WALKING INTO Morris Antiques in early February felt like reading the last page of a novel several hundred pages long and knowing nothing else of what came before it. Here you found the end. Here there were the last moments in the lives of long-lived characters, and here was the tail end of a longstanding falling action culminating and resolving before the book was closed: Spread on the glass-topped countertop was a broadsheet spread from a trade publication with tiny photos of hundreds of items: After 50 years, it read, Morris Antiques in Keo was closing. An auction would be held on March 3 and 4.
Even at the front, standing just inside the door, you could find clues as to what had come before. In the glass case nearest the door, small wooden gnomes carved from furniture legs peered out at people’s shoes. An obituary for the shop’s owner, who’d died in December 2016, just a month shy of the 50th anniversary, had been printed off and framed behind the counter. Little red tags that read “Ponder’s Auction Co.” with the lot number marked below—from 1 to 1,400ish—had been stuck on dancing porcelain ladies waltzing across the glass counters, hundreds of pieces of elaborately painted glassware, a silver cash register, beautifully carved pieces of furniture dating back to the early 19th century.
If you were to make your way farther still into the store, you’d find that it was, in fact, a sprawling complex of pole barns with high ceilings and tin roofs, opening one onto the next. Deeper still, you’d find curiosities like an upright skeleton wearing a black dress, standing near another skeleton whose bones were heaped on the floor of a large glass display case, just a few yards from a very motley parade of sorts: an Amish buggy, a white horse-drawn hearse, a red tractor and a green mail buggy. None of this, however, was near the most curious thing. That distinction belonged to the emptiness—the sense that something was missing. It was particularly strong in some of the more sparsely populated rooms, where white striations in the purple Berber carpet showed something very heavy had once been dragged across it, or in the empty places along the walls.
Even knowing nothing of the story but the end, it was interesting to stand in the space, to take in the scene as it was. But to understand why things were as they were—why a woman wearing a purple coat roamed the space with tears welling her eyes as each item was cataloged and stuck with a little red auction tag—for that, you would need to go back to the beginning.
IN 1967, Dean Morris, a farmer from Keo, some 20 miles southeast of Little Rock, had just finished building a new house. When it came time to decorate the patio, he started asking his neighbors whether they had any primitive farm implements—wooden iceboxes, oil lamps, an old plow taking up space in the yard—they wanted to unload. After some relatives from St. Louis informed him that people might be interested in purchasing these things that he’d gotten for practically nothing, he started placing ads in the Sunday editions of the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat, and receiving dealers at the house on Sunday afternoons. It was a hobby, something that he did to pass the time on rainy days and during the winter months when the 1,100 acres on which he grew cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat lay bare. Farming was his livelihood.
Within five months, though, that hobby had grown to the point that it would no longer fit in the garage—much less the house, where glassware and parlor sets now filled the living room and dining room. To accommodate the flow of antiques, he raised a pole barn on some of his pastureland, just three blocks off U.S. Highway 165. Once that one had been filled, he built another, then another, sketching the plans on napkins, installing the high-ceilinged, bare-bones buildings that, from above, bore some resemblance to an in-progress game of Tetris. When he finally stopped building in 2001, facing a downturn in business, he’d erected a complex of nine buildings covering 60,000 feet.
“We built all the time,” his daughter, Terrie Collins, told me on a tour of the space in mid-February. She was a small affable woman with dark hair and dark glasses. Her voice was somewhat raspy. She wore a poofy purple jacket. Crossing the threshold into the room that housed the Amish buggy and the hearse, she gestured to the divide between one room and the next. “We would cut a hole in a building, build a hallway, and we’d build another building … I’d be like, We need to be finishing furniture, what are we doing building a building?!”
That’s the way her father was, though: When he saw a problem, a lack, a void, he’d teach himself whatever he needed to know and then take care of it himself. When he realized he could buy used items, fix them up and sell them again, he taught himself how to refinish furniture and then opened a shop, where he eventually employed between 15 and 18 people. When he noticed some pieces were lacking trim, he taught himself how to carve, the evidence of which can be found in those faces looking out of the glass case in the front of the store.
A major shift occurred when Dean realized he could get antiques from Europe cheaper than he could get them stateside, prompting him to start making twice-annual trips abroad—to France, England and Amsterdam—and to open a warehouse in Chester, England, which, at its peak, was shipping back two 40-foot containers of antiques a month.
“These are probably our premier items,” Terrie said, making her way across the room. In a corner, just a few inches over nine feet tall, there were two sideboards covered with elaborate solid-walnut carvings of hunting imagery—the likes of which you might expect to find in a royal estate. Or very nearly royal: They’d once belonged to the Earl Manvers.
“They were sold in 1989 at Sotheby’s auction,” she said. “They came out of Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire, England, and they were built in 1870. And I have the gentleman’s name—R. Tudsbury and Son. … And these are some of the more elaborate and fine details. Just these birds. If you had even one of these carved out of solid walnut, it would be thousands of dollars, just that. They’re just stunning pieces.” (In a slightly more conspiratorial tone, she then confided they’d actually bought them twice—the second time being after the first buyers had gotten a divorce.)
“We’ve been here so long,” Terrie said, walking past a line of dressers, “we’ve actually bought back things that we’ve sold, whether parents have passed away or divorce, or they’ve downsized and this won’t fit in my new house. Or through other states and sales and auctions, and you’re going, Huh, that looks familiar.”
In the ’90s, she said, they’d started numbering the items that they’d refinished to keep track of how much they’d paid and how much they’d sold it for. She pulled open the drawer of a cabinet. In it, there was a number written in black Sharpie: 19,457. All told, they refinished something in the neighborhood of 60,000 items—since they started keeping track.
