Last night I interviewed Lynn Goldfinger-Abram, the owner of Paris Hotel Boutique, an online vintage decor catalog based in San Francisco. Items from her store have been featured in Lucky, InStyle, The SF Chronicle, on HGTV, and on blogs like Apartment Therapy and Style Court to name just a few. I asked her about business, the blogosphere, trends and how the Internet has changed the antique business. Thank you for sharing your story Lynn!
All of the photos are of Goldfinger's 1939 Deco Moderne home in the Miraloma Park neighborhood of San Francisco. She lives there with her husband Leif and dog Vito. Photographed by Sandy Backman.
How long have you lived in your current house?
10 years. I’m a native of San Francisco, and before the housing market got crazy I became obsessed with having a Deco house. In the garage is where I store, pack and ship all the smaller things from my website. It’s a small space to operate part of my business especially with a Mini Cooper in there.
Did you grow up surrounded with antiques?
Yes and no. My great grandfather came to San Francisco from Romania as a prominent woodcarver. He carved for Hearst Castle down in San Simeon as an example. But I didn’t have an appreciation for design until later in my life. I was always a collector though, as a kid I collected candles shaped like food, hippie beads, stickers, stationary, and smiley face pins. In time I honed my style, but it’s still always changing, I don’t think I have any one particular style or era that I absolutely embody.
How did you start your business?
After college I worked in a bank for ten years working my way up to bank manager, then I worked for a non-profit, then was the assistant to legendary blues musician John Lee Hooker. One of the people I met along the way told me my childhood Barbie dolls were worth hundreds of dollars. I did a doll show and made $3,000 in one weekend and that was it. I got bit. It started slowly, like I would find a Raggedy Andy doll at a garage sale for $1 and sell it for $40 on eBay. At that time (the 90s) Rachel Ashwell was huge, so I started selling those types of Shabby Chic hooked rugs and that type of 'worn elegance' and as trends evolved so did my business.
Your store has been featured in many big print magazines and on some of the biggest blogs. What’s your opinion of new media versus old media?
I’m from a different generation, I mean, we didn’t even know how to use a computer when I was growing up. So, in my opinion, I don’t think magazines will ever be extinct. It’s funny, there’s a lot of blogs that post about magazines when they come out and I try not to read those posts because I want to see it for myself in print with my own eyes. To me photos look better in print than online. That said, I read dozens of blogs daily and almost can't start a day without my blog fix.
Which publication if any was the break through for your business?
Town & County without a doubt. But first I need to give huge credit to the first press I received in 2003, because it actually made me launch my website. I had a ten-page spread in Home Companion and had to scramble to slap together a logo and launch my website by the time the issue came out—something I don’t think I would have done if not for that deadline. From then on my business went crazy. It’s funny, I put together the site on a whim and now I couldn’t even change my logo if I wanted to because it’s my brand now.
In 2005 a Town & Country editor called me up and asked if I could have 60 pieces of San Francisco hotel silver available because I was going to be featured in their Christmas gift guide, and it was just insanity after that, my business took a huge turn. That’s when I hired my first employee, I sold out half of my hotel silver, and began to see that I had a niche cornered.
How did Paris Hotel Boutique operate pre-website?
I started selling though eBay in 1997. In fact that’s how I got the name of my store, my screen name on eBay was ParisHotel. See what I mean, the website was sort of a fluke, I never imagined that the press would keep knocking at my door, who knew?
Who’s your typical customer?
Well, I attract the over-40 crowd typically looking for early French pieces and old world antiques. And I also get the younger Domino Magazine crowd looking for Hollywood Regency pieces. It’s a very fine line and my biggest challenge is keeping that balance healthy.
You’ve always operated electronically, have you ever thought about a brick and mortar store?
I’ve never had a storefront and I don’t want one. I do rent a small space as part of a collective on Union Street with 30 other dealers called Past Perfect. Mostly I have bigger furniture pieces there. But based on what my friends who have had storefronts have gone through, the insane rents in San Francisco, the current retail economy, and the responsibility of being tied to a store has never made it worthwhile. The website is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and anyone in the world can “walk in” at any time.
Has the Internet helped the antique industry?
Yes and no. People used to buy things from magazines like Antique Trader sight unseen with no photo and couldn't be sure of what they were getting. So the Internet has certainly helped people understand what they’re buying from afar with digital photos and online auctions. But the Internet has closed down some of the big antique shows and antique shops—as well as flooded the market with merchandise that was otherwise limited. For example pre-internet one blue lamp from the 1960s in your region was a lot more valuable than the 500 everyone has access to on eBay today. Ultimately those who love collecting still love the adventure of hunting for collectibles, and I think that’s why flea markets still do well.
How did you learn the business?
There’s no book or manual unfortunately. You learn the hard way, by making mistakes. I’ve made big buying mistakes, like at a flea market in Nashville I bought a reproduction of an Art Nouveau vase and didn’t realize it until I was trying to sell it. Like most things you learn by doing. Over time I know what to look for—pieces that work with current trends but that won’t ever be dated. Unique classics will always have value, like old hotel silver. If I stop in my tracks when I see something, I hope that someone else will too. I try not to second guess myself too much and buy what I love. It’s always a trip when someone else buys it too. What I’ve learned is that decorating is in your heart. Style evolves, and trends come and go, so you're just going to want to buy pieces that you love.