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Discover Mid-America — February 2007

Desire to succeed Bernice’s key to longevity

by Terri Baumgardner
Photos by Bruce Rodgers

Perched above the Missouri River, Atchison is a Kansas town steeped in the history of independent women.

The most legendary of which is Amelia Earhart, who received a medal from President Herbert Hoover and international acclaim after her solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932.

And then there is Bernice Holmes, a 93-year-old woman who owns and operates Holmes Antiques. Some folks believe she is Atchison's oldest entrepreneur.

Bernice Holmes, not one to sit still for long, continues to work as she is interviewed.

Holmes' antique shop is an eclectic collection of everything and anything.

In the area behind Holmes Antiques’ main shop is a warehouse of hubcaps, bed frames, lanterns, space heaters, farm equipment, Kodak slide projectors, milk cans, gas cans, tractor seats and a giant roll-top desk.

The first floor of her main shop is highlighted by a collection of old record players.

"Wind-up record players," Holmes said. "Oh sure, this one is a 1940 model. It's the latest date one I have, and it has a big cabinet."

Walking over to another table, Holmes's eyes sparkle as she relates the history of phonographs with a portable Victrola.

"But, now, this is a portable, a wind-up portable," Holmes said. "Young people would call these turntables but you had to plug them in. But this is a wind-up, so you could take it on picnics.

“Now, this one is an 1800s model, it's an Edison. Mr. (Thomas) Edison made the finest Victrolas, and I went to Florida, went all through his laboratory. That's the records, the cylinder records. They went out of style, oh, flat records came in about 1910."

Venturing down the stairway to the basement floor of Holmes Antiques, visitors discover a stack of newspapers topped with a July 26, 1969 edition of The Kansas City Star announcing the first NASA landing on the moon. The lime-green basement walls are lined with shelves spilling over with an eclectic mix of items, including mason jars, old kitchen knives, coke bottles, cameras, glass globe ceiling fixtures, dishes, toilet lids and empty beer cans.

Midst it all long branches of cane hanging up the stairway wall. Holmes uses the strands to hand weave chairs.

"It's just a twist of the wrist," Holmes said. "I got interested in walnut parlor chairs, and that created caning. I bought a book and taught myself. I have 16 precious solid walnut cane bottom chairs — that takes care of four tables of card players. I have card games at home, some tables are Bridge."

She also taught herself to knit, tat and crochet. Her office chair is cushioned with a pillow crocheted in a pattern of orange, green and yellow.

Yellow is her favorite color, Holmes declares as she tugs on her sparkling gold turtleneck sweater. With lips and nails painted in a matching red violet, she points to her computer screensaver of yellow tulips. She taught herself how to use a computer at the age of 90.

"This has been my hardest project," Holmes said. "I'm on to it now. See, I wasn't born and raised in the electronics age. I'm pretty good for what I want to do, I do a lot of research. I don't buy or sell on it because I want to see what I buy. eBay, oh, I check in there, I'm hooked up to it."

An Edison Victrola from the 1800s at Holmes antiques in Atchison.

Well, Holmes does use her computer and Internet access for more than just researching antiques — as the solitaire game icon gives her away.

"I play all kinds of games," Holmes confesses. "And, then I correspond, this is so wonderful for my nieces and great-nieces that live in California. We know what one another's doing all the time because we email. And I like that."

But not everything at Holmes' Antiques is high tech. The business owner keeps a calculator on her desk to add up customers' bills. Holmes does not accept charge cards; customers can only pay with cash or check.

"It's cash and carry," Holmes said. "I take a lot of checks, I take checks from any state. Never had no bad luck."

While Holmes' customers may come from across the region, her shop is mostly stocked with local antiques.

"This town is full of antiques," Holmes said. "When I started 20 plus years ago, I didn't know that. So I traveled to Boston, Key West, California to buy antiques and they was right here at home."

Still, she does travel across the river through Missouri to St. Joseph and Kansas City regularly to shop.

"Well, I come to Kansas City all the time and pick up my supplies," Holmes said. "I get my cane down there. I can get any kind of fabric. I order fabric for people, and I go get it."

And once in a while, she drives across the Missouri River, north through Maryville to visit her old college campus, now Northwest Missouri State University.

