When Harriet Norman started Marblehead Antiques with her mother, Beverly, in 1975, she “knew nothing” about antiques, having just started college. But now, Norman, who runs the store by herself in the wake of her mother’s death, is a bonafide antiques expert and Marblehead Antiques is a Pleasant Street institution.
Norman explains that Marblehead Antiques was born out of her mother’s passion for antiquing, describing her as a “powerhouse,” who knew the business in and out. She says she learned everything she knew from her mother, who died in April 2020.
“She was a visionary that she could see what was going on,” Norman says, explaining that her mother became interested in antiques after a fire at their home. “My mother had a great eye, a really superlative eye.”
Running the store together for decades was “the absolute ultimate best,” Norman says. “I can’t even tell you the fun.”
Sensitivity is key to Norman’s success, as many of the antiques that come her way are from estates, either following a divorce or a death. Antiques often come out of life crises, she explains.
She says she is able to identify items that might be of value in part thanks to a “pretty photographic” memory, but also with the aid of the internet and the ability to assess an item’s price and worth that way.
“I’m very attuned to [and] realistic about today’s market and it’s like the stock market. Some of the prices go up and down, right all around, so you just need to really be serious about it,” Norman says, adding that despite her serious approach to her job she aims to keep her store unserious, with an emphasis on fun and whimsy. “The crazier the better.”
Indeed, Marblehead Antiques has no shortage of wild and wonderful items on display, with jewelry hanging off mannequins wearing hats, furniture, paintings, coats, watches, and numerous other things for sale. Norman says costume jewelry is among the most popular items in the store.
She says she determines what winds up in the brick-and-mortar location based on whether or not the item is “her look.”
Norman explains that she sets one price for each item, meaning that dealers and those walking into the brick-and-mortar retail location will pay the same price for anything she’s selling.
At one point, the Normans expanded Marblehead Antiques to a storefront on Newbury Street in Boston, run by her brother. That location didn’t manage to stand the test of time the way the Pleasant Street store has thus far, closing after her father died, but Norman says her brother has since gone on to become a successful banker in Rhode Island.
Despite decades of selling antiques, Norman says no items stand out as more notable than the rest over the years. But, she says, she did turn over roughly $100,000 worth of stolen paintings to the police after someone dropped them off for consignment at the store.
“I took them and got all the information and got the guy’s license plate and so called the police that second that they left,” she says. “It was this random thing, I can’t even explain it to you.”
When she did call the police, she was told they had to verify that the paintings were indeed stolen, and sure enough the next morning, Norman was told that they were.
That story is among the many Norman can tell, having spent 48 years on Pleasant Street, with no plans of slowing down. Norman says she will continue to place an emphasis on the brick-and-mortar side of her business, with the hopes that Marblehead Antiques can be a happy place for people to “come in and just hang out.”
To facilitate that atmosphere, Norman has a table and chairs set out in the middle of the store.
Asked why she keeps going after all these years, Norman replies simply, “I love buying and selling.”
“Doesn’t make any difference what I’m buying and selling. I just love it,” she says. “But the concept of the store is different things. I do buy and sell a lot of stuff that I don’t bring into the store. I have all different markets.”
“I have different avenues because I’ve been in the business for so long, I know where to place items, who to sell the items to, to get the highest price for the customer,” Norman explains.
Running Marblehead Antiques is “an adventure every day,” Norman says. “I’m still learning.”