Consigned to History: The Last Days of the Austin Antique Mall

When two iconic Austin businesses share an address, someday one was going to lose out

Christopher Krumrey at the Austin Antique Mall (photos by Jana Birchum)

“50% off everything.”

“Moving sale. All books 75% off.”

“Liquidation sale: see tags for discounts.”

“Thank you for continuing to support small businesses. 25% off everything.”

It’s a balmy, blue-skyed early April day, and yet there’s a pall over the Austin Antique Mall. It’s an air of sadness that seems completely at odds with the squeals of excitement and disco music audible through the blue metal walls of the building it shares with Playland Skate Center. The staff in the front cubby chat with vendors and customers, looking over knickknacks and collectibles, cooing over a particularly appealing item before it’s wrapped, bagged, and handed over. In the seemingly endless passageways between booths, those customers have been hunting for some rarity or oddity. But there are signs that change is coming – and not just those tags and sheets of paper showing there are extra bargains to be had. Booths that once were packed are deserted. Shelves are starting to show gaps, and racks recently filled with clothes look like they’ve been emptied for laundry day. Some vendors are even starting to pack up.

Another of those ubiquitous signs, this one printed on yellow paper and pasted to the bathroom doors, explains everything. “The Austin Antique Mall will be closing our doors after 40 years, May 15, 2024.”

In a month’s time, this whole space will be emptied out. The management will retire, and the vendors will be displaced. A month after that, Playland, which owns the entire complex, will expand to take over the newly vacant space.

So far, Playland management is keeping their long-term plans close to their chest – not least because they have not been completely finalized. They’ll have something to share this summer, they say, but not quite yet. Yet the one certainty is that the space will not become a second rink. Instead, the idea is to turn the whole unified facility into a family entertainment center, one with no space for a vintage mall.

Places like the Austin Antique Mall are a colony organism. The owners pay the big costs and handle the day-to-day operations like checkout and calculating sales tax. The vendors pay for their floor space and a commission on all sales, and just make sure that they’re fully stocked. And this is the kind of place where you can get pretty much anything, from used furniture to secondhand clothing to a homemade Raggedy Ann doll to signed first-edition books to a battered Mickey Mouse serving tray to a working, daisy yellow, Squirt soda ice chest to surplus water meter covers, cast metal squares now bound together with some red tape. It may not all be to your taste, but there’s something here for everyone, something to be cherished. As one sign notes, when you refold and rehang clothing you don’t want, you “help preserve history.”

There’s a balance in diversity, in a place where Amiga games, still in their packaging, can share a cabinet with restored enamel brooches. And now that balance has been disrupted as a business that has been home to hundreds of vendors over the decades is shuttered, scattering those subtenants to uncertain futures.

Under the Sign of the Azure Chicken

For some vendors, antique and vintage selling is how they make their living. For others, it’s a hobby. Some treat it as a side hustle. But it’s also a community. Vendors wave to each other as they pass through the narrow passages or stop for a chat. There’s even a little kitchenette with a coffeepot brewing and a few chairs on linoleum flooring. That’s where Christopher Krumrey is hanging out on that pleasant April day, just a few yards from the packed booths that he shares with his brother, Michael.

It’s easy to spot the brothers’ wares, marked with a tag with an illustration of an azure chicken (the name under which they operate). Raised in Corpus Christi, they grew up around art and artists, and it’s become both an obsession and a career for both of them. They have their own tastes – Christopher’s the midcentury modern guy, while brother Michael refers to his tastes as “more 18th century” – and those tastes are on display at the Austin Antique Mall, where they leased more than 900 square feet across four units. Furniture, decor, art, back issues of Starlog magazine, all stocked under the beneficent smile of former UT Law professor Charles Alan Wright as captured in oils by Rose Chin Wong, one of Austin’s most respected postwar portrait artists.

Their specialty is fine art, so while some units look like someone just emptied an estate sale into boxes and poured them onto racks, the Krumreys’ space feels curated. (That said, they have an undoubtedly eclectic eye, with a bullet-riddled steel helmet feet away from a Siberian fur hat.) Even so, the packed spaces barely scratch the surface of their huge inventory. According to Michael, with what they have in storage and in their own homes, “our four booths here, if I emptied them today, I could fill them 10 times.”

Yet even with the mall’s closure imminent, theirs are not the booths to look for a bargain. The duo knows the worth of every item, and what they can get in the Austin market. That said, canny dealers from California can still pick up a bargain – or at least a bargain compared to the prices they’d be paying in L.A. or Palm Springs. Christopher explains, “We sell to museums, we sell to interior designers. We also sell to set designers for the film industry.” (If you watched HBO’s Love & Death, he noted, you’ll see more than a few pieces that passed through their inventory.)

