, Gloucester, MA

April 22, 2013

50 years of antiquing

Essex's White Elephant Shop marks major milestone

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — ESSEX — Essex may be home to the fried clam.

But anyone driving along Main Street passes by more than a few of the town’s 30 antique shops, and one of the oldest ones around is marking its 50th year in the industry.

White Elephant Shop owner Rick Grobe defined a white elephant as “something that no longer has use to it’s current owner,” but Grobe said the shop has something for everyone.

An antique big wheel bicycle, a motorized kayak and an old-style barbers chair are just a few of the classic items found at the antique shop on Main Street.

The business itself is marking its 50th anniversary, while the outlet shop, just a mile down the road, will be celebrating 25 years in Essex. The husband-and-wife duo Rick and Jean Grobe have owned the shop since 1985.

Grobe grew up just outside of Saratoga, N.Y., where his family had purchased and old barn, getting his first experience in the salvaging and antiquing business.

Rick Grobe said had been interested in salvaging and antiques since his early 1920s. He said part of his interest came from the history each object holds.

“Everything has a story to tell,” he said.

The outlet shop contains an old projector from the 1920s that once belonged to the town of Essex, in addition to antique bottles from Rockport’s Twin Light Beverage Company.

Grobe said Essex likely became a hot-spot for antiquing after the end of World War II and the resulting baby boom, people moving and clearing out houses always provides great inventory, he said.

Robert Coviello, who heads the Essex Merchants Group and co-owns Main Street Antiques and Robert Coviello Antiques, said Essex, as a whole, has the “perfect configuration of all attractions.”

He noted Essex has wonderful scenery and has easy access from Route 133, spurring the antique business in town. Coviello said people like coming to more than one antique shop at a time, adding that the more-than 30 antique shops don’t always compete with each other.

”The White Elephant Shop has been the mainstay of the antique business in Essex for 50 years,” he said.

Grobe said he has little trouble appraising anything that he comes across.

”If you’ve been in the business long enough, you know what’s good and what’s bad,” he said.

Some of the more popular items have been small trinkets, artwork and the shops large collection of books.

One of the more rare pieces puzzled Grobe. He came across a large carving from a single piece of wood, about 13 feet long, that he believes it originated from Africa. He visited an African museum a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., but could not come across anything that resembled the piece.

“I think it tells a story,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Grobe said the antiquing businesses in town draws people from all around the state.

Rick Shea of Cambridge said he is a frequent customer, mostly buying artwork. He said part of the reason he keeps coming back to the White Elephant Shop is its large inventory.

“This Elephant is a big animal,” he joked.

The outlet shop, which is only open on weekends, features reduced-price items and is also on Main Street, about one mile away from the main shop.

Grobe said the outlet shop was opened 25 years ago to store the main shop’s growing inventory.

“We’re like the dairy aisle, always rotating our stock,” he joked.

Grobe has noticed the change in the business throughout the years, he said social media and photo sharing websites such as Pinterest allow people to share projects and ideas, prompting the sales of some items.

Grobe said he also enjoys seeing younger generations becoming interested in salvaging and antiquing with popular reality television shows about the business.

But through all the years, he said he and the shop stand behind a basic motto:

“We buy it all,” he says.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at