When Duane Cerny was a child, his favorite place to hang out was in his parents basement because it was filled with '50s-era furniture from their first apartment in Rogers Park.
"My parents preferred buying new things," said Cerny. "Having lived through the Great Depression, they were done with hand-me-downs. When they moved into their first house, they put the old furniture, lighting and knickknacks in the basement and bought new things. Even as a child, I would rather play in the basement than be outside. My poor parents thought something was seriously wrong with me; maybe they were right, but playing with all that kitsch was nirvana to me. I would watch I Love Lucy reruns on TV, then go downstairs and practically be in the same set. I was in heaven"
Cerny was able to take that love of antiques and parlay it into a decades long career as a business owner. He first opened the Wrigleyville Antique Mall on Clark Street in 1990 with his business partner, Jeff Nelson. At the time Boystown was the best place to have an antiques store. But by 1998, they had outgrown that location and purchased a larger building in Edgewater. They named this new store Broadway Antique Market ( BAM ), and became the largest gay-owned multi-dealer antique store in Chicago.
"We pioneered Edgewater from a resale/retail perspective," said Cerny. "Now more vintage dealers call Edgewater home than any other neighborhood in the city. We are very proud to have been influencers in that regard."
Since few people were initially merchandising vintage items with much innovation, Cerny and Nelson were able to be at the forefront of collecting trends. Some examples were tin litho lunch boxes and thermoses with TV shows, movies or characters on them; lucite purses; Higgins Glass; and hundreds of vintage '50s dinettes. Cerny explained that the key was to get out of the market for specific antique categories before the it flattened.
"We sold a custom dinette set to Oprah Winfrey that seated 20," said Cerny. "She used it on one of her early book club shows, and then it went into Harpo's lunchroom."
Cerny has sold items to a variety of notable people and they are mentioned in his new book, Selling Dead People's Things: Inexplicably True Tales, Vintage Fails & Objects of Objectionable Estates, in a chapter called, Name Dropping Dead.
"I offer snippets of stories that document a handful of celebrities we have had as clients over the years," said Cerny. "It is rather a famous laundry list that includes Anthony Quinn, Gene Siskel, Nora Ephron, John Candy, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, John Paul Gaultier, Beck, John Goodman, Fred Schneider, John Leguizamo, David Copperfield, Nate Berkus, Thomas O'Brien, Billy Corgan, Lauren Bush, Nick Cave, John Malkovich, Michael Rooker, Florence Welsh, Michael Carbonaro and many local celebrities."
Cerny wanted to tell the stories that arose from the house calls or estate sales that he and Nelson would attend to seek out items for their store. Both would oftentimes look at each other and ask, "What the heck was that all about?" Cerny started documenting these stories about the odd people, places and circumstances they encountered over the years. In 2013 an estate essay he wrote, Traces of a Man Who Disappeared, was published in The New York Times and he said the piece "spoke to thousands of readers in a myriad of ways."
"I realized then what was missing: a serious discussion about the objects in our lives that did not involve appraisals or the value of things," said Cerny. "What was most important was the object's owner and their stories, and I needed to tell some of those stories. For centuries, money has obliterated the opportunity of revealing a clear perspective about what these objects mean in our lives. If you think about it, nearly every antiques collecting book out there is about identifying an item and determining value. My book is about people and their treasured objects. To me, this is infinitely more interesting."
When asked how he would describe the book to someone who has never read about antiques and their owners, Cerny said, "A book about death appears to say so much about life." He noted that readers have told him the book is funny and joyous as well as sad and scary.
"I think most everyone will catch a glimpse of themselves in one of the many antique mirrors I hold up," said Cerny. "The most surprising thing I discovered while writing this book is that the greatest stories can be found in the smallest or most insignificant of objects."
Cerny said the chapter titles were inspired by many things, including statements a client said or implied. For years, customers were given index cards to create their wish lists and one card had "Artificial Limbs & Railroad Timetables" on it, so that became one of the chapter titles.
They were, incidentally, able to fulfill that customer's request.
Writing is not a new thing for Cerny. When he went to college, he was looking for writing scholarships at Northeastern Illinois University ( he graduated with a BA in English and Theater ) so he could finance his education. He applied for every writing scholarship they offered, including poetry.
"The university provided two full four-year poetry scholarships and I snagged one," said Cerny. "My winning poem was entitled LSD Consumes 47 Times Its Weight in Excess Reality. Gwendolyn Brooks personally chose it and a few of my other poems to be read at the scholarship induction ceremony. Now, some of my poems were rather graphic. I recall the President of the university kept looking over to see his wife's reaction, but she clearly was enjoying my poems more than her nervous husband. After the reading, Gwendolyn Brooks told me never to be embarrassed by honest writing and said, 'You got their attention tonight, and that is always a good thing.'"
Cerny's writing has also included all the marketing and advertising for both stores, from postcards in the pre-internet age to present-day e-blasts and website/social media updates.
One of the ways Cerny has given back to the community is by co-producing a benefit antique show for the White Crain Wellness Center several times.
"BAM has also donated to countless causes but more often we have helped individuals in very difficult situations," said Cerny. "Having lived through the darkest days of the AIDS crisis and as a caregiver to multiple friends and family members, I encourage everyone to take care of themselves and their loved ones. In the end, we're all in this together."
See bamchicago.com/ and sellingdeadpeoplesthings.com/ for more information.