LAKELAND, Fla. — More than six years ago, Manny Pesco had just $4,000 left from his failed auction company driven out of business by the 2008 Great Recession.

“I had to decide whether to live off Social Security or do something else,” said Pesco, who was 77 at the time.

Pesco decided not to go gentle into the good night and parlayed the four grand into the first Wildwood Antique Mall at I-75 and the Florida Turnpike, which opened in February 2011. The name comes from the town at that intersection.

In July, Wildwood opened its fourth mall at 3530 U.S. 98 N. in the old Sports Authority space on an outparcel of Lakeland Square Mall.

The four locations rang up more than $4 million combined in gross sales last year, Pesco said, and he expects to do $4.5 million in sales this year. He is scouting new locations around Vero Beach and Fort Myers.

“The American dream is alive and well,” he said.

Wildwood works on a consignment business model, renting out spaces to individuals with antiques, collectibles and other used items to sell, said Johnny Zamudio, the operations manager for all four outlets who works from the Lakeland store. Rent ranges from $2.35 per square foot — about $201 per month for the basic 8-by-10-foot area — to $2.55 ($218 a month) for areas against the wall with electric service.

In return for building maintenance, cashiers and other overhead, Wildwood gets a 10 percent share of all sales, said Joey Ouellette, 74, the customer-services manager in Lakeland who also rents several spaces.

Ouellette, a former grocery wholesale buyer, has dabbled in selling collectibles for 22 years, he said, and was one of the first vendors at the opening of the Lakeland Wildwood.

He has no problem refreshing his varied product lines, which include vintage furniture, jewelry, vinyl records and china, Ouellette said. He visits estate sales, yard sales, auctions and other venues within a roughly 100-mile radius about three times each week.

“There’s so much out there, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “The supply in Florida is unlimited.”

At 44,000 square feet, the Lakeland location is the largest in the chain, Zamudio said. It has more than 300 rental areas available with more than 280 places currently occupied.

Vendors sign a monthly contract, he added, and turnover at the end of the month is about 10 percent. There are few restrictions on what vendors can sell.

“We try to keep it about 80 percent antiques and collectibles and 20 percent other items,” he said.

Antiques are items at least 100 years old, such as furniture, jewelry and clothing, Zamudio and Ouellette said. Collectibles run the gamut from movie and television memorabilia, antique reproductions and comic books.

Flashback: The hottest sellers these days are 33-1/3 vinyl records, they said, and it’s millennials and other younger customers who are snatching them up, they said.

“It’s amazing what people my age are buying,” said Zamudio, 25. “It (the vinyl record) is becoming super popular again.”

One Lakeland vendor who deals mostly in vinyl records takes home more than $3,000 a month after rent and commissions, Pesco said.

Before you go cleaning out your closets and attic, however, Ouelette and Diane Foucher, 69, also one of the first Lakeland Wildwood vendors, cautioned the business is not for the inexperienced.

“Everybody thinks ‘Oh! I could do that.’ You have to have knowledge of antiques and collectibles,” said Foucher, who said she has a “huge reference library.”

Foucher has been collecting and selling “country primitive” – bare-wood furniture, fixtures and hand-crafted items – for more than 35 years, she said. It helps to limit your product lines so you can keep up with the latest trends.

“I don’t buy things I wouldn’t take home,” Foucher said. “I don’t know about glassware, and I wouldn’t buy it or sell it.”

To run a successful business, Ouellette said, a vendor has to sell merchandise for at least twice the purchasing price.

“You have to know your inventory and what you’ve got in it because it’s real easy to give away your money,” he said.

Foucher agreed.

“You have to be able to know what you’re buying to double your money,” she said. “If they (vendors) don’t have a clue, they will lose money.”

Most Wildwood shoppers come from the 50-year-old-plus generations, Pesco and the vendors agreed, but millennials make up a growing share of the market, and not just for vinyl records.

Layla Gutierez, 26, of Brandon, was shopping for furniture, she said.

Her mother and grandmother have collected antiques for most of their lives, she added, and Gutierez is just beginning to follow in their footsteps.

“Every 20 years cycles change, so now the younger generation is buying,” Foucher said. “A lot of customers will pick up something and say, ‘Oh, I remember that. My grandmother had it.'”

Julissa Resto, 27, was shopping with her mother, Adelina Santiago, 47, both of Lakeland.

“I’m very interested in antiques,” said Resto, shopping for her third time at Wildwood within the past couple months. “I saw it (the mall), and I had to check it out. It’s cool.”

Suzanne Husband, 68, of Lakeland, was also shopping Wildwood on Thursday for “Depression glass,” American glassware made during the 1930s, to add to her growing collection, she said. It was her second time at the mall.

“I like it because it’s so big and it’s really got so much to look at,” said Husband, who also collects antique furniture. “I love to antique.”


Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com