Johnnie’s Antiques Has Held Treasures for More Than 50 Years, But Its Fate Is Uncertain
Dorothy Singleton McPhaul collects “only the rarest antiques” for her East Austin shop that’s surrounded by development
The building on the corner of East 6th and San Marcos streets has always been a bit of a mystery. Now tucked in the shadows of two new developments, the wooden structure looks like something out of an old Western with its front-facing façade. In a city where such buildings are increasingly torn down, Johnnie’s Antiques seems almost forgotten by time.
Around 9 a.m. on a Sunday in November, however, the building became the epicenter of a chaotic scene. City trucks, yellow tape, sand and sediment filled the street. The fender of an electric-blue Mustang lay mangled on the curb. A collapsed sidewalk, split down the middle, sank deep into the earth. Hours earlier, two vehicles had collided, catapulting into an old fire hydrant. Instead of creating a skyward geyser, the hydrant exploded sideways, shooting into the foundation of the shop, bursting underground pipes and cutting off water for the rest of the neighborhood.
City employees taped a “DANGER: DO NOT ENTER” sign across the building while trying to reach its owner, Dorothy Singleton McPhaul. Her phone was off—after all, it was Sunday, and she was at church. When she arrived at the scene, she was as cool as a cucumber, assessing the damage and discussing repairs with the city. She wore a coral red tunic paired with snakeskin pants and mesh Adidas racers. Silver bangles and diamond rings adorned her wrists and delicate hands, while large gold hoops and cat-eye reading glasses framed her face. Her hair perfectly curled and mask on, she stood with a Misty Blue cigarette pressed between her cherry-polished nails—smiling, friendly as could be.
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A 5-foot-3 force of nature and sharp as a tack, McPhaul, a fourth-generation collector, is known as the Queen of Antiques. Born in the old Brackenridge Hospital in 1933, she attended the original L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin, where she was a member of the Capezio Dance Club and led the Yellow Jackets Drill Team for four years. She went on to earn her degree in education from the historically Black university Prairie View A&M before teaching for almost 40 years. In 1994, she retired to care for her mother and run the family business, an antiques store started by her grandfather Simon Sidle.
A professional horse trader, Sidle traveled frequently to people’s properties. He loved antiques and often traded on his travels. In 1918, he opened his first store, on the corner of 12th and Red River, in what is now known as the Red River Cultural District. Sidle’s daughter, Theresa Mays—McPhaul’s Auntie Theresa—opened her own shop on Red River in 1924. Known as the Queen of the Red River Shops, Mays appeared in Robyn Turner’s book “Austin Originals,” where she attributes her success to her father’s passion for entrepreneurship.
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“He knew what his clients loved,” says McPhaul. “Simon was a negotiator. He always got what he wanted. Everybody loved him and his merchandise. He was a trailblazer.”
Up until about 1970, Red River bustled with antiques shops before the city purchased properties to clear land as part of the Brackenridge Urban Renewal Project. A park is now located where his shop once stood. The precious collections were passed down through the generations, grandfather to Auntie and then to McPhaul’s mother, Ilesa Sidle Singleton.
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“Growing up, every little chance I got, I was dealing with antiques,” McPhaul recalls. “I was always with my grandfather, auntie or mother at the antique shows. I became an entrepreneur in antiques.”
Helping her mother search for a new shop location in 1969, McPhaul visited a tailor at the corner of East 6th and San Marcos. The owner, Mrs. Sanchez, was preparing to sell the building, and McPhaul asked for first dibs. Sanchez told her she could leave a down payment of $5,000, but McPhaul only had $2000. Thanks to an additional $3,000 from her brother, she bought the shop with her mother, naming it for her mother’s husband, Johnnie.
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When it comes to collecting, McPhaul is very selective. Her favorite city for treasure hunting is Philadelphia, but she also targets premier estate sales and dealer-to-dealer trades. She collects Flow Blue, rare china, coins, cranberry glass, military memorabilia, metal toy soldiers, cast-iron mechanical banks, superbly cut transferware glass, old vinyl records, Native American tapestries and newspapers dating to the 1800s.
“I only collect the rarest antiques,” she says, “the hardest to find, the most sought-after. I love beauty and rarity. I love the appreciation of the customers when they are buying, discussing the history.”
Over the years, the shop has served many notable people. Lady Bird Johnson bought metal thimbles; Nancy Reagan collected porcelain. On one occasion, a man came in looking to buy antique fountain pens. She didn’t recognize him, so when he made a lowball offer, McPhaul wouldn’t sell. When his picture appeared in the newspaper the next day, she showed her sister, who replied: “Girl! That is Russell Crowe!”
This ability to treat everyone as an equal is one of the keys to her success, according to McPhaul: “My willingness to talk and be frank with people, to be openhearted. I treat everybody the same. I have homeless people on the street by my shop. I sit down and talk to them. They enjoy spending time with me. I love all people, everyone.”
These days, Johnnie’s Antiques is rarely open. Walking inside is like entering an Egyptian tomb: Covered in a light film of dust, everything is left untouched—frozen in time since McPhaul last locked the doors. Besides damage from the fire hydrant explosion, McPhaul blames the latest construction on nearby developments for the closure.
“They dug so far down, it caused the foundation to shift and damaged the interior of the building,” she says. “It created danger for customers.”
A building next door once offered to lease her property, with the contract stipulation that she could never sell. She swiftly declined. In addition, multiple parties have issued code violations against her, which became the root of her ongoing financial problems. And while the recent flood further exacerbated those problems, McPhaul makes it clear that the fate of Johnnie’s Antiques lies in her hands. Though her kids appreciate the family business, their love for antiques doesn’t rival hers. Eventually, she will sell the building just as she bought it: on her own terms.
“We used to have superb business,” says McPhaul. “We are working on the building now. When we finish making repairs, people can schedule an appointment. I am too old to be sitting down there every day.”
McPhaul plans to keep the shop closed until she can fully afford repairs. In the meantime, her greatest regret about remaining shuttered is missing opportunities to encourage younger collectors. She believes that preserving historic objects is crucial to our education and future: Antiques are part of history and shouldn’t be erased or forgotten. At 87 years old, McPhaul, just like her little shop, has stood the test of time. Through construction, city development and flood repairs, she and her family’s legacy still stand strong.
Reflecting on her own definition of success, she is most proud of her heritage. “My ability to survive and contain. I’m able to enjoy what I’m doing. I’m able to look towards a future.”