Donna and Tom Rago wanted to provide a space for members of the Lawrence community to explore history and culture through vintage and antique goods. So, in October, they opened Lawrenceville Vintage Treasures, a unique shop on Gordon Avenue that sells items ranging from the past few decades to over a century.
Donna and Tom, Lawrence Township residents for over 25 years, have dreamt of owning a store since they got married. “My family didn’t have antiques or collectives, but when my husband and I first married, I told him I wanted my own business someday,” Donna said.
Tom’s passion for collectibles and antiques was developed in his childhood. “I grew up in Europe, where we traveled around, went to a lot of museums and churches. Like other boys my age, I got into collecting things, like coins and stamps, and that’s what set me on this path.”
In the 1980s, Tom began working with his cousin David Rago, who runs Rago Art and Auction Center in Lambertville, which is where he gained more experience in the antiques business. Meanwhile, Donna developed a strong retail background, specifically with clothes and jewelry. “My husband’s first love was pottery, my first was jewelry,” she said. “So I asked for a shelf in his market, and started selling well right away. Merchandising, creating value, that’s all in my blood.”
Working together over the last 25 years, Tom and Donna have sold at various group shops and shows in the tri-state area. For the past 14 years, the Ragos have sold
their items at the Tomato Factory Antiques and Design Center, which is “a group shop full of different antique dealers, designers, and decorators,” Tom said. During this time, they had also been participating in antiques shows across the East Coast.
Donna loved her time selling at the Tomato Factory, but knew that she wanted a new experience. “I had a large presence there and had built a large clientele, but I think it was time to leave and do something on our own,” she said. “I never knew if I was going to get my own store, since it had to do with the timing, location, our place in life, etc. But luckily, I found this place on Gordon Avenue, and it had a really good and cheerful feel.”
Their shop is split into two sections, one that deals with jewelry, finer china, and other decorative items, and the other for collectibles and books that have a lot of local history. They have built up their inventory from auctions and markets, along with exchanges. To help customers connect with their desired items, Donna runs a wish book. “If something comes in that a customer wants, then I call them,” she said. “If people are searching for something that I can’t buy but I have a contact that could, then I connect them.”
To build their own shop in this era, Donna and Tom had to evaluate the online option, but decided they valued in-person interactions. “We do want to establish an online social media presence to some degree, but we also enjoy meeting people face to face and doing business,” Tom said.
But, as any other new brick-and-mortar shop, “we are competing against bigger entities,” Tom said. “What we try to stress is that we have unique items, those you can’t find on Amazon, but we need people to see them. The struggle is to make sure enough people know about us. We have a great inventory, but getting people through doors is the challenge.”
In building their store, Tom and Donna are acutely aware that it can be a challenge to interest people in older items, but strongly believe that vintage and antique pieces are important because “people learn more about the experiences of previous generations, which can help us learn about ourselves,” Tom said. “Sometimes, in the books that come through our store, we come across local information, and even connections to past relatives, that we weren’t aware of.”
The Ragos acknowledge the specific challenge of catching the attention of younger generations with older items, but are working to build this interest. “We know we’re in an area with a lot of younger people, so we’re trying to put pieces in our store that might appeal to the younger generation, such as vinyl records, rotary phones, and telephones,” Donna said.
Despite these challenges, Donna and Tom are having a fantastic experience running their own shop. “The Lawrenceville crowd has really been fantastic,” Donna said. “We have a lot of repeat customers that have followed us from the Tomato Factory in Hopewell to here, but we also have a lot of new customers from the foot traffic in this area of Lawrenceville, thanks to the established businesses around here.”
Through starting a small business is not an easy task, their passion for this field sustains their efforts. “There have been many great experiences in this business, and the No. 1 reason has been the people,” Donna said. She shared a story about a time when she worked with a client who wanted snake-related jewelry, but since none was in the store, they worked together to find snake symbols and put it onto a necklace.
“What I enjoy most is having people share their history, family, and heritage, along with what’s been important to them in their lives,” Donna said. “Without the people, the stuff doesn’t matter.”
“The reason we get up every morning and do this is because we’re excited,” he said. “We enjoy the business, the people, the challenges, and the unexpected connections we make. We also enjoy giving back to the general Lawrence area. A lot of people have already voiced their appreciation that there’s another retail place here. It’s a love of community that brings us here.”
Going forward, Tom and Donna hope to expand this business, both physically and in the services they provide. The have outdoor space in the front and rear of the store that they hope to utilize in warmer weather.
“Going into the new year, we hope to offer more services to the community,” Donna said. “We want to host free appraisal days, as well as small talks about topics such as pottery and jewelry or even business themes.”
Lawrenceville Vintage Treasures is open Monday-Tuesday by appointment; Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, search “Lawrenceville Vintage Treasures” on Facebook or visit @donnarago5251 on Instagram.