ON a bleak fall Sunday, when even the foliage in northern Westchester has taken on a gloomy cast, Ruth Zager and James Gallagher settle into their booth at the 15th annual Caramoor Fall Art and Antiques Show in Katonah, N.Y., surrounded by what must be a ton of early American fireplace equipment: 75 pairs of 18th- and 19th-century brass andirons, 30 fenders, 80 sets of tools, and enough candlesticks and biscuit tins to outfit half the bed-and-breakfasts in the Hudson Valley.
Already, it has been a bit of a slog. Driving to the hotel after the preview party Friday night, the dealers' four-wheel pack mule -- a 1997 box truck with 100,000 miles -- broke down in the rain, sending them scurrying for a late-night repair shop and a truck rental. And the show's foot traffic, some years a stampede, has been more of a pitter-patter so far.
The couple shrug it off. Martha Stewart, whose 153-acre estate sits across the street from Caramoor, stopped by last night to eye some period andirons. (She didn't buy anything, but Ms. Zager says even famous-name renovators can take years to decide.) More important, fellow dealers have been streaming by all weekend, bearing sweets, sympathy and shop talk, which, when you're living the vagabond life on the antiques-show circuit, is as valuable as a five-figure sale.
"My sister-in-law calls us the Carny Folk, because we're always on the road, traveling from show to show," said Ms. Zager, who, at 65, still logs a bone-wearying 16 shows a season, most within a four-hour drive of her home in North Norwich, N.Y. "When we started out, we did 43 a year, but we were 30 years younger then."
It's as certain as beach days giving way to frosty nights: Every weekend from September to April, hundreds of art and antiques shows across the United States throw open their doors, most of them, like Caramoor, modest operations populated by veteran dealers (some from as far as California) and always-fickle customers (who are happy to come -- unless it's better weather for pumpkin-picking).
These are not the marquee national extravaganzas, like the Winter Antiques Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory in Manhattan or the Philadelphia Antiques Show. Nor are they the no-name flea markets that inhabit back roads and church basements, where dreams of unearthing the next Indian Chief weather vane -- like the one that fetched $5.8 million at Sotheby's last month -- clash with the kitschy reality of cat-shaped cookie jars.
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Shows like Caramoor are, quite simply, the bread-and-butter of the antiques business. Week after week, they help fill the coffers of local sponsors -- in the case of Caramoor, home to the region's largest outdoor music festival, proceeds go to the estate's House Museum and Garden Guild -- and they promise a ready stream of customers for the dealers, who often spend more time hauling to shows in Houston, Aspen and Palm Beach than they do in their own shops.
That is, if they have shops. For many of Caramoor's 31 vendors, the road is the shop.
With a tough hide, quick wit and comfortable shoes, these road warriors are as skilled at selling themselves as their wares. One part historian, one part circus performer, they tight-rope their way through 15, 30, even 40 shows and thousands of customers a year. Not even the patina of a vintage car show -- Caramoor's tightly edited display included a 1948 Ford Woody station wagon, a 1950 Jaguar roadster and a 1965 Aston Martin, all from the celebrated collection of its neighbor Ralph Lauren -- is enough to let them relax.
"It's show business," said Danielle Ann Millican, a Florham Park, N.J., dealer in antique botanicals and maps, who travels to about a dozen shows a year. "You get the bug and you just want to do it. There's an excitement to it, like any theater troupe going from town to town."
Her enthusiasm is infectious. On Oct. 21, Caramoor's opening day, Ms. Millican stood in front of an early-18th-century print of a moth, caterpillar and papaya plant, her green eyes twinkling as she told the story of the artist, Maria Sybilla Merian, a German-born naturalist who divorced her husband and set out in 1699, at the age of 52, on a three-month voyage from Amsterdam to Surinam to record bugs and plants. "I love telling people about women like Maria and how you can do anything you want to," said Ms. Millican, who left her own career as a hotel executive to sell prints.
That was 25 years ago. As the number of shows has mushroomed in the last few decades, experts say, so has the pressure on dealers to find fresh merchandise -- and fresh audiences.