“But it took years before we got to that system,” she said, opening another drawer. In this one, there was a small gold plaque with their website, founding date and “Keo, AR 72083.” Terrie’s words started to come in fragments as she pointed to it. “Just before Dad died, [my brother] Lewis got … He’d wanted to do this for years … But again, I’ll start crying … But he started putting those labels in. But we didn’t get many things with those. …”
By the time Dean died on Dec. 19, 2016, business had already slowed considerably over the years. The reason for this could be traced back to any number of sources: the changing tastes of buyers and their shopping habits; the saturation of the market with imitations and cheaply made furniture; the high supply and low demand; the fact so many online listings show Morris Antiques as being located in neighboring England, Arkansas. In all likelihood, it was probably some combination of those things.
Just the same, it was jarring to hear Terrie say the place had been “packed, packed, packed!” just a few months before. In July 2017, they had a going-out-of-business sale. Those items that still remained would be auctioned off. Just inside the door, a now-empty space of purple carpet would be filled with folding chairs and people who had made their way here from all over the country—from Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Florida and ever farther-flung locales—would bid on the items that still remained, to pay their respects, in a sense, to a small-town business that had become something so much more. It was about this point that it became clear the sense of absence, the sense of something missing, wasn’t limited to the space on the floor or the relative lack of items.
AS SHE WALKED past some display cabinets and a shoe-shine stand that were once housed in Little Rock’s Albert Pike Hotel, Terrie told stories that gave some insight into what the business had looked like before. As is her habit, she spoke with flourishes—her hands rose, her eyes welled. Asked what it was like growing up in the antique business, she remembered being 12 years old and taking care of a sale when her dad was away (she had to convince the buyer that, as a 12-year-old, she knew full well what the sales tax was). Or how, when she was younger, she’d come home from school one afternoon to find that her bed—a beautiful brass bed with baskets of brass fruit draped over the footboard—was no longer in her room. “I’ll get you something else, it’ll be fine,” her dad had said.
“We got to see the world,” she said, her voice beginning to break. “I got to work with dad and my brother … And you can tell … it’s just very emotional for me. I’m having a hard time saying bye. Because it’s been my life. Things revolved around—here. We all would talk, whether it was a holiday or whatever you do, we’d talk business and, bless our family’s hearts, they had to listen to it.”
From way off across the room—nearly the distance of a city block—she called to her brother, Lewis, saying, “You gotta come talk because I’m getting … wound up.”
As he made his way over, Terrie went on to say, “There is a relationship, there is a relationship, and our customers will tell you that. And I’ll tell you we heard that time, after time, after time, after time that it was not just a place to come shop and buy a piece of furniture. …”
When Lewis finally arrived, she said to him, motioning in my direction, “He said, What’s it like growing up in this business? What do you think it was like?”
Her brother thought for a moment. “Looking back at it now …” he said, before trailing off. “’Course, you never thought it would end.”
ODDLY ENOUGH, or maybe appropriately enough, the items that hadn’t yet been sold seem to be those that best sum up Dean Morris. In a tucked-away space at the very back of one building, there’s a space called “The Museum.” Here, there are what might be best described as “attractions,” items Dean hoped people would see, talk about and then tell their friends about.
Among these: a large-format camera the size of a Cadillac, with negatives the size of movie posters. A Hazmat suit from before there was such a thing. A mounted buffalo head and a stuffed boa constrictor, both of which sure as heck look real. A refrigerator that could open from either the left or the right side. A Vibratone, which readers might know as one of those vibrating midcentury weight-loss bands. An old parking meter. A player piano. And hanging on a nail high above the floor, a pair of overalls probably 15 feet long. A small piece of paper pinned just below the bib read: “These are not for sale. They belong to George. He’s not here today. He’s out collecting bad checks.”
“That was him,” Terrie said with a sigh. “That was him.”
As she made her way back to the front of the store, Terrie took a different way than she’d come. Along the way, she pointed out a matching pair of display cabinets from the Marlsgate Plantation, along with a novelty-sized dining room chair that would be a fine fit for someone of “George’s” stature. The most remarkable part of that room wasn’t the furniture, though.
In the short hallway connecting Building 5 with the main building, where they’re still working through the hundreds of lots that need tagging, there were several large posters, each of which had been covered, edge to edge, with photos, their headings written in printed-out red type. These were from the 50th-year celebration, seven months after Dean passed away.
One read “You are NOT just employees. YOU are family,” and shows more than 65 employees who came that day (over a hundred have worked there over the years).
Another said: “Furry Family Members,” and shows the various animals, many of which Dean was shown holding up—including, notably, a mini horse (one of six they owned over the years) that he’d purchased in the hopes of getting children to visit with their parents—that had called the place home.
Still another with the header “Do you remember?” shows some of the most remarkable pieces to come through their doors.
In several of those photos, you saw a man, sometimes older, sometimes younger. That was him. That was the man who’d built this place from pastureland, a man who was always asking friends, new and old, what they’d gotten ahold of recently, a man who stashed a baby monitor in a coffin and waited until unsuspecting patrons came close enough to hear it, a man who ordered the meatloaf special from nearby Charlotte’s Eats & Sweets every Wednesday during the winter (she always saved him the ends). Most important, he was a man who did everything he could to share the place he’d built. On this wall, in the photos, in the faces of everyone who knew this place and its story, here was where you saw him most.
All of this? This was him.
Jordan P. Hickey is Arkansas Life’s senior editor. Come March 3 and 4, he’ll be making his way back to Keo for the auction (also, a slice of coconut cream pie at Charlotte’s Eats & Sweets). For more information about the auction, visit morrisantiques.com.