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Old treasures, new economy

Antique store has "gone cyber"

By Andy Walton
CNN Interactive

DECATUR, Georgia (CNN) -- It's not an uncommon sight, a vacant storefront with a hand-lettered sign directing customers to a new location. But Family Jewels, an antique store on this picturesque courthouse square, was a bit different from most; the new address had an @.

Lisa Cohen closed her storefront -- but not her business -- at the end of April. Family Jewels was well established in downtown Decatur, and won "Best of Atlanta" honors from a local alternative newspaper. But after 12 years building her business, Cohen wanted to spend more time with her son Alex, 10.

"I didn't want to be there any more, not like I used to," Cohen says. "I love the people, I love the business, I love the community I live and work in. But it just got really old to me, ultimately. I was burned out."

Cohen adds: "I loved my shop, and I found that I was starting to resent it."

'A Nice Deck of Cards'

A high-tech answer didn't immediately spring to mind. "I was very happy to have this computer as a nice deck of cards," Cohen says. Then about a year and a half ago, a friend showed her around the Internet. In online auctions, she found a wide audience for the small collectibles, costume jewelry, and decorative antiques that are her specialty.

In one auction, Cohen said she sold "a beaded purse that was beautiful, that should have sold in my store. But maybe only five people a year would come in and even appreciate what a beaded purse was."

After a week, the auction page for the purse had gotten hundreds of hits, and bidding was brisk. "I got at least as much for the purse on eBay as I'd been asking for for years," Cohen said.

Cohen says the Internet is a perfect medium to market to specialty items with a small following. "Anybody who goes to your Web site is looking for what you have, or at least knows what you have," she says.

So she closed the store, putting a "gone cyber" sign in the window with her phone number and e-mail address.

Home, sweet office

Now, Family Jewels is based out of Cohen's home, though she still calls it "my shop." She is not alone. One study for the Small Business Administration estimated that between 10 and 12 million Americans work from home. The same study says that home-based businesses contributed $314 billion to the economy in 1992.

Cohen says she is making about the same profit and still works as many hours, but with much more flexibility. "I can do all kinds of things and still put in as many hours as the regular person would, whether it's a retail shop or an office job, but it can be whenever I want it to be," she says.

"I'll put in probably 20 hours in the next two days," she said after working in her yard on a Saturday afternoon. "Then the next two days after that, I might go have a picnic, or sleep in, or wear my jammies all day, or watch a movie, or take a bubble bath at 2 o'clock in the afternoon."

"The luxury of it is a wonderful thing," she says.

Thinking globally, selling locally

Cohen says her history of running a store lends her a certain legitimacy, while the Internet gives her a global reach. She says she's had buyers in Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Germany and Italy, as well as across the United States.

While she still meets with customers, many of whom have been around since she opened, Cohen estimated that online sales are roughly 80 percent of her business. She says she's been thinking of moving to the mountains someday. "Having the Internet, I can go anywhere. I can take my business with me anywhere I go."

By the end of the year, Cohen says she plans to build her own Web site, and use online auctions to draw customers to it. That's also not uncommon, according to eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove.

"The information we get back from our users is that the people who are finding the greatest value from eBay are people who have an existing business and then are able to create a complimentary business on eBay," Pursglove said.

Back at the old storefront, only the outline of the Family Jewels sign remains, and the "gone cyber" sign is gone from the window. Another store is already moving into Cohen's old space of bricks and mortar, while she builds her own out of ones and zeros.

Related sites:
Family Jewels

Family Jewels' former storefront

Some of the collectibles in Cohen's home office

Cohen says she moved her business home to spend more time with her son, Alex

Virtual store

Crossing guard
This metal crossing guard, a Coca-Cola advertisement, stood outside the store for years; it may be a future auction item.