At the end of the street sits Tim Suhr’s pride and joy. It’s a white and blue building crammed with two levels of floor-to-ceiling antiques — exactly what you want in a shop on the main strip of Walnut, Iowa. The small town an hour west of Des Moines is simply known as Antique City. Granary Mall, Suhr’s shop, is one of the crown jewels.
The musty, grandma-chic smell of antiques hits as soon as the door opens. A portable radio phases in and out of static as Suhr greets each customer with a warm hello, then offers cookies and a coffee. Glass cabinets of jewelry fill the small main room with three hallways leading off that promise more.
Like all good antique stories, Granary Mall is a labyrinth. The doorway on the left leads into another small room, crowded with tables stacked high with dishes. The maze continues down a hallway to the right and rows of numbered glass cabinets run down the length of the room. In glass cabinet number #750, there are an uncountable number of salt and pepper shakers. Every pair looks like they’d belong in a great-grandparents house — except for the toilet and urinal pair.
But that’s the kind of thing that makes the hunt worth it—the surprises—and what has made Antique City such a mecca for those looking for a bit of America’s past. Walnut is home to just 897 people. It has one main drag through town — Antique City Drive, of course. On it, there are 26 businesses, with 22 of those being antique stores. Each one is stuffed with oddities, treasures and tacky kitsch. The town depends on it.
Because Walnut has bet big on antiques for years, and it’s paid off — particularly these days. According to the Global Art Market Report, antique sales in the U.S. increased last year by 8%, hitting an all-time high of $30.2 billion in sales, though much of that boon has gone to high-end auction houses. Retailers like Suhr have only seen modest gains.
“This is a tough business. Real tough, real tough,” Suhr says.
Suhr should know. He’s owned Granary Mall for 44 years. He works every day — literally. He’s open seven days a week, 365 days a year, including Christmas. In his early 20s, he spent long days and late nights driving semi-trucks. Eventually, he had enough, so he got into antiques. He’s done it ever since, though he says “it took me a while to get started.”
Running an antique business isn’t something that’s learned overnight. It’s a slow process of discovering how to find good deals and managing mistakes. You also have to be a bit inventive. Suhr and his brother Troy, who helps run the antique store, also own a shop that repairs and upscales antiques into something better.
Today, Suhr has a good grasp on the ins and outs of running Granary Mall. With a storage building next to his antique store, Suhr has plenty of space to warehouse new items that are waiting to be placed in the store.
“Will I sell it all? No, I’ll be gone,” Suhr said. “And that’s what I wanted. I do it for the people. It ain’t the money, I’m past that. I like it when I see young kids come in with their grandparents and they’re teaching them things. That’s worth more to me.”
All in the Family
For Mindy Krummel, antiquing has been a life-long family business. It’s one that she doesn’t see ending with her. It’s in her family’s blood. Krummel not only grew up in Walnut, but in the antique store her mother owned. Her mom’s first store was located on the corner of Antique City Drive. It was called Mount Vernon Antiques, named after their family’s farm.
As an adult, Krummel opened her own store, Wagon Wheel Antiques, with her husband. She was just a few doors down from her mom, both making a living out of what they loved most — at least until Wagon Wheel caught fire in the early 1980s. Only a few items could be saved. Krummel took that as an opportunity to work with her mom again. They opened a new antique store, Victorian Rose, and ran it together for the next 30 years, until her mom was ready to retire in 2014.
These days Krummel owns B Restored. She opened in 2015. It’s all about family. Her daughter runs a clothing line, B Worn, in the back of the shop. Krummel’s son and daughter-in-law live in Nebraska, but both contribute by making candles from their kitchen. Her son also repurposes furniture when he’s not on shift with the Lincoln Fire Department. Her husband, a retired firefighter, does all of the lighting for the store. She even has two granddaughters who get in on the fun. One of them makes soap and another sews dog scarves.
“I found you almost have to do a few extra things other than your business to really survive,” Krummel said. “When we moved over here, we added the clothing and different items other than just antiques, because when we were across the street, it was only antiques.”
“It’s a family affair,” she continues. “So, hopefully the business can stay alive.”
On any given day when the sun is out, so is Ron Grav. He’ll be sweeping the entryway to Plum Krazy! — and probably B Restored as well, since his shop sits right next door to Krummel’s. He’s owned the shop for five years. A Minneapolis resident, Grav and his wife were driving through Walnut when Grav spotted a building for sale. His wife who had owned a few boutiques. They thought antiques might be fun. So, they bought the building.
These days, Grav is surrounded by what he loves. “I’m old school. I like old stuff. A lot of the new stuff they make these days does not last. They make things that last 10 years now,” Grav said. “You can buy stuff that’s 100 years-old and it’ll last. That’s why I like antiques.”
Their shop started off as a boutique. But after having a few customers walk out as soon as they walked in, they decided to make a change. Now, Plum Krazy! has antiques that appeal to multiple generations. On the first level, the store is split into two sides. The left side has wooden furniture with glass dishes displayed on them, vintage beer taps, brand signs and small glass bottles with cartoon characters on them. The right side has more furniture, a few dresses and purses and a display case filled with jewelry.
“We do vintage because nowadays you have to cater to everybody, young people and older people, because if you don’t, you won’t be in business,” Grav said.
Grav’s front desk has a floral arch with ribbon tied over it, and on his desk there’s a book for people to write what items they’re looking for. If he finds that item while traveling—and considering he’s coming back and forth every couple weeks from the Twin Cities, he travels a lot—he takes a photo and sends it to them.
“You can’t just buy random stuff and hope it sells. But, I mean, if I think something’s cool, I’ll still buy it,” Grav said. “It may be here for a couple of years, but then it’s like all of a sudden there’s 10 people looking for it.”
Grav knows what he’s looking for, though. In the future, when he retires, he plans to move to Iowa to run the store full time, to to travel to find new antiques, to help people connect with the past.
“I’m getting rid of my real job to come to my fun job.”