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The last two dealers on Antique Row hang on

Spike, a tough name for a swell pug, bounded from his napping place at Pink Wagon Antiques when the door opened, across what seems like a concrete floor but is really a beat-up gray carpet.

The shop has seen better times on Antique Row, the nickname for a small stretch of Merrick Road in Wantagh and Bellmore. The man who opened Pink Wagon's door barely crossed the threshold because he was looking for someplace else, like a lot of the people coming in these days.

"They ask for directions sometimes," said store owner Lou Calderon, 79. "Anything but antiques. . . . I haven't taken in enough to pay the rent for a long time. But it's something to keep me going."

Antiques Row was once a mecca for interior designers, dealers and families on a day trip, parents pushing baby carriages in a scene as busy as Manhattan streets. The shops may have been dusty, but their nooks and crannies were stuffed with wares from estate sales, Gold Coast mansions and dealer shows. Now, only two stores hang on like relics, the Pink Wagon and Austern's Antiques a short walk away.

"One of the reasons why antique stores were so popular was because people could get lost in time," said Jack Mandel, a Nassau Community College marketing professor who wrote guides on Long Island antique and crafts shopping. "When was the last time you got lost in time going to Target or Kohl's? We have no time. People are too busy."

Lots of changes On Antique Row, it's the old story of time prompting change - the Internet, eBay and evolving tastes, antiques experts said. Antiques are out. Midcentury modern is in and so is ordering online. Elsewhere in Long Island's antiques trade, chain stores, the Internet and other changes have also led to the cooling of former antique hot spots, such as Port Washington and the Huntington Village area.

"Ten or 15 years ago, I would have 40 people walk through on a Saturday," said Glenn Bert, owner of the Long Island Exchange, a 5,000-square-foot showroom for antiques and reproductions in Island Park. "Now it's maybe 20."

On Antique Row in Wantagh, a sign for the Antiques Pavilion still stands by the roadway, even though the building was sold last year when one by one its antiques dealers retired.

Lynn Austern, 57, left the Pavilion two years ago for a storefront just a short walk away also on Antique Row, where she's been for 28 years. During the hours when no one walks in, she busies herself rearranging the dolls, furniture, jewelry and more in a bright, relatively spacious premise.

"You know how everything just went more and more upscale?" the owner of Austern's Antiques said. "With the new breed of clientele, they don't want to walk into a shop and rummage through things on the floor."

Two or three weeks can go by at Pink Wagon Antiques without anyone walking the narrow paths meandering between items: a life-size bronze eagle, an open-mouthed alligator of ivory or German pipes.

The allure faded imperceptibly Calderon knows antiques aren't essential in this bad economy, but he's not sure when the allure began fading during his 46 years on the Row: "It was gradual. It's like asking 'Did you see your kids grow up?' "

Calderon left his job as a presser in Manhattan's garment district to join wife Lily's antiques business when the work got too busy for one person. "People today are more concerned about putting away for retirement, and before, it was more carefree and they did what they wanted," he said.

Lily died about seven years ago, and once in a while, Calderon brings her favorite antiques to the store - a set of garnet jewelry, an 1800s French ink well with cherubs, and more - sometimes to sell and other times "just for the sake of bringing it in."

Many who knew the old days of Antique Row have gone, but Joan Scheff, a semiretired interior decorator and antiques dealer in Merrick, said she used to buy from the woman who started Antique Row.

Rita Janovitz had a shop on Merrick Road in Bellmore and, when it burned down, she purchased a row of dilapidated garages that were set back from the road, Scheff said. Janovitz and her husband fixed up the garages.

"The floor was kind of rocky and you had to watch your step," Scheff said. "But she had the most magnificent pieces. People would bring her things from all over the tri-state."

As Janovitz's reputation spread, other antique dealers settled nearby, Scheff said.

Mandel found them "disheveled" but enchanting. "The more . . . they put on their desks, the more people would look," he said. "That's what gives the antiques business its vibrancy."

As Calderon and Austern relegate the glory days to the past, they plan to stay in business as long as they can.

Strategic buying and selling Austern still makes a living on antiques but buys and sells strategically. She said she focuses on jewelry, which people fear to order from Web sites in case they're fake, and furniture, which carries big shipping costs.

Recently, she bought furniture and Tiffany lamps from two victims of swindler Bernard Madoff. Plus she's expanded her stock with gifts that have an antique look. She calls them "lead-ins" that draw people going into nearby stores.

"You can't just sit back and wait for people to come antiquing the way we used to," Austern said. "I never had to go after things and think up 10 million new ideas every day."

Calderon has stopped buying. He's made a little money selling small items this year.

Seven afternoons a week, he and Spike open the Pink Wagon. Decades ago, he'd find customers waiting at the door. Now, he waits for them.

"This is my salvation," he said of the store. "I have nothing else to do. If somebody wanted to come in and buy the whole shop, what would I do? Instead of giving it to the doctors, I come in to the shop every day."


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