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McKenzie’s on Main signature business for downtown

Hattiesburg — New Orleans’ loss was definitely Hattiesburg’s gain when Ellen McKenzie decided to return home and open an antique and gift shop downtown. McKenzie’s on Main opened in September 2001 and occupies a prime location in the revitalized downtown.

McKenzie, 37, spent 12 years learning the business in antique-rich New Orleans. She worked at Dixon & Dixon Antiques on Royal Street and at the New Orleans Auction Company. She was never in sales. Instead, she used her degree in art history from Randolph Macon Woman’s College in Virginia to buy, inventory and catalogue antiques.

“It was a real learning time for me,” she says. “I went to Europe — mainly England and France — every six weeks for a two-year period. It was really fun and educational, and I made some good contacts that are helpful with my business. Also, that’s where I learned the cost of antiques and whether or not prices are fair.”

McKenzie wrote descriptions and made photographs of 500 to 1,000 antique pieces for the catalogues that were published six times a year for the 12 auctions at New Orleans Auction Company. From time to time, she goes back and does work for the auctions.

A desire to have her own business and a love for Hattiesburg pulled her back as she grew tired of living in the city. “The auction wears you out. It’s tiring and long, hard hours,” she said. “I have family and friends here and had the idea to go into business for myself.”

Her parents, James and Mary Virginia McKenzie, were delighted to welcome her back. An uncle and aunt, Dickie and Betty McKenzie, were equally enthusiastic and supportive of McKenzie’s on Main.

“I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I would and don’t miss New Orleans as much as I thought,” Ellen McKenzie said. “I love being downtown. We have a community of merchants who help each other. It’s great to have the support and be a part of trying to revitalize downtown.”

McKenzie is active in the Downtown Merchants Association. The group advertises together and plans events such as the holiday open house and art walks.

“Getting more people down here is the biggest challenge,” she added. “We need to get the word out and get more traffic.”

McKenzie’s on Main is housed in the lower level of a large, old building that has apartments upstairs. It’s the perfect setting to showcase the many English and French Provincial antiques the shop features. There are large windows on two sides with exposed interior brick and a high ceiling open to the beams.

“She has a prime location at the corner of Front and Main streets, and it’s a signature of what we’re trying to get down here,” said Bernice Linton, the Downtown Association’s executive director. “She really knows the antiques business, and people travel from all over to shop with her.”

This antiques guru likes the satisfaction of having a business of her own where she can set her own schedule and be her own boss. She hasn’t found any special challenges of being a woman business owner, but does advise any budding entrepreneur to have financial matters in order before opening a new business.

“There are certain times of the year when it’s slow, and that’s stressful,” McKenzie said. “The late spring and early fall are slow, but we are getting more businesses downtown, and that will help everyone.”

She finds that area shoppers are well informed about antiques but does offer a few tips for buyers. Those include:

• educate yourself and know what you like

• know who you’re dealing with; find a dealer you trust

• check things like the grain of the wood, dovetailing, the construction of drawers and signs of wear and tear

“A real antique will not be perfect because it’s been around for 100 years,” McKenzie said. “Some scratches are normal and should be there from normal wear.”

She also said the grain of new wood and old wood look different. A lot of good reproductions are being made and are nice furniture even though they aren’t antiques. These are not made to fool anyone, but buyers should be aware of the differences and that the repros cost as much as antiques.

“Antiques are a good investment and hold their value,” McKenzie said. “They are versatile and mix with just about everything and are meant to be used and enjoyed.”

She notes that different styles and periods of antiques can be mixed. “If you like a piece, it will probably blend with what you have,” she said. “Something drew you to it, so there must be similarities.”

As for taking care of antiques, McKenzie offers these pointers:

• if stored, they must be in a climate-controlled environment

• keep out of direct sunlight because that will fade the finish, and

• don’t let pieces dry out; rub them with one of the numerous products on the market.

“With a minimum amount of care, antiques can last a lifetime,” she said. “If they are in good shape, they can be used. You should be able to live with antiques.”

McKenzie’s on Main also carries a wide selection of gift items that compliment antiques, including candles, silver and pewter pieces, picture frames and European pottery. Plus, there’s always a sale table in the back room.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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