The ancient map-makers wrote across unexplored regions, ‘Here are lions.’
-W.B. Yeats, The Celtic Twlight: Faeries and Folklore
At first glance, my corner of Midlothian appears to be a community that sprang up from nothing in the latter half of the 20th century. A seemingly endless array of shopping centers, chain restaurants, and housing developments stretch as far as the eye can see, transforming it so completely that newcomers might never guess its beginnings as a humble coal mining village. I grew up in a small town that retained much of its historic charm in spite of the suburban sprawl, crawling kudzu-like down either side of the main through-road. Now more than ever, I’m on the lookout for that same kind of charm here in Midlothian; I don’t want my son to grow up in a place that is defined by an abundance of Chipotles and Targets.
I’ve driven past Gates Antiques dozens of times without stopping, but each time I see it, it appeals to me as a place with a story. Last week, I decided to visit. It was oppressively hot. I had to peel Squeakers out of his car seat; the back of his little onesie was soaked and his face flushed as I fumbled him into the carrier: Seriously, mom? This thing, again? Inside the blessedly air-conditioned main building, the woman at the front desk offered to hold Squeaks while I talked to the owner, explaining that she was a mother and a grandmother herself and insisting it would be a pleasure. Squeaks gave her one of his famous smiles, then promptly fell asleep in her lap. I don’t make a practice of handing over my baby to strangers, but walking into Gates Antiques is like visiting the home of an old friend, even the first time you go.
Gates Antiques Ltd. is located on Old Buckingham, a narrow two-lane road connecting heavily trafficked Midlothian Turnpike with busy Alverser Drive. I call this road a shortcut when I use it to avoid stoplights and distracted drivers; in reality, it’s probably the long way. But I like it. It reminds me of other, smaller places, where tree-lined, two-lane roads will get you most anywhere, and the houses on either side have been weathered by love or neglect.
At 12700 Old Buckingham, Gates Antiques is comprised of four brick buildings that appear historic, but the oldest was actually built in 1961. John “Jay” Gates, the owner, told me his parents started the business by building their home on the property, and the other buildings followed. The main building has floors from a pre-Civil War grist mill, and much of the brick and woodwork were taken from a period home. At the back of the property, a two-story warehouse was built from remains of the F.K. Woodson Candy Factory in downtown Richmond. “It was going to be demolished, and we had permission for 24 hours to pull all the building materials we could,” Gates said. He was five years old, and still remembers the hammer and crowbar his father gave him so he could help. “My dad said it was the best babysitter ever. He said it took me two hours to pull one board up, and he knew where I was the whole time because he could hear me working on that board.”
The Gates family has built a life, and a living, out of unearthing, restoring, repurposing, and selling old things. They have deep roots in Virginia. His mother’s side settled in Bermuda Hundred in the 1600s, and his mother grew up on the classic antebellum Belnemus plantation in Powhatan. Gates’ father’s family came to Virginia in the late 1600s. “I’m related to General Horatio Gates on my father’s side, and on my mother’s side, my cousin married Patton’s favorite niece,” Gates said. When his parents met, his father was making furniture, but his mother had grown up with an interest in antiques and suggested he use his skills to fix furniture, rather than creating it. Eight years later, he gave up his state job with VDOT to focus full time on repairing and selling furniture, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Despite his involvement from an early age, Gates did not grow up thinking he would work full time in the family business. “I’m an only child, and my father and I could not coexist for long periods of time together. I had to grow up some, and he had to mellow out some, before I could really come into the business.” Gates graduated from Midlothian High School, and then went to Roanoke College to study Business and Finance. After college, he worked in securities, but continued to help his father on evenings and weekends. “Going to auctions was one of the things we had a lot of fun doing together. If he said, ‘Oh, I found this great auction,’ that’s what I would do on a Friday night; I’d go to an auction with my father.” When Gates began to think about going into business with his father, he prepared by interviewing other small business owners. He asked them what they did well, and what they didn’t like about their business structure. “The biggest thing was to clearly delineate in writing what your responsibilities were, separate them, and never go into the other person’s space.” Gates said establishing boundaries was one of the best things they ever did to build a successful partnership. He joined the business full time in 1997.
These days, Gates brings his teenage sons to help in the store. He said his sons are usually at the store every day over summer break, “getting a real education.” He said his parents never put any pressure on him to join the business, and he’s never put any pressure on his sons. “They enjoy it; I take them to auctions, and they’re like, ‘That’s Hepplewhite, that’s Chippendale.’ Now we’re starting to get into wood and trying to date things a little bit with my older one. That’s more complicated, but he can name all the time periods already.” Gates decorates his own home with antiques, and says one of his favorite pieces is a table his then 6-year-old son identified by spotting its “hairy claw feet.”
When asked why a novice should take an interest in antiques, Gates said that older pieces often have a warmth that newer furniture does not; incorporating even one antique into a modern room can brighten it and add interest. His face lit up when asked to identify his favorite pieces in the shop. A pair of gold leaf mirrors on the wall caught his eye because of their unique shape: rectangular, with a small square at each corner, like the footprint of a castle. He also pointed to a grandfather clock with a satinwood door; a table with intricately carved clawed feet, complete with sharpened toenails; and a magnificent, seven-foot-tall Federal Breakfront, with original gilded glass panels in the cabinet doors, and a drawer that folds out to make a desk. In a glass case at the front of the shop, there is a second printing of Smith’s History of Virginia, by Captain John Smith. Slowly and carefully, Gates unfolded one of the pages to reveal a map of Virginia drawn by Smith, with an illustration of Chief Powhatan in the top left corner, Pocahontas on the right, and a sailing ship afloat in The Virginia Sea. Gates said this was one of his favorite things to show clients, but his shop is filled with pieces that hold secrets and memories, and are just waiting to store new ones.
As I drove home from this quiet sanctuary filled with beautiful things, I couldn’t help but think about family. Jay was hanging out in his father’s store before he could walk, and his sons are learning the ropes today. Involving children in a shared passion creates a strong family bond. When I was growing up, our family “business” was education. My dad was a middle school principal, and my mom was a school librarian for many years. My brother and I spent long summer days at my dad’s school, pushing each other down long empty hallways on a flatbed dolly, and trying to see if we could fit inside lockers. On weekends, when my mom went to the school library to catch up on work, I would often go with her, helping to shelve books, or curling up in a corner to read until my eyes hurt. I knew every corner of those schools, from the best places to hide, to the most likely classrooms to find a half-eaten bag of donuts. I even knew which closet door concealed a ladder to the roof. Decades later, I can still smell strong institutional cleaner, fresh floor wax, and the scent of fried food that clings to school cafeterias, even in summer. What shared experiences will give shape to my son’s childhood? When he has children of his own, what stories will he tell about growing up? I can’t wait to find out.
The pictures shown are taken from the Gates Antiques Website.