By John Schaffner
Robert “Bob” Brown may well do the largest annual volume of sales of any local retailer in Sandy Springs, and he does it in a big way, selling antiques to customers from around the world.
From just his main business operation, Red Baron’s Antiques at 6450 Roswell Road, Brown says he does about $30 million a year in sales volume.
According to Brown, he does it “selling nothing anybody needs. It isn’t like tires for the car. There isn’t anything in here that anybody needs…just wants.”
People driving up and down Roswell Road may stare a lot at the oversized statues, ornate fountains, antique cars and such at Red Baron’s, but those locals do not account for the majority of Brown’s sales. He says most of the money he gets “I am taking from people from all over the world and dumping it into the local economy.”
And his summer auction June 23 and 24—the smallest of three held each year—was testament to that. According to Brown, it drew conservatively 500 people from out of state.
“They come from as close by as Birmingham, Alabama, or as far away as Birmingham, England, or Honolulu,” he explained. “I have had as many as 20 customer jets at Peachtree DeKalb Airport—enough so that they asked me not to tell people to land there anymore….to have them land in Cobb County.”
Brown states, “I know that I am good for Sandy Springs. I know I am good for Georgia.”
The story of how this man, who came to the Atlanta area 35 years ago and has spent all but three years in business in Sandy Springs, became one of the largest antiques dealers in the south has some fascinating twists.
Brown, 62, came to Atlanta from Iowa in the 1970s, to open discount department stores for another company. He opened stores for them on Stewart Avenue, on Ponce de Leon, and one where the Lindbergh MARTA station is today on Piedmont, the site of the old Buckhead Drive-in Theater.
He ran a controversial advertisement in a newspaper of the day, The Great Speckled Bird, which got Gov. Lester Maddox “bent out of shape.” Maddox wrote the chairman of the board for the stores, who told Brown he could not upset the governor of the state, “so we have to move you to New York.” Brown told the chairman, “I’m not going to New York.”
Brown said he had grown to know Maddox well. “I told Lester just before he died that he is the reason I am in the antiques business,” because Brown wouldn’t move to New York.
But the antiques business came later. Brown started a little gift store at 10th and Peachtree in the mid-1970s, which he expanded to nine stores, selling records and tapes and such items.
He also manufactured strip lighting “at a time when landlords were building a lot in Atlanta, and landlords want cheap illumination.” His only competitor was Lithonia Lighting “and they were expensive. I had hippie kids assemble them and used my knowledge from the department store business on how to import in order to buy ballasts from Taiwan and bulbs from North American Phillips,” he explained. “I would go to bankruptcies to buy the paint. I learned about buying at auction.”
Brown explains that some people he met wanted to open bars in Underground Atlanta and “they wanted me to go to an auction and help them buy some antiques. I went, they were serving alcohol there and I had a ball. I was telling them what to buy and how to buy it. After enough drinks, I started buying some myself,” he said. “I came home that night and told my wife I had spent $18,000 on antiques. She said what are you going to do with it? I lived in a modern house.” His wife told him he was going to put the antiques in a warehouse.
Some time later, Brown’s mother and wife decided to open a dress store. “I said they could take all of the antiques out of the warehouse and use them as fixtures and they would be real pretty,” Brown said. The store was being prepared in October. “However, the boutique show in New York for buying clothes isn’t until January, so we had a store fixed up real nice with the antiques and fixtures in it and decided to hold a party,” because they didn’t have anything to sell.
Brown said friends at the party asked if he would sell the antique fixtures. In a short two-week period they sold $25,000 worth of antiques and they weren’t in the antiques business. “I said forget these dresses, let’s sell antiques.”
Brown started Red Baron’s Antiques at what formerly was Embers restaurant (now KC Barbecue) on Hilderbrand, when it was Sandy Springs Honda Motorcycles. “Before that it was a psychiatrist’s office and before that Sandy Springs Playhouse. Before that, it was a stagecoach stop,” Brown says recounting the history of the site.
Red Baron’s comes from his initials RB and he used to have a little plane that he used as a sign at the store on Hilderbrand. It was a carnival plane. He said former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell bought it from him because he owned a travel agency at the time.
“In antiques you can always buy more than you can sell,” Brown explained. He had so many antiques he decided to have an auction to see if he could get some of his money back. “I made a list of people I thought could possibly spend $500, sent them an invitation and took an ad out in the paper. “We did the auction and I sold about $100,000 of stuff and still had half of it left,” he recalled. “I said, oh, this is a good business. That is what happened. It just got out of hand.”
Brown moved the business for three years to the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont roads before moving back to Sandy Springs at the location of the former Sandy Springs Bowling Alley.
It was after that, some 18 years ago, he moved to the present Red Baron’s location at 6450 Roswell Road, the former location of Frank Jackson’s Sandy Springs Mitsubishi dealership. He bought two acres from Jackson and has since increased it to about five acres.
Brown also owns the Queen’s Garden & Gifts across Roswell Road from Red Baron’s and also the one in Roswell on North Atlanta Street. His son now owns Gallery 63 at the corner of Windsor Parkway and Roswell Road, which he formerly owned. His wife runs a business they own in Paris and lives most of the time in Europe. His daughter runs the store in Roswell. He opened the Queen’s Garden operation 10 years ago.
He also previously owned another gallery location across Roswell Road at Vernon Woods Drive, which he has sold to Walgreen’s for a big test drugstore. And, he owns the building where Psycho Tattoo2 is located at 6214 Roswell Road.
There also is an interesting story behind Brown’s other businesses. Brown bought a 104-foot yacht and it requires a lot of fuel, a crew of five and maintenance. He opened Gallery 63 just to make enough money for fuel for the boat. He opened the Queen’s 10 years ago “to make enough to cover the overhead for the boat. Owning the boat is nothing,” he says. “Running it is expensive.”
Brown takes off a couple of months after each of the three auctions each year. So, he is really gone six months of the year—mainly on his yacht fishing. Red Baron’s Antiques also owns “Southern Seasons Magazine”, a high society lifestyle magazine.
He says Atlanta is a great market for antiques. No matter what happens to the economy his business just seems to continue to grow. “We hold about $20 million in inventory. You have to have land and a place to put it,” he said. Red Baron’s has 80,000 square feet of space.
Asked what distinguishes Red Baron’s from other antiques dealers, Brown explained, “Most antique dealers, the owner buys everything. Here we have seven different buyers, seven different tastes, seven different ages, different sexes, seven different ways to see something. “Not everything in here appeals to me, no more than everything would appeal to anyone,” he adds.
“Antiques have to be bought. They can’t be sold,” Brown states. “It is rich people who live in the big houses and they want to buy big things. People come in, they pay for it and they go home and a truck comes, picks it up and leaves.”
It is a formula that has worked for Brown and Red Baron’s Antiques for years.