Busy doing nothing

Thomas Woodham-Smith adjusts to a gentler pace of conducting business

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

These days, having a shop is a bit like fishing: put the fly in the water and you might wait days before a fish comes past — and even then they rarely bite. There is just not enough to do: move the furniture around, dust it, Hoover and then do it all again. In the world of private dealing you need to develop other interests.

You cannot buy all day every day. The result would be penury and a mountain of stock. Many dealers restore their own things not simply as an economy but as an activity. But if you don’t possess the patience or the skill to restore, you need to find another route through the long days.

When my friend Tony Fell decided to leave Reindeer Antiques and set up on his own, his fellow Norfolk antique dealer Pearse Lukies advised him to acquire an interest in crosswords and a comfy chair. I know one picture dealer who is one of the world’s leading players of Candy Crush.

As with wine, it is not crucial that business be generated or even sealed during lunch

A lot of dealers choose lunch. It is perfect. You have a couple of hours to kill at the start of the day and a couple at the end — and you can always go home early. Then smack dab in the middle is this huge time-eater, lunch.

A master in the art of going out for lunch can easily expend a full hour planning where to go and another with arranging who to take — and that is before you get deeply into the food itself. The repast may sometimes be washed down with wine, but not necessarily. The key accompaniment is conversation. There is a profound need to connect.

As with wine, it is not crucial that business be generated or even sealed during lunch; that is a bonus. A protracted respite from staring at the stock or your all-too-familiar colleagues is the most important benefit of that marvellous ceremony.

In the old days, before the internet, I knew to expect telephone calls every week from dealers who were profoundly bored and had no real reason to ring. They wanted, nay needed, to get a line out of their cages and a few snippets of gossip to prove they were no longer Robinson Crusoes on a desert island but rather part of the ebb and flow of the Art World.

Nowadays we have social media which in a peculiar way both joins us up and cuts us off. I don’t need to speak to anyone because I already know everything they are doing, though you can still pour a day away browsing Instagram and Twitter. There is also which offers nearly all auction sales around the country and some abroad. has all the French ones. But it is a dangerous and expensive way to escape tedium.

The home worker faces a different set of challenges. From his shop, a dealer can feel safe from being co-opted into other tasks. You can return home for cocktails once the children are fed, bathed and tucked into bed. It is a very different story for those of us who toil at home. Beyond childcare and home-schooling, shelves have to be put up, food shopping and cooking done. With your partner also working from home, there is no opportunity for excuses about being busy. Waiting for a call, email or even a sale may be tense but it isn’t enough.

The processes stretch and productivity goes down because if I finish something there will be something else to do

I once employed a man as a van driver who had been a traveller for a while, having lost his wife and job. He told me he had, on occasion, managed to spin out buying a bottle of milk to last all day. Inspired by him, I have turned everyday tasks that I could have knocked off in minutes into multi-hour exercises.

There is an art to making the clearing-up of breakfast last from 9 until 11. Taking the children to school used to be a rush there and back in order to get on with the urgent matters of the day. Now it is a saunter, followed by an extra turn of the park with the dog. So it goes on: the processes stretch and productivity goes down because if I finish something there will be something else to do.

Oddly, business is not too bad. Inquiries and sales come in even though they don’t take up very much time. Many more people are killing time by browsing the internet, and even as everything gradually opens up again there is still a great deal of nervousness about being out in the world. Antique dealers will have to get ever more inventive about how to fill the day.

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