Photos by Sandy Gooley
Picture this: It’s 1996, and you and a group of four girlfriends decide to rent out a warehouse to sell antiques. You don’t have to fully imagine this scenario, though, because Barbara Gillham and her friends Dorothy Burns, Diana Hildreth, Patty McNutt, and Carol Waldron did exactly that, purchasing a 4,000-square-foot warehouse to launch Loft Antiques—a Minneapolis-based antique shop that sells vintage accessories, antique decorations, furniture, and more.
“It was all women and just our husbands,” recalls Gillham, who retired this spring. “We moved in. But the shock of it was [that] we thought we had a lot of furniture because of the five of us. We didn’t realize how big 4,000 square feet was with the basement and upstairs.”
Gillham jokes that a table in your dining room looks much smaller when put it into a warehouse. Although that transition was a stressful adjustment for the team, Gillham says that through word of mouth they had friends who wanted to join and contribute. With more people on the team, they settled into the seemingly-too-large space with ease.
“It was very brave of five women to take this on, back when women didn’t really start a lot of businesses,” says Sandy Gooley, Gillham’s daughter and a manager at Loft Antiques. “The model they put in place has really lasted.”
“One of the good things was the way we set it up,” Gillham says. “Everybody felt like they owned their little rental space. They could do what they wanted, but they had to do work according to the square footage of their room.”
They sectioned off the warehouse and rented it to individuals in the antique industry who wanted a space to sell their inventory. Every dealer is responsible for stocking their inventory to sell. The amount of days a dealer works depends on the size of the space they rent, simply because they need people around to manage daily operations. Renting areas of the warehouse is still how they run the shop and, to this day, they hardly have openings. After all, why fix something if it’s not broken?
Gooley says, “Currently, we have 18 dealers. Most of the dealers who come to work at the Loft stay a very long time.” All the dealers contribute to utility expenses and rent in a model similar to a co-op. (In the early years, Gillham and the founders were critical of who could rent their space, as only women worked there. Now, Loft Antiques is a team of women and men.)
Inviting dealers to sell their antiques and own inventory is how it grew quickly, they say. The founders tried to get as much publicity as they could, but they relied on their social circles to make ends meet. The shop has even withstood financial crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. “Two of our dealers who handle our Facebook and Instagram accounts, Madonna Palladino and Andrew Schultz, bumped up our social media postings and started to list items online with a Saturday morning curbside pick-up,” Gooley says.
Passing the Torch
Gillham decided to take a step back from managing operations because she wanted to spend more time up north, not worrying about the Loft, Sandy says. Several years ago, Gillham and Burns started the process of interviewing people—Kaye Monroe, now a co-manager, and Gooley—to take over their roles.
“The present people, my daughter, Sandy, and Kay,” Gillham says, ”they’re doing such a wonderful job. You know, [taking over] would have been such a challenge for someone like myself because I am not techy tech.” (Over the past several years, Gooley and Monroe cultivated the Loft’s social media presence to bring the company into the 21st century. Social media substantially helped the brand throughout the pandemic.)
Physically, they updated the space to keep up with popular aesthetics to inspire shoppers to decorate their homes with pieces from the Loft. Gooley says that as a co-op, “We all vote on important decisions and work together to offer up ideas and keep up the aesthetics of the store.” The Loft Antique team expanded the shop to 4,500 square feet about four years ago. Gooley says it was a huge success to expand and that they try to improve a few things every year.
“We are very proud that the Loft has been in business at this location for 25 years, with many of us dealers here nearly all of that time,” Gooley says. “Our business model of sharing rent, workdays, and decisions has worked well for us.
Retirement, Time to Relax
For Gillham, retirement is well-deserved. She racked up 40 years of experience running estate sales and renting a space at Cupboard Collectibles, then located off 50th and Penn. She took that expertise and looked for the step in her career—Loft Antiques.
Starting something that has lasted over 20 years required hard work and dedication, and Gillham’s official last day with the Loft was April 1. She says she has many things to do with her new-found free time in retirement, but relaxation is at the top of the list.
She has a cabin up north she’s excited to stay at without feeling burdened by the stress of work, she says. Prior to retirement, she would always be on the hunt for new merchandise to bring back to the store —only adding stress to her cabin life.
Although two co-founders have passed away, Gillham and Diana Hildreth, another co-founder, still talk frequently. Hildreth retired a few years ago and lives in the Twin Cities area. Gillham now fills her time at home with weekly prayer groups and card clubs where she gets together with friends.
Loft Antiques, 3022 W. 50th St., Minneapolis, 612-922-4200, loftantiquesmpls.com, open every day, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.