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KovelMythbusters: Ralph and Terry Kovel

Date of interview: Spring 2007

Ralph Kovel passed away August 28, 2008 at age 88

During a late afternoon interview in their antique-filled library, America 's gurus of collecting, Ralph and Terry Kovel, shared their lives, love of collecting, and a behind-the-scenes look at why they and their 57-year marriage have aged successfully.

Tell me about your "growing up" years?

Ralph: I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Our mayor was a socialist and a great mayor. It was a clean city and we had a lot of breweries. When my father lost his business during the Depression, we moved to Kentucky, then we moved to Cleveland, where I graduated from Heights High. Then I went on to Ohio State. When I went, it was a nightclub with a football team.

Terry: I was born in Cleveland at McDonald House and raised in Shaker Heights. I've lived in Shaker Heights all my life. I went to Shaker Schools until 9th grade, then to Laurel School. At Wellesley College [in Wellesley, Massachusetts ], I majored in math and philosophy. (Laughs) I never took an art course or a writing course that I didn't have to. I audited an art class: When they'd say 'Notice the way they handle the light,' I didn't get it. That's when I decided that I'd better not take that class for credit. I graduated in 1950.

You both grew up during the Depression. Do you think there was anything special in how you were raised that made you who you are today?

Ralph: My father had a manufacturing company and 14 retail stores, and he lost everything during the Depression. We moved from a 14 room house to a 4 room apartment. Today, I know the value of a dollar, yet I'm not conservative about buying things I like — whether it's clothes or antiques. I have a saying, 'If you like it, buy it.'

Terry: The Depression had almost no effect on my family. Still, in terms of money, I had to learn how to spend it. When we were first married, Ralph hurt his back, and he was in the hospital for a long time and lost his job. We had a new baby — our son Lee — and when I went to the bank to take money out of the savings account I felt guilty. I remember asking myself 'Why do you feel guilty about taking this money out of the bank? That's why we put it in the bank.' That was a real "change point" for me. I suddenly realized that that was what the money was for — to be there when it was needed. Still, Ralph says I can't spend money. He is always telling me to buy things, and I'm always saying it costs too much. (Laughs) That's why we can live together. We balance each other.

When and how did you meet and when did you marry?

Terry: On a blind date.

Ralph: But Terry wasn't my date, she was my friend's date. He told me he wanted to take her out, but that he needed a car and I had a car.

Terry: I was home for the summer from college and I got a friend from college to be Ralph's date. We went someplace where we swam, and my friend and I swam out into the lake because we knew they wouldn't follow and we both decided that my date was weird. Ralph called me the next day. He warned me about dating older guys — like my date — then he asked me if I had an older sister. The next day he called and asked me out, but in the meantime, I'd already told my brother that I'd met the man I was going to marry. I knew right off the bat that Ralph was the man for me. I had no idea why, I just knew. We got engaged while I was in college, and we got married a week after graduation. Our first child, Lee, was born on our first anniversary, and we've been married for 57 years this June.

When and how did you first start collecting antiques?

Terry: I'd always bought antique jewelry. And Ralph bought me an old music box when I was still in college, but we started collecting antiques on our honeymoon, in Bermuda .

Ralph: We'd gone into a shop and were intrigued with everything. The owner told us they got a lot of their stuff from a little old lady who used to be an antique dealer, so we got on our bikes and went out to her place and bought two vases and open salt cellars from her. She wanted us to buy this old carved eagle, but we didn't and we've been talking about that eagle ever since. After we got home, we didn't have much money, so we'd go to house sales...

Terry:...looking for ashtrays and pictures and porcelain figurines to go with the reproduction "Williamsburg-y" furniture we had in our apartment. (Laughs) Now we are writing about that furniture, because that's what everyone is buying.

What do you collect today?

Terry: Everything. We are ahead of the curve because of what we are doing: We get so many letters from people so we are able to tell our readers what's coming, what to be on the lookout for.

When you started writing books, you were both working and raising two young children. How did you find the time to research and write books?