Christopher and Michael have been through this before. It was Michael who got into the business first, and they’ve had locations in Houston’s Antique Pavilion, and the former Whit Hanks building in Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood. Five years ago, they had space three miles south along Burnet at the Antique Marketplace, and suddenly that space was gone. The mall operators had lost their lease, and everyone had to be out immediately. Luckily, Michael already knew the owner of the Austin Antique Mall, Christopher recalls, “so we were able to get a space right away.”

The entrance to the Austin Antique Mall

At least this time they’ve had time to get everything in order, as the Austin Antique Mall management let the big vendors know in January that negotiations with Playland’s owners had collapsed. Fortunately, the Krumreys managed to get some space at the newest antique mall in the area, Vintique Collective. It’s operated by Michael Van Jones and Luisa Hincapie, who the Krumreys know as owners of Vintique Mall, but there’s a big change: It’s 30 miles away in Taylor.

Leaving the Austin Antique Mall is an undoubted blow to Christopher Krumrey, both professionally and personally. Out of all those different malls, he said. “This has been by far my favorite place. It’s like a big family here.”

Kristen Garcia may not have been a vendor at the mall as long as the brothers, but its loss is no easier to take. If anything, it may be harder, since this was the life raft for her business. She opened Effie Vintage in 2021 in a store in South Austin, a space she shared with three other vendors. It was a little community of its own, and built up a small but loyal clientele. Then the landlords told Garcia that the space was being demolished and redeveloped. Permitting issues pushed the end date from 2023 to 2024, but “knowing it was inevitable, I decided to make a clean break.”

Luckily, a slot opened up at the mall, so she moved there in November and closed her old store on December 11. In some ways it was a downgrade, going from 300 square feet at the store to 100 at the mall, meaning she had to get selective and creative about what she stocked. However, that was more than offset by becoming part of this high-traffic trading community. She was even able to personalize the space: “My shop was a bright teal outside,” she explains, “then the first room was pink, the second room was green, and then the third room was yellow, so I painted my booth the green from the second room with yellow trim from the third.”

So when she heard in late February that the mall was closing, “it came as a shock. Just knowing that the antique mall had been there for 40 years.”

For some vendors, antique and vintage selling is how they make their living. For others, it’s a hobby. Some treat it as a side hustle. But it’s also a community.

Forty years of history means 40 years of filled shelves, and a lot of it will be left to Jack Morrow to handle. For the last 12 years, his company, Search & Rescue Antiques, has specialized in commercial clearances and private estate sales in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, and he has been hired to help clear out much of the remaining stock. That’s no small job. “The industry term is 'stacked, packed, and all that,’” he says, and that’s exactly the situation at the mall. There’s literally tons of collectibles, “hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inventory,” he says, to be sold or removed. It’s a massive process: There are rarities and oddities to be found and valued, but there are also items that “are common as all get-out. ... We’re trying to sell the No. 2 pencil as well as the museum-quality pieces.” Part of his job is to get the best prices, and he can’t rely on what’s currently marked. “We’re finding things with price tags from 1984,” he notes: Indeed, there are items on shelves that if they were brand-new when the mall opened would now be classified as vintage, and vintage items that have become antiques. Once they’re all catalogued, removed, and hopefully sold for the best possible price, he’ll be stripping the building back to the fixtures and fittings. “This whole thing is messed up,” he sighs, “but we’ve got to do it.”

Location, Location, Location

For Michael Krumrey, the closure means the Austin Antique Mall is just another name on the long list of iconic Austin businesses that have shuttered since he moved here in 1972. “Every decade, Austin history’s disappearing,” he said. “The restaurants, the bars, the diners, all the things that make Austin interesting.”

However, the vintage and antiques market in Austin has taken a particular pummeling. The key is in the geography. Twenty years ago, the trade was centered around South Congress, with customers searching for curios at Uncommon Objects before picking through secondhand clothing at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. Ten years ago, it was Burnet, which became heaven for those seeking period designer furniture and furnishings. Now, the core of the vintage scene is nestled along North Loop, with the tiki-tinged, neon-ringed, fez-wearing moai of Room Service glowing like a beneficent god of bargains over Big Bertha’s Paradise and Ermine Vintage.

Art, baseball cards, and vintage signs at the Austin Antique Mall

“When it comes down to it, it’s fairly simple,” explains Ben Zimmerman, sales manager at Top Drawer. “Large retail spaces are very expensive now.”

