James Xavier Slade is dressed for the weather on this hot afternoon, wearing a Hilo Hattie Hawaiian top set off with white shorts. The shirt flutters slightly in the fan-driven air as he shows off some of the pieces in his store: a Detroit Public Schools light fixture from the turn of the last century, a Richard Schultz rosewood desk, a piece of furniture designed by Donald Deskey, a Gilbert Rohde 1930s hat rack, a set of Rohde chairs, a Johnny Friedlaender drawing from the 1950s, a Whistler sketch that's dated 1879, a playful and modern bit of silver jewelry by Georg Jensen, whom Slade calls "the best jewelry designer that ever lived."
"People love to just gasp when I show them the prices," Slade says.
How did a kid who grew up across from Elmwood Cemetery in the 1950s become one of Detroit's premier antique dealers? Only in the most roundabout way, he says. After high school, he joined the Navy and was discharged out West. He had his sights on California or Colorado, but his family drew him back to town. He went to Wayne State and majored in art education. A few years later, he met his better half. This year marks their 33rd anniversary.
"I'm going to be 65 and he's 70," Slade says. "We got together when we were a little younger. There's no time to be catchin' nobody. You just have to find somebody you can be comfortable with and just live your life."
"I dragged my husband from the suburbs," he adds with a laugh. "He was all the way out there."
After they got together, Slade says, "it was decided that someone needed to get a job." Slade, who'd been selling antiques from a house he owned on Gibson Street, moved to the Michigan Avenue spot 28 years ago, taking over what had been the studio space of James Crawford, whom Slade calls "a crazy Detroit artist."
"Oh, yeah," Slade says, "when I bought it from him it was dicey. Real dicey. But Jim had scared himself. I came down here with a completely different attitude than Jim. I could understand what it could be like to be a little black thug from Detroit like me and being an old conservative art historian like Jim. A Caucasian. I could see how it could present itself differently to us. You sitting on the ledge, and I'd tell you to get off my land. Jim would see that and run into the back into the studio."
Things have come full-circle for Slade. Now he has to worry about being pestered by speculators trying to lowball him on the building or the nearby parking lot he owns. "I am going to dodge the real estate agents," he says with a chuckle. "It's too early, baby."
Clearly, Slade has many more productive years of identifying valuable work at estate sales and offering it to those who come into his store. "There's so much fabulous stuff that goes unnoticed," he says. "Ten years ago I walked into a store and I saw this giant pile of furniture, and there was a chair back there made by Frank Lloyd Wright. All this hideousness in this store was priced at $250, $700. I asked how much for the chair and he said $15." A collector later paid Slade thousands of dollars for it.
"Most of my friends still don't understand what I do," he says. "When I first started my collection, my friends were asking, 'Why do you have this barbershop furniture?' Because it's hard for them to imagine a little 1950s vase is worth $20,000. And you will see four of them sitting on a mantle in someone's home they bought in Birmingham in the '70s. They'll be sitting there thinking, 'Oh, it's just a little ceramic thing.' but I'm thinking, 'Oh!'"
"I think of myself as a facilitator," he says. "I'm a purveryor of modern, and I'm after those things because there's a specific group of people who want modern. That's why I'm in here, so I can get my pieces to you."
One thing Slade doesn't do is call collectors to arrange sales. He likes to give people who walk into his shop, now open just a couple days a week, a shot at buying his inventory. That way, it's more likely to remain in the area.
"If I start to call people," he says, "then nobody gets to see a thing. ... Everything I sell does not have to leave the state. I like to have my stuff stay here. That's how I'm helping my local people. You're going to need some more of this," he says, pointing to a rosewood credenza by Saginaw native and interior designer Florence Knoll. "That credenza I can sell in a day."
But if something simply will not sell, he'll reluctantly take it to a show in Chicago, or, finally, to a Chicago auction house. He likes to keep the action in his roost on Michigan Avenue, where he loves impressing people with his stock.
Or, as he says to a customer departing after a brief browse, "Please come back in again. I'm going to have something more fabulous you'll want. I swear."
From our 2018 People Issue.
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