Terry: I taught at Hawken School only in the mornings, so I was done by noon. I did all the writing and the researching in the afternoon, while the kids [Lee and Kim] were both in school.

Ralph: I'd come home from work [a food brokering job, which evolved into ownership of a salad dressing company, which evolved into a vice presidency with Sara Lee Corporation] and we'd work on things together after 6 p.m. Today, that's the way we still do things. We'll sit across from each other here [in the library] and work.

How did you come to write your first book, Kovels' Dictionary of Marks: Pottery and Porcelain, and find a publisher?

Ralph: Terry had gone to New York with her parents, and I was staying at her parents' home with our son Lee. While I was there, I decided that I'd start cataloguing the maker's marks that were on the bottoms of the pottery pieces we had bought.

Terry: At that time, all the books about marks were written by experts for experts.

Ralph: I catalogued about 4 pages of stuff and when Terry came home, I showed it to her and her father, who said 'Is that the best way you can waste your time on the weekend?' I decided that I'd sell the idea of a book on pottery marks and took what I'd done to Robert Levine at Publix Book Mart. He looked at what I brought in and told me he thought I had a good idea and that he had a friend who was an editor at Crown Publishing Company that he'd send the idea to. After 8 months of correspondence with him [the editor], nothing was happening, so I sent him a letter that said 'If you aren't interested in my book, I have other publishers that are' — which I didn't. He wrote back that he wanted the book and included a check for $500. I was making $75 a week at the time: that was a lot of money.

I called Terry and told her I was writing a book, and she asked who was going to help me and I said she was, and she said not unless her name was on the cover of the book, too. That's how we became the writing team of Ralph and Terry Kovel. You know, if Terry hadn't asked, right at the start, who was going to help me, I don't know what we would have lost.

How many books have you authored?

Terry: Our 96th book — our annual price guide — is coming out soon. I've always said that I want us to have published 100 books, and I think we are going to make it.

Your syndicated column, Kovels Antiques and Collecting , has been running for more than 50 years. How did it start?

Ralph: After our first book came out [in 1953], we read the reviews we were getting and I said to Terry that we should be able to write a column for a newspaper, in a question-and-answer format. We wrote four weeks' worth of columns, and I took them to the editor at The Plain Dealer. He was too busy to see me, so I went to see Louis Seltzer at The Cleveland Press. He told me his wife liked antiques and said he'd take the columns home and show them to her, and if she liked them they'd try us out for six weeks. We were with the Press from 1954, and a year later we got syndicated. We stayed with the Press until its demise in 1982, and then went over to The Plain Dealer .

Terry: And you know, I don't think there is any other column in the U.S. that's been going as long as ours.

How have computers changed the way you do books?

Terry: Ralph had the idea that we could do the first price guide using computers — that was 41 years ago. I was teaching at Hawken School at the time and had a student in a class whose father was in computers. We went to see him, and he told us we could do it by organizing a system, which is the same system we use today. We did that first price guide on a keypunch machine, and it was run on a computer later, to sort the keypunch cards. As far as we know, it's the first commercially produced book ever compiled and printed using a computer.

As computers and the use of the Internet progressed, things got easier and easier. Today everything we do is done on computer so now we are rephotographing, with a digital camera, everything we have on slides. And, because of the Internet, we are doing a lot of things online now that we never did before

Ralph: For instance, we are starting to sell products, things like silver polish and furniture polish. But only things that we personally believe are good.

When did you realize that your "hobby" had become your business, Antiques Inc., and when did it become the full-time business for both of you?

Ralph: For me, collecting continues to be a hobby, it's just it's turned into a business that we love, too. I still go into my office every day. When I left Sara Lee I thought about what people needed — and I started up my own shipping and handling company, what you'd call a fulfillment company. We ship everything from barbeque sauce to books from our warehouse.

Terry: I think we realized it was a business when one of the newspapers we were syndicated in came to us and wanted us to do a newsletter [currently with about 90,000 subscribers]. And we were doing presentations and talk shows and television shows and people were starting to recognize us. That's when we realized that we were a 'brand' as they say in the advertising business.

