Joe Ley Antiques has been operating in Louisville for 51 years. Though the building has changed from Baxter Avenue to Bardstown Road and finally to Market Street. You can peruse Ley’s treasures at 615 East Market Street (between Clay and Hancock), where the business has been – with its iconic 30-foot-tall toy soldiers — for the last 40 years. Owner Joe Ley himself stops by this week’s episode of Perspectives, brought to you by Louisville’s luxury real estate brokerage Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty, to discuss the history of his enterprise.
Ley recalls the day he came to work – only to find that a building he owned next-door to the restaurant Toast had collapsed. “It crushed everything in it and destroyed what we had,” he said. Without insurance, Ley had no choice but to turn the area into an outdoor courtyard for his neighbor and raise the funds to start from scratch again.
He received a call from Darryl’s Restaurant based out of North Carolina. Other restaurants in need of antiques soon followed – Houlihan’s and Friday’s out of North Carolina, as well as Max and Erma’s out of Ohio. To accommodate his growing business, Ley purchased a school house from the late 1890’s that was “strong as a builder,” in his estimation. “We get many compliments on the building itself, how beautiful they like it, and how much they feel good about it inside,” he said. When the neighboring properties went up for grabs, Ley bought them and expanded to more store space, layaway, and storage.
To get into the restaurant scene, Ley asked the owners how much it cost to put the antique decorations up. He replied, “Oh, I’m sorry, that sounds ridiculous. I feel I can come in here and save you $75,000 – and if I can’t, I’ll just do the work for free.” As a fellow Southerner, the owner was all for letting Ley run with the job. After that, he was “on a roll,” he says. Sometimes restaurants had him “running like a Wildman” – contacting him on the 19th to obtain pieces that were needed for a grand opening on the 21st, for instance.
Joe Ley first developed his interest in antiques as a child. He became orphaned and worked 7 days a week with farm families. He moved to Louisville around 14 or 15 because he had roots here. “I started picking up junk out of the alleys,” he said. Many “gorgeous, beautiful” things were thrown away during the Urban Renewal. Ley collected it all and tried to borrow room in people’s garages or storage sheds. Eventually there was nowhere to go, so he peddled some of it to buy an old truck. He would then drive from dealer to dealer within a 100-mile radius to peddle his goods to them. “Some days it worked, some days you eat, some days you didn’t,” Ley explained.
His first store was opened with a fellow he knew down on Baxter Avenue. Filling up two buildings was easy. He soon decided he could branch off on his own, buying a property from an ill woman whose husband had passed away, who just wanted to get rid of the building. Other buildings came up for grabs in the area and Ley found himself making more than one rent-to-own payment to stay afloat. “I thought, ‘What have I have myself into here?’ You got to sell and move some stuff to pay off that kind of loan,’” he said.
Another time, he brought a friend with him up to Boston on a wild antique adventure. “I got a case of beer and set it over on his side and I said, ‘Just make yourself at home and enjoy,’” he recalled. He drove 21 hours straight and parked in someone’s driveway, set down a country road, to rest. It turns out, the business was set to have a huge flea market the next day. He received a tap on the window around 5 in the morning to alert him that the back of his truck was hanging in the road – he was just that tired he never even made it all the way into the driveway!
Though it was crazy, he developed a love for traveling to find the antiques he needed. Nowadays, he can get a lot going by email and telephone. “Sometimes we’ll get as high as 60, 70 calls a day to buy stuff,” he said, which makes it easy. J still does most of the buying, though he has a few pickers finding items they think he’ll like.
His collection ranges from turn-of-the-century postcards for 25 cents, all the way up to $15,000 furniture made from local cherry wood. He estimates about 96,000 people come through his doors each year. Some families come by every week — while others are travelers, new to town. Ley chuckles: “They bring all their little children and their dogs and they meet right in the middle of the hall and they have a family reunion out there: ‘I haven’t seen you for years. How you been? How’s your little dog after he got run over by a car?’ Everybody knows everybody.”