advice on how to recreate the wall display of antique plates that serves as a focal point of their booth at Mercantile at the Ridge in East Ridge.

— Vendors pay rent and other fees. The standard setup is a flat fee based on the size of the space the vendor occupies, whether it's a double booth filled with furniture or a single shelf for a jewelry maker's latest designs. Customers pay for items from all booths at one centralized register, not at each booth, and the commission on each sale is often 10% to the store owner, 90% to the vendor.

— Booth upkeep is required. Vendors are responsible for setting up their booths and maintaining the appearance of their displays. They are regularly updated on what sells, so they know when their space is bare.

Nave-Montero says she encourages weekly check-ins, "but some come in every day to refresh or swap something from there to here. They'll fluff it, restock it, sweep, dust, whatever they need to do."

Schurer says one of her vendors has a presence, The Blue Screen Door, in all three Vinterest locations.

"She treats it like a full-time job," Schurer says. "It's not something we ask of our vendors, but I feel like the more they work it, the better the results they get."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / An overview of the merchandise available from a variety of vendors at The Refindery on McCallie in downtown Chattanooga

Upcoming Events