"New York is infested with shows," said Sanford L. Smith, who has been in the antiques business for 40 years, half of them spent putting together large-scale shows. "The problem in the entire show business is that people are much busier than they were 10, 15, 20 years ago. You have a husband and wife working, you have busy kids, and the only time they have to do anything is on weekends, so you're not seeing the gate you used to. "
This helps explain why no dealer can afford to sit still. "If you have a small shop, you can't wait for the customers to come to you; you have to be on the road," said Xavier Bachelier, a 40-year-old Frenchman whose store, Ile de France, in Marbledale, Conn., specializes in culinary and wine antiques, most of which he seems to have carted to Caramoor this weekend. There is everything from copper pots and colanders to a 19th-century corner cabinet from Alsace, with its original brass hardware and centuries-old candle burns.
"I can't stand on the sidewalk waiting for customers," he said, perched on a two-sided train-station bench (price: $750). "I don't even have a sidewalk."
Mr. Bachelier learned the trade from his mother, who owns a business north of Paris. He attended the Connecticut Culinary Institute in Farmington when he came to the United States nine years ago, figuring it was the fastest way to learn English. Now he hits 12 to 15 shows a season -- Nashville, Atlanta, Michigan, Phoenix, Denver and on and on.
Like many small dealers trying to hold on to every centime of profit, Mr. Bachelier does just about everything himself: He drives his box truck from city to city; he hires a few porters at each show to help unload; then he labors into the night to transform a colorless booth into a cozy French kitchen.
"People don't realize how difficult this is," he said "They give you one light and wallpaper, and the rest is up to you to do a beautiful setup."
No detail can be ignored, whether it is Mr. Bachelier's canopy of copper, the bubble wrap that Patricia Barger, a dealer from Fairfield, Conn., pulls out to cosset four Bryant Chapin paintings that a customer wants to try out at home, or the refrigerator-size vault that Brad Reh, a Long Island antique jewelry dealer, rents for every show.
Even harder than setting up, ripping down and camping out is the grind of being away from family for days or weeks at a stretch. In the last aisle at Caramoor, Mr. Reh, a third-generation jeweler, and his wife, Vandy, busily juggle a rush of Saturday-afternoon customers mesmerized by estate pieces signed by Van Cleef & Arpels, David Webb and Jean Schlumberger. Patiently, the Rehs fetch one treasure after another from the showcases, circling one customer's wrist with a platinum and diamond bracelet, decorating another's earlobes with Seamen Schepps's funky 1930s earrings.
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The Rehs admit their days don't all glitter like vintage Boucheron. On this weekend, they missed one daughter's tennis match and another's first SATs. Almost every year, Mr. Reh said, he has been on the road for their birthdays. The shows, the trips to scout new pieces (they once sold a 12-carat emerald ring for Vladimir Horowitz) and their shop in Southampton, N.Y., are daily reminders of the cost of doing business.
"At the beginning of the season, I feel fresh and happy and ready to be on the road," Mrs. Reh said. "But if you speak to me in April, we've had it. We don't even want to look at jewelry!"
David Brooker has an even tougher haul. A 39-year-old Englishman who specializes in European paintings of dogs, children and landscapes, Mr. Brooker says he splits his time between his gallery in Woodbury, Conn., the 15 or so shows he does each year and his family in Reigate, England. For years, he said, it was easy enough -- his wife, a flight attendant, would hop a plane and meet him in Houston or Boston. Now, with one baby at home and another on the way, they are not so mobile.
His friend Mr. Bachelier looked resigned as he said, "There's a lot of divorce in this business." Before his son was born five years ago, Mr. Bachelier said, he and his wife struggled with whether he should find another career. "Because the antiques business is so difficult, you have a sense of insecurity," he said. "Then you have a baby and a wife who can't work, and you're on the road, and you just don't know if it will all work out. Sometimes, you feel like you're choosing between your wife and your work."
Of course, for most, giving up antiques would be like giving up breathing. Some dealers, like Mr. Bachelier and Mr. Reh, came to ancient pots and vintage platinum through their families. The antiques bug chased down the others -- though James Butterworth, a furniture dealer, was only 8 at the time.
