| Catherine Russell

Decade of preparation precedes woman’s launch of European-antiques business

Most people nurture dreams for years, but it took decades for marketing executive Sheila Howell to start her dream business: European Finds antiques.

The online business features more than 50 antiques that are selected not only for age and style but also for the stories behind them — much like how the story behind the business marks it as unique.

“Where it all started was back in seventh grade,” said Howell, who grew up in rural Knox County. “I remember sitting in class, learning about history and learning about Versailles,” referring to the French palace. “I grew up way, way out in the country, and Versailles was so magical. It was just so fascinating to me. One thing I thought I had to do in my life was see the Hall of Mirrors and the chandeliers at Versailles.”

As the years passed, Howell’s focus became decidedly more prosaic: “I grew up and went into accounting,” she said. “I had taken a bookkeeping class in high school, and it was simple to me. So I worked eight years in accounting, but it wasn’t my passion.”

Years of working in finance and marketing at various central Ohio companies consumed her professional time. Then, about 10 years ago, she hit a bump in the road.

“It can be tough being in the corporate world, and one day was really challenging,” she said. “Driving home, I thought I had to set a goal that’s just for me.

“I started by asking the question: What am I passionate about?”

She worked through the night on a marketing plan, and then “started doing more research. It didn’t make sense to just jump into it.”

That’s putting it mildly. Howell went on to spend 10 years learning about antiques in general, particularly “French, 18th and 19th century furniture mostly, learning everything I could.”

“It was everything I dreamt it would be,” Howell said. “It was really, really crowded, though. I’m planning to go back to Versailles this coming spring, take my time and maybe get a personal guide and go through it slowly.”

That would be quite a bit different from the whirlwind trip earlier this year when Howell finally felt ready to pull the trigger and buy an initial round of antiques to get the business running.

In March, “my thought was to go on my first sourcing trip, not necessarily to buy, but to find out prices, sources, fully vet it. I met with a handful of dealers and absolutely fell in love with some pieces. But it was a nerve-wracking moment when I said, ‘OK, I’m actually going to buy these pieces.’”

Part of the reason Howell was so apprehensive was because she focuses on pieces that have a story.

“It’s very difficult to find those pieces that have a story that can be authenticated,” she said. “But it connects with me so much more, because it’s no longer just something sitting in a warehouse. It’s, ‘Here’s the family, here’s how it was used.’

“For example, there is a pair of Louis Philippe mirrors just removed from a mansion in northern France. It was one of the ‘palaces of the Americas,’ from families who would come over to the U.S. during the (19th century) industrial boom and come back and build big homes.”

“That’s been a trend ... for a long time now, especially with millennials — original, authentic style,” Peterson said. “I don’t see that going away anytime soon.

“The uniqueness trend has been best brought to life as of late by Restoration Hardware in their RH Galleries. They’re not antiques, but a very curated selection of fantastic individual furniture pieces (with a restaurant for you to think it all over in).”

Howell is also “very smart” to start her business online, Peterson said. “You can reach the world without signing a 10-year lease, and find out if your idea holds salt.”

During her trip to Europe in March, Howell eventually bought three big pieces, but because she was going to have them shipped over in a container, she decided to buy more pieces to fill it up.

The container finally arrived in June and went into her “warehouse” — a pole barn owned by her son that Howell has equipped with insulation, temperature and humidity control and a security system.

Howell officially launched the business in August and sells the antiques online, on both her website and some online marketplaces.

“The big surprises for me have been how much time it takes to bring everything together — to get the product in, to photograph the pieces, to write the copy. The timeline is longer than what I would think — especially if the piece needs to be upholstered. And I thought for sure there would be more interest in accessories, because of the price points. But price point hasn’t been indicator of what is selling.”

Indeed, prices at European Finds range from $100 for vintage farm baskets all the way up to $39,000 for a Louis XV-style commode.

“Smaller tables are certainly of interest, too,” she said. “That gets to people downsizing — you can have a small piece and make a statement. But there’s also a fair amount of interest in larger mirrors. They are statement pieces.”

Eventually she’ll have a showroom where customers can see the merchandise in person. But now she has her hands full, not only with the European Finds business but also as she continues to work full time as vice president of marketing for both Cheryl’s Cookies and Fannie May, which are brands owned by 1800Flowers.com.

“I love staying busy,” she said, chuckling, “and this is a perfect mix. I’m excited. So far it’s been a lot of fun, although at times my hands were shaking because of the decisions I was making. But I’m glad I did it.”

tferan@dispatch.com

@timferan