Antiques dealer Arthur Rooks was bitten by the vintage bug very early. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Arthur tagged along with his grandmother to garage sales, later ditching Sunday school to do some stealth shopping at the local flea market by himself. Fate intervened to bring him to Zurich, where he now operates a growing online vintage furnishings shop called Quintessentia. With a voracious appetite for knowledge of design history and with his business and technology acumen, Arthur is capitalizing on his modern vision for what this age-old business can be.
Growing up in Jackson, Missisippi, and going on to live in Zurich and create your online vintage-modern store Quintessentia is a most unlikely path. What drew you to Zurich in the first place, and what made you stay and create your business there?
I guess it was fate, in a way — like if I’d turned left, I would have done this. My path to Zurich actually goes through Chicago because I went to Northwestern. Then about 18 years ago, a friend of mine moved to Zurich, and my plan was to come to Zurich and get some international living experience to enhance my MBA application. I arrived here and fell in love and then fell in love with Zurich as well.
At the beginning, I worked for the opera house and with the Zurich Ballet in marketing. There was a point where I was interested in marketing for the business side of theater and the entertainment industry. But I’ve always been a collector, and I wandered into a gallery of 20th century design and became friends with the owner. My gig was kind of running out with the opera house, and I’d actually pretty much closed down my life here and was just going to stay through the summer. Then suddenly one day I got a call from the gallery owner and she said, “My former assistant just told me he’s leaving, and I’m looking for someone. I’m not sure if you’re interested, but I thought about you.” So it was really just fate, in a way. I was really supposed to leave in September, and I started working at this gallery at the end of July. So I thought, “OK, I’ll stay another couple of years.” And then that turned into another couple of years, and now 18 years later, I’m still here.
I worked for this gallery for about five years, and I’d become kind of restless. I had applied for business school at a satellite here of University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and I got this business idea from a friend, Paul Wolfrom, who is now my business partner. I had just designed his apartment, and he said, “You know, why don’t you start your own business? You’re really good at this, and this could be something for you.” And I was like, “Well, I’ve heard this a couple of times before.” So we started this business together, and he’s the finance guy. I was a little bit scared to go out on my own, but having a business partner gave me a little more confidence. We drew up this business plan and started the business. I had been selling on eBay before, but it was more just a hobby in my spare time. But it took someone else to give me a little kick in the butt, so that’s how the business started. And it was kind of a natural process, and it grew out of labors of love, in a sense.
What range of items do you carry on the Quintessentia site, and is there something in particular you specialize in?
I’m the only buyer, so it’s one person’s vision pretty much. It’s pretty much the things I’d want to live with and the things I like. At the beginning, I was trying to guess the market, and that just doesn’t work because, first of all, my heart’s not in it. I think you really have to be able to stand behind the merchandise and believe what you’re selling. The fortunate thing is that I have such a wide interest in cultural history and art history, and I’ve read so much and learned so much about things from antiquity through 18th and 19th century and 20th century design, which has always been my love, that I’m able to then buy across the board. I feel comfortable in pretty much any century, as far as buying and also how I live. I live with a lot of 20th century design, but I also have some antique pieces at home. If I’m designing for myself or for someone’s apartment, my goal is to have the space look like it evolved and not like they just bought a bunch of furniture.
So the specialty is pretty much 20th century design, but like right now, we have a pair of early 19th century Italian chairs on the website which I absolutely love and they have nothing to do with 20th century design, but I think in the right environment, they would work. If I can imagine living with it, then I buy it.
How has your business progressed so far and what kind of success are you experiencing?
Since we’ve started the business, we’ve had over 10,000 transactions, and, of course, with repeat customers in there. And we’ve grown from a one-man operation to a three-man operation, which, with the costs of doing business in Switzerland, is a big step.
Also, now we’re trying to integrate re-editions of classic designs into the site. And we have our own line of pillows that we’re producing, all from vintage fabrics. So we’re branching out a little further into the market, but it’s all related. I don’t want to sell only antique, vintage furniture my whole life — I would love to use this business as a springboard to venture into other areas and expand the business. So we’ve been starting to create our own furniture under the Quintessentia label. Right now, we have just a small satellite collection, which includes a lounge chair, a stool, a room divider, and carpets. And I’ve been working on a green product for the kitchen, a container to put recyclables in. I really got tired of looking at a bag full of grocery sacks, and now I’ve designed something to put the grocery bags in! We’re on our second version of it, and it seems like the simplest thing, but until it goes into production, I’m still working on the details of it.
