Best of Philly Snapshot: Brian Lawlor, Best Scavenger

The city's coolest (semi)secret furniture sale.

best-of-philly-2014-logo-400x400There are two dozen people standing outside a nondescript Kensington warehouse at Cecil B. Moore and North 2nd Street, sweating it out in the sun. They aren’t lost, or part of a pub-crawl or flash mob. They’re here because they know a secret.

Twice a month, Brian Lawlor, owner of the Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse, holds vintage furniture sales, and these people know you have to queue up early if you want first dibs. Inside, there’s stuff everywhere: walnut credenzas refinished to their original splendor in the back, teak dining tables from the ’60s pushed against the wall, a hot pink splay-leg love seat on top of a dresser. Each piece here is not only stunning, but also so flawless that you’ll wonder if it’s even been used. For mid-century-modern hounds, this place is Mecca.

Finally, at noon, Lawlor opens the door, and the crowd stampedes. “I love this,” he says with a wide grin. “We find things and give them new life.”

Photograph by Sean Murray

Photograph by Sean Murray

Although the Sunday-afternoon sales have been a ritual for about three years, Lawlor has been in the antiques business for 20, amassing a huge collection of mid-century furniture stored in 16,000 square feet of space, which includes the Kensington warehouse as well as storage facilities in New Jersey. Mostly, he made his name by selling directly to designers, dealers, by-
appointment-only clients, and the occasional movie or TV-show crew. (You saw his stuff in Dead Man Down, and you’ll see it again this fall on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder.)

For Lawlor, 50, it’s all about passion,
nostalgia (his grandmother and mother were both antiques collectors), and the thrill of the hunt. “If you like your job, it’s easy to get up and go do it,” he says. Even if said job requires long hours and lots of heavy lifting: Each week he travels to at least half a dozen auctions, plus home clean-outs, which he learns about through the vast network of in-the-know contacts he’s culled for this very purpose, including real estate agents.

“I found a Frank Lloyd Wright coffee table in a house in North Philly once. It’s like, how in the world did these things get here?” he says. One of his biggest scores was a rare 10-piece English breakfront cabinet from the 1700s that he pulled out of a storage locker in Conshohocken. It sold at auction for $35,000.

Once a piece of furniture is in Lawlor’s possession, he doesn’t just give it a good cleaning, jack up the price, then turn around and sell it to you. With help from refinisher James Miller, Lawlor inspects and restores the thousands of items that come through his door, stripping paint, sanding out scratches, gluing wobbly legs — all before they make it to the warehouse floor. And despite the hands-on time, his prices remain reasonable: $500 for a credenza, $300 for a table, $50 for a dining chair.

“Too much today is disposable. We as a society have to stop throwing everything away,” Lawlor says. “Good furniture is built to last. That’s why I think there will always be a place for good recycled furniture.”

Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse, 1701 North 2nd Street, Kensington, 267-934-4218. Psst: The next sale is August 10th!

See the rest of our Best of Philly picks in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today. Then join us at the Best of Philly Bash at Citizens Bank Park on August 12th!