Countless cars and pedestrians pass the bright yellow house every day. Many of the regulars who frequent restaurants and shops along S Howard Avenue have ventured inside. As other businesses have come and gone, the Other Side Antiques has been a fixture of this neighborhood, weathering life's changes much like the countless items it has sold. Even so, owners John and Mary Ann Benton say they get new customers at least once a week who ask, "Did y'all just open?"
On Monday, the Bentons marked 25 years since they started selling antiques. The business started in Palma Ceia, then moved to what is now the SoHo area about 20 years ago.
"When all is said and done, antiques are a bargain," John Benton said, explaining how he has retained old customers and attracted new ones even in a troubled economy.
"When you buy a new piece today, a lot of the time you will only get about three or four years out of it before it breaks," he said. "When you buy an antique, you get a product that has stood the test of time."
Behind the building's bright facade, Benton walks through a maze of wood furniture. The hardwood floors are worn and scratched, marks left through the years from countless sideboards, dressers, tables and chairs. On the walls hang hundreds of pieces of stained glass — the shop's most abundant item — nearly every piece imported from England. Interspersed with the glass is artwork of varying styles and ages.
As John Benton strolls the pathway, he points out some of the more storied items, as well as pieces salvaged after years of wear and tear.
There is a Civil War-era Southern foldout desk of mahogany and pine that the Bentons purchased at an estate sale in Savannah, Ga. In an adjacent room, Mary Ann pulls up photos on a laptop computer showing the before-and-after shots of a bow-front cabinet that John restored after it was badly damaged in a fire.
The Bentons often craft new uses for the items they restore. Splintered sideboards, for instance, are refinished to become changing tables. A baby's crib is filled with soil to become a flower pot. An armoire is transformed into a custom-made TV stand.
"The green phenomenon fits in well with this because people don't have to chop down rain forests to make new furniture," Mary Ann said. "It's a lot more economical to refinish old pieces."
A lifetime in the antique business was not something the Bentons foresaw. The Other Side sprouted after John was tasked with restoring some old wood furniture Mary Ann inherited from her grandmother. The process sparked an interest in restoring furniture, and soon the couple were researching antiques and taking periodic trips to England to collect stained glass, furniture and other items.
In 1985, their business was born at the end of Barcelona Street off MacDill Avenue. While there, antique dealers on the opposite side of MacDill often referred customers to "those folks on the other side." The name stuck, and the couple took it with them when they moved to S Howard.
John Benton attributes the store's success to word-of-mouth advertising. Many customers still visit the shop, although the number of online orders has increased in recent years. John estimates that about 50 percent of sales occur online, sometimes from buyers as far away as Japan. Mary Ann maintains the site, uploading photos and a detailed description of each new piece the shop receives.
"I'm kind of old school in that I wouldn't want to buy an antique without seeing it in person first," he said. "But the days of people getting in the car on a Sunday and going to all the antiques stores are over."
Carol Fernandez, 64, of Carrollwood, used to do just that, visiting the Other Side several times a year, often accompanied by her young daughter. She became friends with John and Mary Ann shortly after the store opened. Over the years, she has built up a collection of furniture in her home that has come almost entirely from the Other Side.
Her daughter, Celeste Pramberger, now a young mother herself, frequently enlists her mother to visit the shop to eye specific pieces Celeste finds on the shop's website.
"I really do think the reason they have survived (as a business) is because they have always given such personal service," Fernandez said. "John always knows the customers and what kind of styles we like. We always feel comfortable there."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3321 or email@example.com.