Arlene Brilliant remembers being woken by a midnight phone call during an antique-buying trip in England. She asked whether the caller realized what time it was.
The call proved worthwhile: An employee of her store, Brilliant Antiques in , was phoning to say that Liberace had just purchased nearly every piece of merchandise in the building.
Turns out, the pianist had been dying to visit from the moment he arrived in St. Louis. She met the celebrity on a subsequent visit.
Those are some of the many adventures Brilliant, 85, recounted this week during an interview at her home in . She will close her business by the end of next month after more than 35 years in Clayton. A sale is underway at the store, which will remain open to the public into early June.
Brilliant has been at its helm for the entire journey, though she never intended to enter the business world.
If she were to author a book, she said, it would be titled, "The Reluctant Shopkeeper."
A vacation-turned-working holiday
Brilliant credits her late husband, Bud, with having had the foresight to know what was best for her, so it's fitting he thought the antique business suited her perfectly.
She entered the business by accident. The couple had traveled to England for an eight-day extended tour of the country.
The first day went poorly.
"'We're wasting time,'" Brilliant recalls telling her husband. So they went antiquing.
By the end of the trip, they had packed their hotel room from floor to ceiling with items. They couldn't get into their bed because it was covered. People thought they were antique dealers.
Brilliant remembers being "completely smitten" by the things they found there.
The couple weren't sure what to do next. So they got the name of a shipper and had it all sent to the U.S.
They returned home. Time passed, and the items never arrived. After a couple of months, they discovered that the big wooden crates of antiques had been sitting at the airport.
The early years
At the time, Brilliant's mother was living in a building on Delmar Boulevard in . Inside the building was a tiny shop. Bud thought it would fit his wife's budding antique career perfectly.
Brilliant kept telling him she didn't want a business. She intended to raise their son, Neil, and daughter, Jana. When they were in school, she wanted to spend time participating in study and book groups, bettering herself and learning.
Bud, it seems, knew she could at once be a good mother and an entrepreneur. So he went ahead and rented the space.
When she first opened the store, Brilliant worked four or five short days each week. At the time, muumuus were in style. She viewed her store as a morning hideaway.
In part, that's because it was difficult to find. People discovered her store as they walked down the hallway to get to . She watched them peer into her shop and then return the next day to purchase the antique they sought.
"I was getting comfortable working," Brilliant said.
About six years later, she got a call from the Zorensky family. They were retiring from their Clayton antique business at 8107 Maryland Avenue, though they hadn't intended to sell the store. Brilliant's cousin knew the Zorensky family and suggested she needed a bigger shop. So she received an invitation to visit.
Brilliant said she didn't want another shop. She enjoyed participating in study groups and going on walks with friends.
Her husband, Bud, suggested it would only be polite to drop in. As someone who ran a department store for years in North St. Louis, he could be very persuasive.
Brilliant recalls putting her foot up against the inside of the car all the way to the store, as if doing so would stop the process.
They went in. The shop was nice, Brilliant said, but she tried not to see too much.
Then it happened: She heard Bud ask how much money Zorensky wanted for the light fixtures. Brilliant looked up to see the two shaking hands.
She had a new store.
Travels in Europe
The added space created the need for additional trips to England, Scotland, France and other parts of Europe. When airlines offered direct flights from St. Louis to England, the two visited once every three months.
"We had a good time," Brilliant said. Her husband continued going with her even after he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
She turned the purchasing of antiques into a fine art. The space is perhaps more competitive today, she said, but at the time few Americans bought antiques in England.
Brilliant wanted to be first everywhere, and many of the couple's stops were several hours away in the country. So they often awoke at 5 a.m. and were on the road by 6.
She did not buy anything she would not personally want to own. She refused to buy and sell furniture for fear she would purchase a fake: Once, as she left a store that manufactured antique-looking chairs, she heard the manager remind an employee to put acid on their brass feet to give the appearance of age.
Brilliant especially liked antiques made of brass, copper and silver because when her children were babies, they could run around the house without fear of breaking something.
She was competitive. Once, another dealer told her he had purposefully opened up a booth in a prime antique-buying area so he could beat her to the antiques sold by neighboring vendors.
Brilliant can't recall the costliest antique she ever bought, though she tried not to spend wild amounts of money.
Bud was a World War II veteran who had spent time in Europe, so he knew how to drive on English streets. On other occasions, when numerous stops were involved, they hired drivers to take them to their destinations.
When visiting England, they stayed near Piccadilly Circus at the same hotel each time. (Brilliant declines to identify which one.) Management made her favorite room available. The decision at first bothered her husband, who recalled it being a shady place during the war. Brilliant insisted things had changed.
The location put them within walking distance of the theater, which they frequently attended.
Brilliant decided to close her store a while back after her final trip to England. The travel had become too much trouble. But she fondly recalls making trips with her son, who is now an attorney, and her daughter, a psychiatric social worker, after Bud's death.
Brilliant has found that people buy antiques in part because of the "charm of uniqueness"—the joy that comes with owning unique items. She said her children's homes look like her own, in that they are full of antiques.
And she has many fond memories of her customers. She describes them as lovely.
Brilliant didn't anticipate breaking her hip in the store's final days. The accident has prevented her from visiting with customers as she had hoped.
She is hopeful she will be able to return to the store soon.
Brilliant hasn't thought much about how she will spend retirement. She would like to travel to attend classes, though she knows her health may limit those opportunities.
Whatever she chooses to do, it seems likely that antiques and the store she ran for decades won't be far from her mind.
"I resisted all the way and loved every minute of it," Brilliant said.