2009-01-07 / Homescapes

Swap Shop owner finds his niche

EYE FOR DESIGN
BY LIBBY MCMILLAN Florida Weekly Correspondent

Ben Whitley LIBBY MCMILLAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY Ben Whitley LIBBY MCMILLAN / FLORIDA WEEKLY Collectibles and furnishings dealer Ben Whitley came of age on Fort Myers Beach in the 1980s. He just missed one of the eras in which he now specializes: the '50s, '60s and '70s.

When asked what piqued his interest in pieces from a time period that had no personal bearing on his life, Mr. Whitley jokes and says, "When I found out what they were worth!" This amiable dealer, owner of The Swap Shop on Pine Ridge Road in South Fort Myers, recalls that he used to be nearly alone in his passion for the now-iconic pieces that are the signature of mid-Century Modernism. "I'd go to a sale or auction," he says, "and everybody wanted the antiques, but nobody wanted these things. I saw it was fun, funky, cool stuff," he says, "so that's what I specialize in." Mr. Whitley also buys and sells antiques and all sorts of décor and house wares, from oddball nautical pieces to kitchenware.

Mr. Whitley realized early on he had an eye for design. "I know quality when I see it," he admits. "I could always spot a good thing. Then after I'd buy it, I'd learn it was something really good." Mr. Whitley turned his skill into a business; now he's always on the hunt for welldesigned antique or Modern goods he can pass along to others. "One of the reasons I started doing this is I liked the idea of being able to make a deal work at both ends," says Mr. Whitley. "I've seen dealers go and pillage estates, saying 'I'll give you a dollar' for something that's worth $100." Mr. Whitley once warned an elderly woman she was being taken advantage of by a brazen dealer haggling over Persian rugs she had already under-priced by about $300 each.

Seventy percent of Mr. Whitley's sales are to dealers, including some from Italy and London. Many of the store's designer pieces are bought and taken to Miami or New York for resale; some travel even farther. "One guy comes in and buys every jukebox in the building," he says, "and ships them back to Sweden."

Perched high under The Swap Shop's lofty open-beam ceiling is an office softly lit by a pair of stylish, vintage Herman Miller hanging lamps. "They're called Nelson bubble lamps," he says, of the UFO-shaped pendants. "If we ever get more of them, we'll sell them between $1,200 and $1,500 apiece."

Mr. Whitley used to travel a lot in search of unique inventory. Now he gets so many offers to liquidate estates, he rarely leaves the county. When not researching the history and value of various surprises brought into his store, this busy entrepreneur is assessing the entire contents of a home. He's had some amazing finds through the years. "I found a round, red fur bed that was about 10 feet in diameter, with a canopy, a TV, and an eight-track player," he recalls, with a smile. "Somebody said Elvis had one like that."

Mr. Whitley's also bought and sold several of the famous "egg" chairs. "They're a hit with the younger kids," he says, of the pedestal chairs that almost fully encompass the body and have built-in stereo speakers. Mr. Whitley offers up a cultural reference. "It's a Mork and Mindy type thing," he says with a laugh.

The Swap Shop's inventory is quickchanging and utterly unpredictable: the mounted and horned head of an African kudu; two 5-foot-wide steel buoys; diner-style tables; vintage kitchenware; lamps from the '60s; 1890s pottery; antique toys; and all sorts of things that would set a home apart. Mr. Whitley's even had a mint 1926 Ford Model T. "That was pretty cool," he says. Hot right now are antique buffets and other pieces that can be converted into sinks for a bathroom.

Mr. Whitley admits his career choice is a constant learning process. "You're also like an information booth," he says. "Every day, people bring stuff in they want to know about, or want to why something here in the store is worth what it's priced. So you're educating people," he says. "It's fun."

With his southern charm, diplomatic nature, and easy-going attitude, Mr. Whitley has carved out a career that really suits his personality. He enjoys seeing people connect to objects in his store. "All the time, I hear people say 'Oh, I had one of those, I forgot about them!' Things in here bring up all sorts of good memories, something that reminds them of a time or place."

The Swap Shop


>>17851 Pine Ridge Road, just off San Carlos Blvd.
>>Open 6 days, 10-5
>>Call: 432-0906
>>E-mail: swapshopantiques@aol.com

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