Issue 109 – John McInnis Antiques in Cobourg

Out to Lunch with Peter Neilly

Today’s Out to Lunch guest is John McInnis of McInnis Antiques in Cobourg, Ontario. John is a unique antique dealer in that he travels to Europe several times a year to purchase Central and Eastern European antiques and ships container loads back to Canada. He then wholesales his European purchases to other dealers in Canada and the United States. John has chosen one of his favourites, the Golden Chopsticks Restaurant in Cobourg, for our lunch. The restaurant serves authentic Japanese and Chinese food. Having never eaten Japanese food before, I was slightly apprehensive, but genuinely impressed. The food was great, although I did discover I am absolutely useless at attempting to feed myself with chopsticks.

Peter: Thanks for meeting with me today, John. I always ask antique dealers I interview if there is anything specific that they collect.

John: I don’t know if I’m really a collector as such. I have things in the house that interest me, but my tastes are constantly changing. The market changes too and sometimes it’s better to sell and sometimes it’s more advantageous to buy. I do find things more reasonably priced in Europe than in North America.

Peter: I know this current container load is your 62nd to arrive in Canada. When did you start having the containers shipped in?

John: It’s been over 12 years now and I’ve made some good contacts overseas that have helped me greatly. My first container was purchased and shipped in July of 2001, but my second trip was on September 13 of that same year. That was two days after the madness of September 11. If you remember, back then all hell broke loose and planes were diverted everywhere. I spent more than seven hours in line at the airport. The woman behind me had been there since noon the day before.

Peter: The effects of September 11, 2001, were certainly felt world-wide.

Peter: For those readers who don’t know already, primarily what kind of antiques do you purchase in Europe and ship to Canada for resale?

John: I deal mostly in Eastern European country furnishings. Items like armoires, blanket boxes, pail benches, jam cupboards, carpenters’ work benches, wall shelves and harvest tables, along with smalls like butter bowls, coffee grinders, buckets, spice boxes and enamelware.

Peter: You also have a large selection of fabric items in your buildings.

John: Yes I bring in vintage linens, tablecloths, grain bags, harvest cloths and clothing. The quality and prices in Central and Eastern Europe are still attractive by North American standards.

Peter: I have to ask, as an antique retailer myself, why would you wholesale these pieces to other dealers and not retail them to the public for a greater profit margin?

John: I’m pleased with the wholesaling process with smaller margins and really it’s a matter of time and not being able to be in two places at the same time. I enjoy my purchasing trips to Europe and just don’t have enough time to run a retail operation where I would have to be open a consistent set of hours. I have a group of regular customers who I enjoy dealing with on a wholesale basis. I call or email them when a new load arrives and we set up times to meet so they can see my latest purchases.

Peter: I know some of the items you bring are shipped to the United States. Is it complicated dealing with Canadian and U.S. customs?

John: It was when first starting out and it does require some patience. It involves about two and a half hours of paperwork and everything has to be listed correctly. Listing the inventory takes up the most time. I use a broker and that helps with the process. Once I had delivered a few containers, the procedure got much easier.

Peter: How large are the containers that you ship from Europe to Canada and what is the process involved?

John: I used to ship 45-foot containers but they are harder to find. The container leaves Eastern Europe by transport truck to Bremerhaven, Germany, where it is inspected and fumigated, then loaded on a ship to Montreal. After arriving in Montreal and being inspected, it is sent by train to Bramalea where it is then sent by transport to my location in Cobourg. The whole process takes about three and a half weeks. A 40-foot container costs approximately $5,000 U.S. to send door to door.

Peter: Of all the pieces you bring in from Central and Eastern Europe, what would be your best sellers?

John: It’s hard to say because it varies. I just sold several of the open benches, but I think lately the small items are moving out faster. But it is a constantly changing process that I have to keep on top of. I get surprised when talking with some of my colleagues who have defined tastes in antiques and only deal in pieces they like. You have to deal in what is selling, whether you like what it is or not, if you want to remain successful in this business.

Peter: I think you have pointed out one of the most valuable lessons that people must learn in this business and that’s the ability to adapt to change. Purchasers’ tastes change and trends come and go and if dealers don’t react accordingly they will get left behind. Thanks for talking time out of your busy schedule, John, and meeting with me. And you picked a great place for lunch.

Mcinnis Antiques wholesales to interested antique dealers. If you would like to contact John, you can visit his website or  e-mail him at or call 905-373-4585 or (cell) 905-373-8985.

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