Are you mostly selling to individual customers or to other dealers?
To everybody, actually. Eighty percent of our clients are in the U.S., 15% are in Asia, the rest come from Europe, and every now and then we’ll sell to someone in Saudi Arabia. The bulk of our clientele is American I think because I’m American. And I’m not a trained interior designer or art historian. My training was more autodidactic, and from the age of 11 or even younger, I was always interested in reading decorating magazines. I was probably the only 12 year old boy in Mississippi who had a subscription to Metropolitan Home, and I was always reading about furniture history and art history. But I think my taste is distinctly American, and that’s why a lot of Americans buy from my site.
You credit your grandmother for taking you to garage sales every Saturday, in essence, giving you your first exposure to what has become your business. Did she have a developed design sense and an eye for value she imparted to you, or was this just a fun pastime for her?
My grandmother was a nurse’s aid, and my grandfather was a tractor and truck driver, so they always had a good income. And my grandmother always liked nice things, so it was more out of fun than necessity. She would sometimes moonlight as a private nurse in larger households of predominantly white families, and she realized they were having garage sales in the neighborhood. So when she’d leave work at 7:00 in the morning, she’d go to the garage sales there. She was bitten by the bug, and she passed that onto me.
She’d work the 11:00pm-7:00am shifts and, when I spent the summers with her, I’d already be dressed and sitting on the front porch waiting for her. She’d come home from work and maybe only have time to take a shower, and then we’d go to the flea markets. So that kind of started it all.
In Jackson on Sundays, there were always flea markets, and I was always a problem because the South is very religious and everybody goes to church. I was supposedly going to Sunday school, but our church was about 5 blocks away from the flea market, so I usually ditched Sunday school to run off to the flea market. I’d make it back in time to go to church. Fortunately, I’d gotten friendly with dealers at the flea market, who let me stash my things there, and then after church my mom would take me there, not knowing I’d already bought stuff. So I’d pick up the things I’d already bought.
By 14, I’d gotten my learner’s permit to drive, and then there was no stopping me. I’d go to the Salvation Army and garage sales by myself.
How were you able to afford these purchases?
I was the only grandchild for a long time, and also I was my grandmother’s favorite grandchild, so she always gave me money on the side. And I was a child actor and did things like commercials and a couple of movies and paid theater work. I think at that time I was getting about a $30 a day per diem for food, so I’d stash that money away.
What led you to study industrial engineering and theater? Did you have a plan in mind for that combination of studies?
That was a difficult phase in my life, because I still had this pressure in a way that I had to do something really BIG. You know, “You’re a smart, young black man. You have to be a doctor or a lawyer.” But I’d always done acting as a child and did theater through high school as well. And I felt I needed to balance this whole science thing out with some sort of liberal arts. And Northwestern had this special program where they allowed people to combine liberal arts and technical degrees together, so I was able to pursue that.
Also, by that time I’d already started dealing antiques. In fact, as soon as I had my first bank account at age 15, I started dealing out of necessity. I had an overdrawn checking account, so I ended up selling some of my baseball cards from when I was 8. I think I sold a group of 50 for like $800, which was an unheard of amount of money at that time. Of course, now I do not want to know what those cards are probably worth, but at the time this allowed me to balance my checking account. And I was kind of bitten by the bug.
Then going on to get your MBA in strategic management at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, were you intending to go into the corporate world or did you have entrepreneurial aspirations all along?
I’d already started my business, and the MBA kind of came out of necessity. First, out of fear — like if this business doesn’t happen, I wanted to have something in my pocket so I could eventually look for a job! Also, it was just intellectual curiosity on my part because I’d always wanted to get my MBA. And the third thing was that I wanted to be able to run this business well, and I wanted this business to work. It was kind of the perfect thing, like a message from above.
Something that sets you apart is your business acumen and level of service, as well as the scale of the business you intend to build. What is your ultimate vision for Quintessentia?