Her life

In 1930, just two years before Earhart embarked on her solo flight across the Atlantic, Holmes graduated from the Maryville college with her teaching certificate.

"I don't even know the campus when I drive through now," Holmes said. "But I studied to be a teacher, and got a certificate to teach in a country school. I got that in May, but before school started, I got married. And the (school) board happened to find it out, and I couldn't teach. At that time, you was taking a job away from men. I don't know why my parents didn't know that, but they wouldn't let women teach if you got married, you depended on your husband. Oh, honey, there's been lots of changes since back in them days."

Holmes was raised in Union Hill, about 25 miles north of St. Joseph. She moved to Atchison in 1930, where her groom, John, lived.

"I had the shop 20 plus years, but I have been in business on the highway since 1948," Holmes said. "Up and down the highway, we developed everything. My husband was a contractor; he was an investor. He invested in land then he'd develop it. And he developed everything from 9th to 14th streets. We put this building up as a filling station."

Holmes had a son, who came to be a father of three sons, all of whom live in Olathe, Kansas. Their photographs and newspaper articles of their basketball games line the wall by her desk.

"See, that's one of my grandsons, The Kansas City Star interviewed him, he got on the sports page," Holmes said. "This is his twin brother, it says, ‘Double Trouble.’ Their dad, he was a professional basketball player. See, it kind of runs in the family. The kids are juniors in Yale now, they got full scholarships.

Downstairs at Holmes Antiques in Atchison.

“I played four years in high school, never got out of the county, never got to play out of the county. These kids have played in Florida, we all went to California to see them play Pepperdine."

Nearby the collage of family photos and articles hangs a photograph of former President Gerald Ford.

"You know, President Ford just passed away," Holmes said. "And that picture I got framed, Ford made the Kansas City front page."

While Ford eventually came to rank as Holmes' favorite President, that wasn't the case during the 1976 National Republican Convention in Kansas City.

"I was at his convention when he defeated Reagan," Holmes said, a Republican delegate at the time. "And the Fords had two boys, they were sitting about two seats down from where I was…ornery. They were just teenagers, they knew a section that was for Reagan, so they was throwing confetti, and candy. I did vote for Reagan, yes, but my candidate didn't win. But, it was okay, and (Ford) was a wonderful president; he won later. Honey, I've lived so long I could write a book..."

Holmes celebrated her 93rd birthday on Dec. 28. A fading bouquet of pink roses still sits atop her desk.

"Oh, I had four or five arrangements on this birthday thing, that's the only one left," she said. "

Marveling at how anyone knew it was her birthday, she just giggled and smiled at the thought of the birthday bouquets.

"Nobody hardly knew I was even beginning to be that old," Holmes said.

Her antique shop

Her husband died in August of 1981, and it was thereabout, Holmes Antiques opened for business.

"I had just got interested in this because I knew I was getting up to being a senior citizen," Holmes said. "And he was going to retire, and I didn't want to. So I started this crazy business, but it's been so much fun."

According to the Atchison Chamber of Commerce, Holmes owns one of only a hand full of antique shops in the town.

"We have so few antique stores so when visitors want antiques, we send them there," said Stan Lawson, the Chamber's marketing director.

The antique business thrived in the 1980s and 1990s, Holmes said. But, in recent years, business as slowed down noticeably.

"Oh, I've got a list of 30 antique shops that opened and closed since I have," Holmes said. "A lot of them was older people, they died. And, other people were young, found out they couldn't live off of this. So, they just sold. The last couple of years we've lost five."

While Holmes is thought to be one of only a few antique shop owners in Atchison, she also sets another standard as one of - if not the oldest - business owner in the historic river town.

Holmes Antiques' storefront, built by Bernice's jusband John.

"I would imagine she would be one of the veteran businesses," Lawson said "There are some other business turning the reins over to the next generation, but I can't think of anyone who would compete with her, she must be one of the oldest business owners."

The Chamber's tourism coordinator, Sally Webb, says everyone in Atchison either knows Holmes or knows the name.

"Feisty, she is a very special lady to run her own business on a daily basis," Webb said. "She is still a business woman at that age, that is what is most remarkable about Bernice."

