Featured The Hustle

Milwaukee antique shop is hardly ever open – and that’s by design

BC Modern owner Erik Lewis with wife Veronica Rodriguez-Lewis. Photo by Omar Waheed.

Exclusive and elusive. BC Modern in Milwaukee uses a limited opening approach to create a competitive market for rare mid-century modern furniture.

 BC Modern is an antique store that specializes in modern furniture from the mid 1900s. Items are hand selected by its founder Eric Lewis over the course of 30 days and sold exclusively in store on the last weekend of each month. His 5,000-square-foot, two-story shop is filled with a range of furniture, art work, glassware, electronics and anything else mid-century modern that catches Lewis’ eye.

 What started as a quick flip on a chair that netted him a few thousand became a passion for mid-century modern furniture. Lewis had purchased a mid-century chair for $250 and two days later sold it for $5,500. From then on, Lewis tried to find a way to chase the rush of that quick flip. He eventually opened up a pawn shop with that goal.

“I started kind of chasing that flip — that high of a flip for forever, to the point where we opened up a pawn shop and everything in the shop looked like mid-century,” Lewis said.

But soon things on the pawnshop front were not cutting it for Lewis. He took a step back and decided that instead of chasing money, he would chase his passion for mid-century furniture and what appealed to him.

“I said, ‘you know what, I’m going to only focus on the stuff that I like,’ and that’s what started this whole BC Modern thing where it’s like, just kind of focus on mid-century modern, like toys, like cool advertisements,” Lewis said. “Everything you see here is all stuff that I personally like.”

John Traudt and Eva Groszz browse at BC Modern on the last Saturday in May. Photo by Omar Waheed.

At first, BC Modern did not use the strategy of a month-long curation and two-days of selling, opting for a more traditional retail model. Lewis felt like he had to be more accessible than he liked. He took issue with people coming into the shop only to decide to come back in a week. It was not reflective of the hard work and pursuit to find rare antique furniture. When COVID hit, he felt like it was a chance to reset and pivot BC Modern’s model.

“It’s a very nontraditional method of how we do things here. It’s 30 days of curation and it’s two days of selling. A good chunk of our items comes right from private estate owners or homes,” Lewis said. “It used to drive me crazy that people will come in every weekend and look at my (stuff) and be like, ‘Oh, it’ll be there next week,’ and I’m like, this stuff is not easy to find.”

When Lewis decided to switch up how BC Modern worked, he found that he had his life back. One of the purposes of starting his own business was that the flexibility would allow him to be more present for his family.

Lewis started off as an auctioneer. In 2005, he started We Bay Auctions which offered eBay consignment services to local businesses. He decided to pivot in a full-service auction company in 2011 with Brew City Auctions. In 2015, Lewis capitalized on his growing passion for mid-century modern furniture and launched BC Modern.

“It’s one of those things that started out as 20 years ago as something I could do that will give me flexibility for my oldest daughter, because she’s starting school and I’m like, ‘I want to be that guy that can take your kid to school and pick your kid up and go on field trips,’” Lewis said. “And that’s how it started. I just kept refining it over the years and taking pieces out putting other things in until we got like a formula that seemed to work.”

In his work as an auctioneer, he grew to develop an eye for rare items. After the purchase and flip of the chair, he realized he grew up around the type of stuff he wanted to sell. He never knew what mid-century modern was, but he remembered seeing stuff from the era in his grandmother’s house.

Photo by Omar Waheed.

“My eye is a little different than most people. Most people would be like, ‘Oh, that’s really rare,’ and I’m like, I got five of those,’” he said.

BC Modern also has its own online shop, but the idea of exclusivity is something that Lewis wants to keep with his physical store. Nothing you can find online will be in his physical store and nothing in his physical store will be listed online. Lewis wants to keep the model of elusive and exclusive goods as the forefront of his business model. He spends an entire month procuring goods, with his phone constantly ringing, for a two-day sale.

He does not see BC Modern as the average vintage shop. He prides himself on not buying stuff for a quick buck and is willing to have his margins be low to stock his store with the goods he is most interested in.

“I don’t necessarily buy things anymore just because I can make money off of it. I buy what I like and that’s what I think separates our shop. You know a lot of vintage shops are just putting (stuff) in it just because they can make a buck on it,” Lewis said.

BC Modern located at 3116 Chase Ave. The shop is open the last weekend of every month from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm.