Behind the bar at Niagara, a no-frills watering hole in New York’s East Village that still feels like it actually belongs there, there’s a bumper sticker stuck to the front of the cash register that reads, “I Miss the Old New York.” That’s Billy Leroy’s kind of New York.
A few short blocks from that wistful warning sits Billy’s Antiques & Props, a ramshackle tent at the corner of Bowery and Houston — the unofficial crossroads of downtown Manhattan, where grit meets glamour. Each day, weather permitting, Leroy and his cast of characters unpack the tent and peddle a constantly changing inventory of antique wares that can only be described as “only in New York.” Vintage armoires, mannequin heads and old subway signs litter the sidewalk every day, attracting scores of browsers from around the corner and around the world.
It shouldn’t be, but even in New York, it’s an increasingly rare sight these days. Where drunks and prostitutes once roamed, on the Big Apple’s former skid row, buttoned-up urbanites now buy organic strawberries at Whole Foods and $200 jeans at Rag & Bone. Against that backdrop, Billy’s stands out for all the right reasons. Every great New York performance features a few theatrics, and the towering Leroy’s colorful ascots, signature cigar and gruff demeanor are all part of this show.
By his own admission, Leroy is an unlikely steward of this old New York. He was raised on the Upper East Side, used to play touch football with JFK Jr. in Central Park, attended boarding school in Switzerland. But a love for adventure (and misadventure) lured him to the rough-and-tumble downtown scene as a young man, and a love of art and antiques kept him there — after the requisite stop in Corporate America, of course.
Being Billy has also become a brand. After a number of small parts over the years, Leroy recently starred in “Dirty Old Town,” an independent film loosely based on life inside the tent that premiered at festivals in London, Paris and elsewhere. He’s got multiple TV projects now in the works. He’s even done a little modeling for DANNIJO, the designer jewelry line co-founded by Danielle and Jodie Snyder, members of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors.
For Leroy, it’s just another day at the tent, “standing in the center of the world.”
You run a business at a city intersection very much at a philosophical crossroads. How has the neighborhood changed?
In the 1970s, growing up in New York City was a wild and dangerous place, especially if you came down to the Bowery. The Bowery was insane! There were junkies, drunks walking around like zombies, it was crazy. Now it’s completely gentrified and there are people walking around with flip-flops and pushing baby strollers. But it’s still the best neighborhood in New York City.
So how’d a preppy kid from the Upper East Side end up dealing antiques on the Bowery?
My parents kept trying to reform me and they never did. I ended up down here with tattoos, with a Harley and just going nuts. It was dangerous, but it was adventurous, it was so much fun. That’s what the draw was for me. I liked the color, I loved all the artists down here. It was just alive. The Upper East Side was very boring for me. I finally grew up when I got this place.
My first job in New York was as a junior art director at Grey Advertising. That lasted about two years. I started buying and selling things on the weekend and I ended up at the flea market where I met Rob Fennick, the original creator of this place, which was called Lot 76. We started buying and selling together. When you buy something for 100 bucks and you sell it for 1,000, that makes you feel really good. There’s the hunt, there’s the negotiation when you’re trying to buy it and that joy of selling.
Was there a first big sale that really got you hooked?
My first big sale, which got me to quit Grey Advertising, was a beautiful French military painting. I paid $2,000 for it in 1980 and that was a lot of money for me. It was like a quarter of my yearly salary. But I loved the quality, I was so blown away. I put it at Christie’s and it made $12,000, so my $2,000 profited me $10,000 and it was just amazing. I said, “I’m out. I’m not going to be a slave in an advertising agency, I’m going to go out there and buy and sell.” That’s what I love doing — buying and selling. I’m not really a collector, I’m a pure dealer. I love to sell and I love to buy.
Sure, you’re selling old coffins and stuffed lions out of a tent, but fundamentally, you’re running a store just like a lot of business owners. And presentation counts.
It’s almost a creative, artistic experience when you make a store. We decorate every day and we have to make it pleasing to the eye, pleasing to people so they can come in. But we’re not really friendly. If you ask a stupid question, we’re going to give you a silly answer. People get upset about us because we’re not Crate & Barrel. We’re definitely not Crate & Barrel. We are the old Bowery — we’re rough and we’re tough.
Good salesmanship comes with a bit of performance.
It’s very important that when people buy here, they get the Billy’s experience. I want people to come in and not be too comfortable. Too comfortable is not good, but being scary is not good either. You’ve got to have both. I mean, look at them! They’re walking in and they’re in amazement. They walk in dumbfounded. “What is this place?” It’s a magical place, it really is.
Is there a particular type of antique you’re drawn to? I live around the corner and I almost never see the same thing twice here.
It has to be a little on the dark side. It has to have a little edge. I don’t like Martha Stewart-type antiques. I like things that are a little bit creepy. Of course, a nice dresser is a nice dresser — it might have flowers on it, but I can still sell it. I’m here to sell.
What’s the stupidest purchase you ever made?
Well, the greatest — and stupidest — purchase I ever made were subway signs. It was great because I sold them for 12 years. And then one day I got arrested for them.
What’s the most memorable?
It was a hot Sunday night and some drunk came to the store and said, “Hey man, I got a tiger in my apartment,” and I figured, “Here you go, another whack job on the Bowery.” But he seemed serious and said, “No, man I’m telling you, I’ve had this tiger for 25 years.” So I went to his apartment, which I never do, especially with a drunk. Went up to his apartment and there was a full body mount of a tiger. It had two inches of dust on it, so it had to have been there for 20 years. I asked, “How much do you want for this?” and he said, “$10,000.” It was in bad condition. I said, “You’re wasting my time.” He responded, “Oh, then I’ll take $5,000.” I said, “Listen, it’s in terrible condition. I’ll give you $1,200 and I’m running out of here and I hope you say no.” That’s one of my tactics. And he said, “Deal!” So I shook his hand, we made the deal, I brought the tiger over here. We started researching the tiger. It turned out to be an extinct Balinese tiger. Not endangered, extinct. I called up one of my bigwigs that deals with the Natural History Museum, we made a deal immediately for $16,000. That was really a Bowery story.
Every entrepreneur has to negotiate at some point. What are some of your techniques?
If someone has a really high price on something and I know it’s worth a quarter of that, how do I offer him a quarter of what he’s asking without pissing him off? What I tell him is, “I’m going to make you an offer you can refuse.” So in his head, he thinks, “OK, he’s going to make me an offer I can refuse, so that means I’ve already refused it.” And I say it’s a cash offer too. So I’ve got two things going for me. Then I give him the lowball. Usually that works. I mean, it doesn’t always work, but it leads to a more friendly negotiation. That’s a perfect example of psychological warfare when it comes to buying stuff and that can be applied to anything.
Some interesting characters have passed through this tent over the years.
Our customers are the entire human race — everyone comes through here. We get the lowest of the low, we get celebrities. I mean, every race and every nationality comes into this store. And we make fun of everybody. We’re New Yorkers — we make fun of everybody, you know?
So what’s it like to be in the center of all this change, which has posed a big challenge to a lot of small businesses in New York?
The history of the Bowery is immense. We’re the last of a 150-year-old tradition of resellers. You would think that all this change would give us an increase in business, but it actually hasn’t. We could be selling little World Trade Centers and little Statue of Liberties and be doing better. We could be selling T-shirts or slices of pizza and be doing better. But we’re holding on like the stronghold. To me, it’s depressing, but I still love this neighborhood. It’s got a lot of young people, it’s got NYU, we’ve still got Hell’s Angels down there, which are the coolest guys in the world. There’s still a lot of radicalism, which I kind of like. I like that it’s got a little edge.
Are we losing part of what makes this city great?
What people call old New York is quickly dwindling. It really is becoming suburbanized. We’ve got an IHOP, T.G.I, Fridays. It’s becoming a giant mall. It’s becoming a gated community and that’s sad. The New York that I grew up in is really going, and it’s going quick.
We have a sense of pride because we’re holding on — we’re the old New York. We’re really holding on by our fingernails. I mean, it’s a very thin membrane here. It’s a tent, so it could just blow up, burn down. I don’t know why we’re doing this, we just keep doing it. We make enough money to live, but I’m not getting rich from it, that’s for sure. Like I said, I could be selling pizza and make a lot more money, but it’s all I know how to do — buy and sell. If this place does close, I’ll always buy and sell. I’ll reopen somewhere else. Hopefully, this time, I’ll have doors, some walls and some windows.
In a way, you’re a bit of an antique yourself.
Me, Billy, I am a complete antique — it’s crazy. I never saw myself as an antique, but I am. And I’m getting old.