Walk into What’s on 2nd? and you’ll step into a different world–one of lost memories, fads, and passions immortalized in the polished antiques. On any day you can find Michele Wilson and Steve Gilmer, the owners of What’s on 2nd?, cleaning new quirky merchandise or rearranging the store. Customers can browse the store worry-free as music plays. Two friendly Brittany spaniels, lounging behind the counter or strolling through the store, frequently greet new customers.
With two stories of antiques ranging from Ronald Reagan campaign material to Superman action figures to classic posters of Journey, Wilson and Gilmer have collected a vast range of antiques in their five years on 2nd Avenue North. The surprisingly low prices hardly compare to the sentimental value customers seem to attach to their wares.
Walking up the stairs, your eye is drawn to the various stickers of rock and roll bands and long forgotten logos. Gilmer described the minute detail that adds to the authentic feel of the antique store: “This building was the old Chicago Pawn Shop. Graffiti on the staircase leading to the upstairs room dates back to 1942.” Besides graffiti, artists from ArtWalk and from around the world have also decorated the wall with humorous drawings. With a good eye, a customer can even find a frame containing a shading of Shakespeare’s grave, something that is not permitted anymore. This pick, along with authentic World War II propaganda posters, creates the store’s variety of simple, small antiques along with historical, diverse items.
Long-time friends, Wilson, a former UAB political scientist, and Gilmer decided to open a business together and combine their collectibles to create one extensive collection. “Our different interests influence the store and the items we collect,” Wilson explained. Having amassed their inventory over the years from previous businesses, Wilson and Gilmer continue to add to it, partly through the efforts of “pickers” who find and buy for their shop antiques for resale.
“My real estate agent showed me this place, and I just felt at home as soon as I walked in the door,”Gilmer said. “The terracotta tile floor and the old tin pressed ceiling just seemed ready made for an antique business.”
After choosing the location and settling on a clever name (taken from the classic Abbott and Costello routine Who’s on First?), Wilson and Gilmer set up shop and watched as it and the city changed.
“We’ve been fortunate. We are not electronically savvy, Michele and I, yet the young people have blogged about us, and Yelped, and that has spread the word about us around the country. I’m real proud of the fact that we have an antique shop that young people like to come into, because most young people will just run screaming from an antique mall most of the time.”
What would attract these people to What’s on 2nd? Gilmer believes the diversity of the items draw even the most unlikely customers. “We carry merchandise that young people can identify with, too, which is why they like the place, I think,” Gilmer said. “People tend to buy what they remember so we started dealing in things that young people who grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s would remember.”
Wilson agreed. “That’s why we have fairly contemporary toys,” she said. “We look for items that bring back people’s memory.”
What’s on 2nd? was not always so popular. Five years ago, when the store opened, 2nd Avenue North was not what it is today. As one of the first businesses to repurpose old space on Second Avenue, What’s on 2nd? faced the lack of traffic and vacancies in neighboring storefronts.
“This street was so derelict when we moved in that I would park out front every day to give the illusion of life on 2nd Avenue,” Gilmer recalled. But What’s on 2nd? did not have to wait long for more business to appear; Urban Standard began construction just a few months later.
“When they started working on Urban Standard, a coffee shop on 2nd Avenue, between us, we were two reasons to come down to 2nd Avenue: good coffee, sandwiches, and baked goods, and something entertaining to do if you have a few minutes to kill on your lunch hour,” Gilmer said. With the opening of ArtWalk in September of 2007, 2nd Avenue and the Loft District began to fully come alive.
They have seen their store transition from an obscure little shop in Birmingham to a popular cultural site that is increasingly the focus of articles and discussion. “It’s gratifying,” Wilson said.
Now, What’s on 2nd? has international and national acclaim, and, importantly, customers. “When people are coming through Birmingham, they will look for us now,” Gilmer said. “It would be a rare week that we don’t have at least one international customer. This week we had a couple of young people who were in Birmingham passing through from Australia. We get them from everywhere.”
After watching Second Avenue North return to an integral part of Birmingham city life,Wilson and Gilmer are optimistic that Birmingham will continue to grow as a city with even more business and events. “We try to be cheerleaders for downtown. It is fun being downtown; downtown is kind of an ongoing party,” Gilmer said. “There are businesses that come and go, but I think as time goes on we’re going to see more retail in Birmingham. It’s inevitable.”