All fired up

Of all the people to find behind the counter at an antique store, most people wouldn't expect to see two gruff, retired Detroit firefighters.Norm Smith, 65, and Joe Bozich, 69, owners of Junque Shop Antiques on Michigan Avenue near Central, are well aware of the prevailing stereotypes.

"Usually, they think if two old guys own an antique store, they're gay," says Bozich, who's burly with a thick moustache and a deep, booming voice. He's clearly unconcerned about what others might think. "Well, I've got a cat too," he says wryly. "And I like show tunes, how's that? Judy Garland singing 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' is one of my all-time favorites. But I was surprised — there's a number of firemen and policemen that get into antiques. I don't know why. They just gravitate that way."

The grizzled pair met years ago, though they worked at different firehouses. "I loved fighting fires in the city of Detroit, so did Norm," Bozich says. "It doesn't pay very much, but it's a job you fall in love with."

After retiring nearly a decade ago — Bozich after 37 years, Smith after 35 — the two friends, who share an interest in antiques, military collectibles and frequent swearing, opened their own antique shop. "We both used to collect shit," Smith says, "and then when we got close to retirement he said, 'Let's get a store.' I figured, what the hell, better than sitting home with your wife."

Bozich agrees. "Once you retire, if you're home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, your wife's gonna kill you. So this is a good hideout."

When they purchased the old building in 1998, the interior had been unchanged since the 1940s. They replaced the electrical, plumbing, furnace, floors and roof, paid off the back taxes, rebuilt the back staircase and converted the upstairs apartment into storage space.

It was strictly a labor of love, a home away from home where they could pursue their hobby. "We've lost money every year, but we don't care," Smith says.

"Well, you try and build up a business, it takes a while," Bozich says. "It's tough anyway now that the economy's in the sewer."

The small store, with narrow aisles and cramped shelves, has a quirky selection of clocks, radios, dolls, toy trains, lamps, teacups and military items, such as swords, knives and old guns, their personal favorites. Standouts in stock recently include a large butterfly collection with carefully arranged specimens in a wood-and-glass box, a 16th century oil painting and an 1866 steel engraving of Abraham Lincoln in its original frame. But most items aren't flashy or high-priced. "We're not pretentious," Bozich says. "We called it 'Junque Shop' for a reason."

The majority of their customers are local residents, antique dealers or crackheads selling random things. "The average person from Royal Oak or Grosse Pointe, they're not going to come down to Detroit, to be honest," Bozich says. "The theory is they're going to get raped or murdered, or some fuckin' thing, you know. Dealers are different; we can't keep dealers away."

The drug addicts and scrappers who methodically dismantle parts of the city shuffle through the door daily, bringing historical treasures most likely pilfered from abandoned buildings. The owners eye them warily. "Detroit is a good place to buy stuff, but you have to be careful," Bozich says. "They're still tearing Detroit down. They're talking about rebuilding it. It's all bullshit. They're still tearing Detroit down. It's unfortunate. I like history. But people are still abandoning Detroit."

Bozich and Smith are by-the-book types who keep meticulous track of everything that comes through their store, which is equipped with an alarm and video surveillance — as well as the guns they're armed with. "You have to keep records in Detroit because there's so much thieving going on," Bozich says. "When you buy things, you have to put them in your book, where you bought them, who you bought them from and what you paid. We've had two people put in jail so far. I tell these people when they bring shit in here, 'You're going in the book. If this stuff is stolen they're gonna arrest your ass.'"

Despite the pair's outwardly ornery demeanor and the blizzard of swear words, the atmosphere at the shop is friendly, the day's pace is unhurried as befits a hangout. They offer free coffee and donuts in the morning, and customers often linger to sip and talk. If prodded, the two retirees will share stories of their firefighting days in the city.

"It's a fun thing to do. It's a treasure hunt every day, and it's mostly disappointing," Bozich says, laughing. "We're not trying to make a living here, believe me."

Junque Shop Antiques is located at 7807 Michigan Ave., Detroit. For more information, call 313-945-1870.

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]
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