Top Drawer is the latest resident of the North Loop run. It’s at the farthest end, on the junction with Airport, but still feels the benefits of having all those oddball and eccentric emporiums nearby. Last year, the store (owned and operated by nonprofit Project Transitions) lost its lease on its old location at Burnet and 49th, simply because its rent was rising to an impossible level. Relocation was a blow: Navigating the city of Austin’s Kafka-esque permitting process meant they were closed for six months. Luckily, as a charity store whose entire stock is donated, and with the bulk of the staff being volunteers, they were better able to weather the financial storm than their for-profit peers.

But it’s still part of a pattern. “All the vintage stores are staying super-small or going to the outskirts,” Zimmerman says. That’s what happened with two of the old South Congress mainstays: Uncommon Objects moved four miles south to a less walkable location off Ben White, while St. Vincent de Paul is now 15 miles north on Kramer. Some smaller vintage stores have managed to hang on in those more tourist-friendly areas but, Zimmerman explains, “They have had to find a little niche market of things they want to do and in turn raise their prices.”

He admits, Top Drawer got lucky, but at a cost. North Loop is a great location but the storefronts available around there are small. “We halved the size of our square footage, and our rent is still more than what it was a year ago.” Even if someone did want to open up a successor to the Austin Antique Mall, “price per square foot is just so high [that] those kind of big antique malls aren’t just going to make it here.”

However, retail space isn’t the only property that’s changing. “Homesteads are smaller, everyone is downsizing,” Zimmerman says. That’s leading to a change in the collectibles market: After all, who’s going to pay a few hundred dollars for a Victorian china set if they don’t have a china cabinet? “No one has the room,” Zimmerman adds, mournfully, “and if they do have the room they already have all the stuff.”

So often, the rent situation comes about because of absentee landlords jacking up prices, or running tenants out of single-story complexes to turn the lot into multistory developments. North Loop is only staying the way it is, Zimmerman observes, “because the land is owned by a couple of old Austin people who don’t want anything to change.” But what’s happening with the Antique Mall is almost unique: One Austin institution is dying because another is thriving. And that other owns the building they share.

Skating Through History

Playland opened in 1973, back when the top end of Shoal Creek was as far north as many Austinites ventured, and past what a lot of people considered the real city. It wasn’t the first skating rink in the city, or the oldest – indeed, it wasn’t even that far from Capitol Roll Arena on Brentwood, which opened in the 1950s. But what retired LAPD officer Steve Evans dreamed up was the biggest: two football-field-sized skate rinks. It was a risky proposition, even with the low cost of property this far out of the center, but Austinites responded. Then roller disco exploded, and Playland became the hot venue for a cool night out. To this day, there’s a giant reflective skate hanging from the ceiling, a relic of roller disco’s heyday.

But skating, like so many hobbies, goes through cycles of boom and bust. By the mid-Eighties disco was out – roller disco doubly so – skateboards got cool, and skating moved toward its biggest slump since the golden age of roller skating faded out in the 1950s. Capitol Roll (by this point renamed Rollin’ ’Cross Texas) went under. Playland cut itself in half, renting the north end of the building to the antique mall. That turned out to be a smart decision.

The rink at Playland

When current owners Pete and Anna Morin took over Playland in 2002, the slump was still ongoing. But there was an unexpected change on the horizon: In 2003, the metal shedlike structure would become home to the Texas Rollergirls flat-track Roller Derby league. There were regular practices, plus monthly double-header bouts that would regularly pack the place. Early mornings and evenings would see the rink rented out by the national championship-winning Texas Speed Club sport skating. Between them, those two sports helped keep the lights on, cover costs like resurfacing the rink, and increase local interest in indoor quad and inline skating.

Playland diversified even further, with a jungle gym and gaming machines crowded into the areas around the rink. It was actually COVID that sparked a new interest in recreational skating – first outside, as a way to escape lockdowns, and then in rinks. Playland has become busier and busier, and even roller disco is back, with guest DJs on Tuesday and Saturday nights. Meanwhile, the Austin Antique Mall just kept going.

Of the many malls that antiques dealer Christopher Krumrey has operated out of, he says, “This has been by far my favorite place. It’s like a big family here.”

Regulars on both sides of the wall knew about the shared history. Traces of the old rink still survive under the mall, long stretches of the old wood floor in varying states of repair, and skaters always wondered whether one day they could be restored. And on both sides of the dividing wall between Playland and the Antique Mall, there has always been that low murmur: Would Playland ever take the other half of the building over if they didn’t need the rent anymore?

The expectation, Christopher Krumrey said, was always that Playland would sell the entire property for a “five-story building.” After all, apartments and condos have been going up fast nearby, and taken their toll on neighborhood entertainment, with Dart Bowl on Grover closing in 2020 and its sibling, Highland Lanes on Burnet, closing for redevelopment before the end of the year. But the mall’s closure is different. This isn’t the lot being sold to developers, but the old owners just taking back the other half of their property.