As most everyone in Atchison knows, Holmes is at her shop along U.S. 59 Highway from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week, and Holmes Antiques has a reputation as being a place to shop.

"It's the kind of place that if you can't find it anywhere else, you'll find it there," Webb said. "I was looking for knobs for a Victrola cabinet, and she said, 'Honey, there's some in some boxes here.' When I left, I had knobs. Another time I was looking for plates. Sure enough, there were First Christian Church plates under of pile of dishes."

While Holmes Antiques is not an official member of Atchison's Chamber of Commerce, she is one of the town's biggest promoters.

"She is one of our biggest supporters," Webb said. "And, she knows Atchison history."

Holmes distributes Chamber maps to customers, encouraging them visit other shops. And as she demonstrated one January day, she can whip out a map and write the address of a given business down on it — by memory. With her red pen, she then draws a direct route from her shop to the other location as a roadmap for visitors.

"To help others, help other businesses," Holmes said. "The Chamber sends people here, and I'm not even a member. And, most of these people I send people to are members of the Chamber. Yes, if I don't have what they ask for, I just pull out one of those maps and guide their way."

Holmes also is a big supporter of business owners in town, offering advice to other antique shop owners.

For instance, 70-year-old Diane Senecal who owns Beverly's Antiques said Holmes taught her the art of learning what antiques people want to buy.

"We've discussed Havilin china," Senecal said. "She is an expert, she's taken a course."

Like Beverly's Antiques, Holmes Antiques also serves as a meeting place where women gather to visit.

"She just is really a good, fun person," Webb said of Holmes. "Very interesting and up to date. Does she look 93? And, she has a raspberry patch in the back of the shop. Her husband has been gone a long time, she didn't just sit around and let the grass grow under foot, her shop helped her get through it."

Anita Young, who co-owns Lintiques with Linda Jeschke, met Holmes at an auction barn just west of Atchison. Young worked as a cashier at the auction house when Holmes would shop for antiques.

"Bernice Holmes has been a fixture in the community," said Young, 49. "She's synonymous with Atchison and antiques."

Young credits Holmes' success with her ability to be diverse in her business. Holmes' sells antiques, but she supplements her business by hand weaving cane chairs and appraising antiques for lawyers estimating estate sales.

"She's a go-getter, I mean I don't think there is anything she can't and wouldn't do," Young said. "I wish she could give us her secret on how she made it to 93, own your own business, keep going and doing, and how she has so much energy. I just think you could learn a lot from, and not just about antiques."

Indeed, soon after opening her antique shop, Holmes launched a sideline business of appraising heirlooms.

"I first got started for attorneys, for estates," Holmes said. "Oh, it's wonderful except I put a lot of time in it. It's like caning, I don't get paid for the hours I put in.

“For an appraisal, I have to go the home usually, and some people have you just appraise one thing. You have to make the trip, take the measurements, see that there are no blemishes, or what blemishes, there's a lot to it. Then, I come back to the office and type it up for them, give them some history on it. Then, I charge them, and you just can't charge people too much."

The Holmes' advice

Holmes points to several factors in her success as an entrepreneur.

Of course, location, location, location goes along way in a business' success.

"I have wonderful exposure here because there's three highways, there's 73, 59 and 7 that goes by here," Holmes said.

Of course, Holmes is a big believer in customer service.

"Sure, you have to keep giving them something new (to shop for)," Holmes said. "Then, you get repeat customers. And, the service you give them. The pricing, that's the main thing is pricing. You don't want to get rich off a good customer."

Perhaps the factor Holmes credits her success to is the hours her shop is open.

"One of the main things is to have your store open, like Mondays, that's true — some days I'm the only antique shop open," Holmes said of the fact many antique shops are closed on Mondays. "That's when I make sales."

But the biggest factor to a successful business, and life, is desire, Holmes said. So it is that Holmes believes aspiration to want to succeed is the key to longevity.

"One has to have the desire to continue a business," Holmes said. "I could have just quit when my husband died and sit in a rocking chair. You have to have desire. It's a challenge to keep a business or some kind of something going."

For more information on Holmes Antiques, call 913-367-4254. For more information on Atchison, KS, call the Chamber of Commerce at 913-367-2427 or go to

Terri Baumgardner is a Blue Springs, MO-based writer.

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