How has this hobby that's grown into a major business impacted your personal lives?

Ralph: It's made us celebrities, but we are secret celebrities. We can walk down the street here in Cleveland and a lot of people don't know who we are. (Laughs) We went to a party once, and the policeman guarding the door and the person doing the bartending knew who we were, but no one else at the party did. And for us, that's the best kind of recognition. Our readers, the people who read our books or watched our TV programs are...

Terry:...average collectors, not art museum curators, and that's what we want.

You never became dealers. Why is that?

Ralph: I can't sell anything. I buy what I like, so why would I sell things? I couldn't be a dealer. I've sold one piece, and I'm still regretting it.

Terry: (Laughs) We have added a lot of storage onto this house — three times — because we collect everything .

You have always worked as a team. How have you made that work for going on 57 years? In other words, what's your recipe for a successful business and a successful marriage?

Terry: We both have our own jobs, plus our "team" job, and we always have our own offices.

Both of you have been writing and doing television programs, yet it's Terry who seems to get the lion's share of the publicity. How do you feel about that Ralph?

Ralph: She does the lion's share of things, especially working with the public, because I'm at my office. And that works fine for me.

Terry: But we always do things together – interviews, programs, lectures – when it's possible.

Ralph: (Laughs) People do tend to think of us as Ralphandterry Kovel.

What are your non-work-related activities and organizations to which you belong, and why those particular activities and organizations?

Ralph: I've never been the kind of person who played golf, but I am on the board of WVIZ and the Western Reserve Historical Society and Cleveland Pops and the Children's Hunger Alliance. Right now, my pet project is the Euclid Beach merry-go-round, which is as Cleveland as anything could be. It's restored – all 52 horses—and it's in storage at the Western Reserve Historical Society. I've been talking it up for a year now.

Terry: I'm on the Shaker Historical Society board and I was on the Hiram College board. I'm not a joiner, but I volunteer for a lot of different events, such as the Shaker Garden tours.

Ralph, three years ago, due to food poisoning, you were near death. How has that changed or affected you?

Ralph: Coming out of the hospital, I realized that you have to push yourself and you have to have a reason for getting up every morning. When I started rehabilitation therapy, one of the therapists said I'd never walk again. (Laughs) I'm using a walker, now, and I'm going to be using a cane soon, and I'm looking forward to walking without that some day. I've always looked at what had happened as a challenge. And the new venture, the restaurant I'm opening, that's a challenge, too.

Terry: He's always been an optimist.

Terry, you are well over 70, and look far younger. What do you do to stay in shape?

Terry: Right now, I'm going to the health club twice a week — because my daughter Kim says I have to.

And I'm a gardener, a real get-out-in-the-garden-with-a-pitchfork gardener. As soon as the snow breaks, I'll be out there working.

Today, are you doing what you thought you'd be doing when you turned 65?

Terry: I haven't been doing anything I thought I'd be doing. I was going to be a school teacher. I was going to be a housewife. I was going to retire and play golf with people I kind of liked. I had an accident years ago and was hospitalized for six weeks, and I discovered that I missed writing. I never realized how much I really liked doing what I was doing until I wasn't able to do it. I suspect that if I ever do decide to retire that it's going to be difficult to come up with folks to have lunch with. (Laughs) But I'll figure that out when I get there.

Ralph: I haven't hit retirement age. And don't think I will ever think that way. Right now, I feel like a man of 55. I go into work every day. About the only thing that's changed there is that I'm not always wearing a jacket and tie because there's no reason to.

If you were going to be written up in the Guinness Book of Records for just one accomplishment, what would you both want it to be?

Terry: It would be that we changed the way people think about antiques. We flattened out prices for antiques in America and we changed the way that antiques were looked at and bought and sold long before e-Bay came along. Collecting antiques was an elitist hobby before we came along. If you didn't inherit antiques, you didn't know what they were and you didn't buy them. We came at just the right moment in history and we rode and pushed a wave that became a national hobby. We gave people a lot of education about antiques, and we gave them a lot of fun... all our books and newsletters and shows.

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