"I went to a yard sale when I was a little boy and bought a wicker chair for $3 and a bushel of caning supplies," said Mr. Butterworth, 51, of Nashua, N.H. "I fixed it, and I was hooked." After that, he restored a chair for his mother, and then a neighbor asked if he could find one for her too. "It was my first real job -- I made $35, and I was 10 years old."
By contrast, Keith Barger, 79, of Fairfield, Conn., didn't discover his passion for 18th- and 19th-century American tall clocks until he was in his 50s, after decades as a commercial pilot, a test driver for the Ford Motor Company and a long-haul truck driver. Now, pushing their eighth decade, he and his wife log 22 shows a year, hauling period furniture, paintings and at least a half-dozen eight-foot-tall clocks wherever they go. ("We've got clocks in homes in 21 states," Mrs. Barger boasted.)
THE biggest challenge can be staying fresh when the inventory is filled month after month with the same Colin Graeme portrait of a Jack Russell terrier or the same 1899 American flag from the New York Navy Yard. This may be why so many vendors consider each object a favorite child, with its own special story.
Jeff Bridgman, a dealer from Mansfield, Pa., pointed to a 23-inch-by-17-inch machine-printed parade flag on his wall as he talked about the days before the Civil War, when American flags had no standardized size or pattern and were rarely displayed for personal pride or political gain. "Most flags in those days were huge and unwieldy, and you couldn't hold them in a parade," he said. "So imagine how you'd feel if you're General Grant holding a political rally in 1868 and you've had this flag printed and you hand it out to everyone." He beamed as surely as he would have if his 2-year-old daughter had just memorized "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Of course, not everyone sees the beauty in every child. In a nearby booth, Mr. Bachelier pulled a pie plate from a shelf, its yellow enamel surface scarred from more than a century of knife cuts. "I love this piece!" he exclaimed, turning the $490 antique over and over. "It's beautiful, and you think that everyone is going to see that right away. But two years later, you still have it."
He laughed. "If everything we buy was guaranteed to sell right away, everyone would win big in this business."
And, certainly, winning is the reason they're here. By 11 a.m. on Caramoor's opening day, Mr. Bridgman looks uneasy -- he has racked up only one $800 sale so far. His mood doesn't even brighten when a browser comes back to buy a $3,800 sculpture of an owl. The running tally, he said, "is the foremost thing on a dealer's mind."
"If it's a bad show, you think the world is coming to an end," he said. "Even if you had a good show the week before, it doesn't matter."
Mr. Bridgman says that, for him, the cost of a show can range from about $3,000 a weekend at a modest stop like Caramoor -- everything from booth rental to transportation, hotel and meals -- to as much as $20,000, which he spent for the Palm Beach Jewelry and Antique Show earlier this year. (That's not even the priciest place: The top-tier Winter Antiques Show, he said, can cost upward of $50,000, including show fees, transportation and the cost of hiring a professional decorator to glamorize your booth.)
Mr. Bridgman's mood lifted when he sold a flag the next morning -- but it's the steady Internet business, he said, that "really keeps me smiling."
There is no formula for what a dealer must make from show to show.
"You never know how you'll do until the last minute," Mr. Gallagher of North Norwich said. "It's like the old gambler's adage: never count your money until the end."
Still, if every week is a gamble, none of the dealers seem willing to walk away. As Mr. Bridgman and Mr. Gallagher joke about broken-down vans and truck-packing rituals (andirons in the front, furniture in the back), they sound every bit as close as family. And they are. As Mr. Smith, the longtime show organizer, said: "Most antiques dealers' friends are other antiques dealers. They have dinner together, they party together, they travel together. It's a very congenial business. They build their friendships around what they do."
On Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the vendors closed up shop at Caramoor, Mr. Butterworth talked about his "auxiliary family" members and how they all support one another. "They come to my house, I go to theirs," he said. "We hang out, or we talk on the cell." He drives to and from the hotel with them and usually goes out to dinner with them. On the drive to Caramoor, he even stopped to pick up cupcakes and lunch for some of his fellow dealers.
That's not to say everyone is fast friends. "Sure, there are rivalries or people you don't get along with," Mr. Butterworth said. "You don't ignore them -- you just don't bring them cupcakes."