It’s not unexpected. The tenancy has been long, but the relationship has often been fraught. The biggest tensions were over the parking lot, which was technically split so that each business had its own half, but could rapidly fill during busy nights at Playland, or weekends when both sides of the giant single-story structure were packed. (This could also cause friction with the neighborhood, especially back when the Texas Rollergirls called Playland home.)

So come mid-June, the Playland management will take possession of the vacant side of the building, and begin whatever their plan is. The hot rumor around the mall is that they’re planning to fill the void left by Dart Bowl and Highland Lanes, and build their own bowling alley. But that’s just speculation, and like everyone else the vendors are waiting to hear the big reveal in the summer.

One of a Kind, No Imitations or Duplications

But whatever fills the space, there’s no replacement for the mall. There was something unique about it, a confluence of circumstances that made it successful. The huge floor space accommodated 100 vendors, creating a massive ecosystem. Customers could spend the whole day there, picking up items from here and there, or just beeline to the booths they liked. Moreover, being right next to the highway but still in the urban core meant people could make a spur-of-the-moment decision to drop by. There was even a synergy with Playland, as parents would drop their kids off to skate, then head next door to browse, or folks could just make a day of vintage shopping and skating.

What’s increasingly happening is that vintage and antique stores are moving farther and farther out, to neighboring cities like Georgetown, Round Rock, and Taylor. The Krumrey brothers already have a much smaller space at the Antique Gallery of Round Rock, while the new Taylor location can only host around a dozen vendors. According to Christopher, Vintique owners Van Jones and Hincapie are targeting a higher-end clientele, and that makes it ideal in some ways for the brothers and other vendors who specialize in high prices and low turnover. But it’s a poor fit for businesses that work on smaller markups and churn, churn, churn. Even so, the brothers are losing floor space, that 900 square foot in Austin dropping to only 240 in Taylor. “We’ll probably slow down on buying a little bit,” says Christopher.

Michael Conner at the Austin Antique Mall

Michael chokes back a laugh at the idea.

“I said 'probably,’” Christopher smiles.

As for the smaller tenants, Morrow’s doing his best to help. Out of the 89 vendors he’s working with directly, some are either too old or too busy to drop everything and clear out. He estimates about 35 are really engaged with the closure process and he’s trying to help them relocate, at least temporarily. Search & Rescue Antiques has found space in some Austin vintage stores and the New Braunfels Antique Mall to take some of the leftover inventory. Additionally, Morrow says he plans to hold “pop-up markets and flea markets, and maybe some vendor days where 16 or 17 or 20 of us get together in a parking lot to sell some stuff.” That will mean the vendors will still earn something from their stock “and it won’t go to Goodwill, it won’t go to the landfill.”

Some of the Austin mall’s larger tenants could conceivably upgrade to their own location. Michael Conner has considered exactly that, taking the stock that he keeps in his crammed units and opening a small store and gallery to showcase the work of local artists including his wife, Kimbell. It’s a challenge: Costs would go up “and property taxes kill small businesses like this,” he notes, ruefully. Plus, he’s only looking in the surrounding neighborhoods: He and his wife live only 10 minutes away, and so while other vendors are looking outside of town, “it’s not worth our time.”

There are suitable properties out there, and Conner’s already found a couple of possibilities – one on Burnet, and one near the Lowe’s on Shoal Creek. He’s reached out to the real estate agents, but “they never return your phone calls,” he says. He’s talked with vendors who have been interested in property two miles away, near the old Furniture in the Raw, and they’ve had a similar experience.

For now, his plan is to get through the closure, work out where to store whatever stock they have left, then take the summer off for his daughter’s wedding. After that, if he can’t find a financially viable location, “we’ll just find something else to do.”

Garcia is a little bit more optimistic about the future. She’s even excited about the Playland expansion and the potential addition of more family fun opportunities, “but it’s going to be very, very, very bittersweet walking in there when it’s not the antique mall anymore.” As for her fellow vendors, she reasons, some will find a new brick-and-mortar outlet, maybe even something a little like her old space in South Austin. If anything, she expects a small vintage shop boom around Austin, and encourages mall regulars to follow and support the vendors they like “wherever they end up.”

But having a store doesn’t interest the Krumrey brothers, who like the freedom that malls and online sales give them. While Christopher says that he likes meeting customers at the booth mall and explaining the provenance of each piece as rigorously researched by brother Michael, that’s only part of the job: They also spend a lot of time at estate sales and on the road, researching the provenance of pieces. Christopher notes that with just the inventory that they have in storage, they could fill a mall this size “in a heartbeat, but I really don’t want to be here full time.”

And that “here” is now gone. Like the artifacts and trinkets that have filled its shelves, the Austin Antique Mall is a thing of the past.

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