I guess I should start by saying what my business partner and I didn’t want to create. We were adamant from the beginning that we didn’t want to have a business where you have this classic sense of some person sitting in an antiques shop in a corner wearing a sweater and ignoring you. We wanted to create a very modern idea of a vintage or antiques business. This includes using technology and software and all kinds of support. And my business partner Paul has been very important in this part because he’s so technologically savvy. We’d have discussions about how on Amazon you could do this, or on Amazon you couldn’t do that. We really wanted to apply modern business methods and technology to probably one of the oldest businesses in the world besides prostitution. It’s the idea that someone can come into our online shop, they can look around, they can buy something and have as much information as they want, and carry out a transaction without having any personal contact at all.
That’s one goal, but the other goal is that if there’s someone who needs to be taken care of, who has a thousand questions, we’re also there for them. So we’re kind of a multi-layered business. We can be as distant or as close as you want us to be.
Another goal was to be quite transparent. There’s nothing that frustrates me more when I go online and look at shops and they have “price upon request.” It puts me off. We want to make ourselves as accessible as possible for our clients, regardless of whether something costs $100 or $12,000 — for us, it doesn’t matter. We want to let the customer choose what kind of transaction they want to have. It’s really like a convergence of this age-old antiques business and the interface of the modern world. We think this really is the future.
When you’re scouting for new finds, what jumps out at you first?
That’s a good question. With furniture, with vintage design it’s easy because there are the classics — OK, that’s an Eames or whatever. But for sculptures and other items, it’s pretty much a question of whether I would like to have it! And I think in terms of a scheme, I don’t think, “Oh, this is a nice piece.” I think, “This would look great sitting with this and this on this.” It’s always in combination with a grouping of other things or a larger design scheme. There’s always a visual process involved.
Your chosen career path is pretty different from what I would guess your family imagined you doing. Did they see this coming, and what do they think now seeing what you’ve built so far?
No, I don’t think they necessarily saw it coming. I was identified as a gifted child, and suddenly there are these expectations that I’d do something really substantial — “Oh, you have to be become a doctor or a lawyer.” And, of course, I bought into that and thought for the longest time I was destined to become a research scientist. I was also interested in being an architect, but that was a sensitive subject because there weren’t that many black architects, and architecture at the time wasn’t something people thought you could really make money doing. Or maybe I’d be an interior designer, but in Mississippi, that was really not something you wanted to be.
But as the business and I have gotten more exposure, my mother said to me the other day, “Now I see where this came from.” How many other sons are telling you at age 13, “We’ve gotta get chintz!”
When you’re not working, what do you love to do?
I work a lot. I’m one of these people who gets up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and I’m bed around 1:00 in the morning. But I do this because I’m one of those fortunate people who absolutely loves what I do. When I’m not working, I’m usually reading a book about antiques or about something that indirectly helps my business. I try to do some sports to keep myself in shape and mentally balanced. I love to eat, and I love to cook! And I try to see friends as much as possible.
But most of my free time is somehow connected to the business I’ll go to an art exhibition or I’ll look at shops or I’ll visit clients. It’s a 7-day-a-week job by choice. Like, tomorrow morning is flea market day here in Zurich, and it’s like Christmas Eve for me! It’s like I’m a kid again sitting on the doorstep waiting for my grandmother to go to the flea market.
It’s a complete learning process, this business. I’m always coming across things I don’t know, I’m always researching something. I’m not the kind of person who will say, “Blue vase for sale.” I try to research it and place it in a time and place and tell the story behind it. I’m very much interested in French history from about 1600 to Napoleon, and I’ve read probably over 150 books about this period — anything from biographies to books about art guilds.
A lot of people have asked me about how it is to live as a black man in Switzerland, and they ask about racism. And my thing is that there are different people everywhere, and wherever there are people, there are going to be prejudices. I guess for me, somehow in my life, I have managed to always ignore the detractors. I always tell people, “You’ve got to learn to ignore the detractors, because those are just stones in your way.”
For more information and to see current Quintessentia products, visit www.quintessentia.com. Read my full interview with Arthur Rooks and get his advice for anyone thinking about their career in my book Field Trip: Volume One, available on Amazon here.
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