People often ask me where the best antique shops are, or where I find the best stuff, or where I just tend to have the best antiquing experiences. I go to antique stores wherever I find them—in the midwest, certainly, but elsewhere, too. If I have spare time while traveling on business I try to explore the local shops (and let me tell you, that has led to some interesting and unexpected adventures). All of this is to say that I go to a lot of antique stores, malls, flea markets, and shows, and over time I’ve developed a relatively short list of favorites, which I profile in the“Shops of Note“ section of my website. My all-time favorite shop, however, may surprise you: The Antique Emporium of Alma, in Alma, Kansas.
Alma is a charming town with which few people, other than locals, are likely familiar. Known as “the City of Native Stone,” it’s a sleepy little place nestled in the Flint Hills just a few miles south of I-70, about 35 minutes west of Topeka, and 15 minutes from Wamego. This is not an isolated place, but it feels like it. The drive into town from I-70 is scenic (it is, in fact, a Kansas Scenic Byway) and hilly, as you would expect given its location. At one point you drive past a great old, low fence constructed of Flint Hills limestone, a foreshadowing of the limestone buildings that are characteristic of Alma’s main street. For a town with a population of only 792 people, Alma has two attractions that are worth a stop: The Alma Creamery (Alma’s first claim to fame is its cheese) and The Antique Emporium of Alma.
It takes two hours for me to make the drive to Alma, but I make a point of visiting the Emporium at least twice a year. I make a day of it: first stop is the Antique Emporium, followed by a short drive around town for pictures (this would be a great town for a bike ride!). Next up is a short stop at the Creamery to pick up some cheese curd, then a quick drive to Wamego for lunch at the Kreem Kup (Kreem Kup is worthy of its own post, so stay tuned…).
What’s so great about the Antique Emporium? It ticks all of the boxes for me: Amazing selection of authentic antiques in great condition, merchandise categories that are of particular interest to me (ephemera, framed prints, furniture, lace, vintage jewelry, old books, antique tabletop items and glassware, rustics, so on and so on), beautiful merchandising, fantastic location, reasonable pricing. Nearly all of the prints in my home came from the Emporium, and, well, you can’t be in my house for any amount of time before encountering something that made the long drive home with me from Alma. On my last visit a few days ago I purchased a beautiful china horse, a great print that’s already hanging in my reading nook, and several old postcards. There were other things I wanted to buy, and had I not just paid a huge sum to fix my air conditioner, I probably would have loaded up my car with them. Sigh.
Having been a customer at the Emporium for years, I wanted to learn more about the woman behind the operation. I sat down with Mary Drake, who has owned and operated the Antique Emporium for about 25 years, first with a business partner, and now by herself. Mary is friendly and fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. She was nice enough to let me run all around her store taking about a million pictures, some of which are featured below.
Here’s a Q&A based on our discussion:
Jennifer: How did you get into the antiques business?
Mary: I had been working in a deli, and hadn’t really thought about going into antiques, but my friend Sally had an antiques shop in Paxico, Kansas, and knew that business. Over a Valentine’s Day dinner we were talking, and my significant other suggested that Sally and I go into business together, and we did. I really learned the business from her. We started in Wamego, and we rented shop space there for nine years. But then that building was needed for the Oz museum, so we had to find new space. So, here I am. Sally is no longer involved in the business, but she still has a booth here.
Jennifer: But why Alma? It’s a great location, but not an obvious choice.
Mary: It is a great location. Better, actually, than Wamego. We’re only three miles from I-70, whereas Wamego is about 15 miles. When people see a sign on the highway for antiques, they’re more willing to take a chance and venture out three miles than they are 15 miles. But the reason we ended up in Alma is that a friend literally knocked on our door and asked if we wanted to rent this building in Alma. The rent was reasonable, we liked the location, and it was a good move.
Jennifer: Your shop is beautiful. What’s the secret?
Mary: I spend time arranging things. I try to put like items together. Over time, I’ve also gained a sense of where particular items are likely to sell. There is a lot of planning in how things are arranged.
Jennifer: Where do you source your antiques?
Mary: Auctions, estate sales, everywhere we roam! I have a few vendors who rent booth space and have done so for years. But a lot of items are here on consignment. I also have some of my own items for sale here. A couple of vendors are based in Hoyt, but the rest are local, within 30 miles.
Jennifer: What about your customers? How do they find out about you?
Mary: Word of mouth, mostly. I do have one billboard on east-bound I-70 that I’ve had for years. That’s my largest advertising expenditure. But the best advertisement is just customers telling other people.
Jennifer: That’s true. I myself have brought a friend here. Well, and now I’m writing a post about it. A lot of people dream of opening shops like this. What’s your advice?
Mary: The good part about this business is it is a kind of lifestyle. But it isn’t an easy business. You have to know your budget and work within it. This is not a naturally lucrative business, and I have to keep my expenses low. My entire “staff” consists of me and two volunteers. We have to be open every day to make a go of it. You also have to think about your merchandise. It isn’t really about what you like, it’s about what you think has the greatest likelihood of selling. Traffic ebbs and flows. The weekends are busiest, from Friday through Monday. But some days are really slow. You just never know.
Jennifer: What’s the part you like least?
Mary: The book work!
Jennifer: The best part?
Mary: (laughing) Playing store, I guess.
It was raining when I visited, but cozy in the store! Great shopping weather. Here’s a photo tour of just some of the items currently for sale at the Emporium. This isn’t a huge place, but the items are plentiful. There are tons of items not pictured here.
If you’re planning a trip to Alma, you might want to time it to coincide with a car show that will be taking place there August 19. Click here for more information about Hot Alma Nights.
Big thanks to Mary Drake for spending some time with me and sharing a bit of her story.
I’m now on Instagram! For additional pictures from the Antique Emporium of Alma and more, follow me!
Until next time…