Local antiques dealer works to turn hardships into success

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published August 10, 2011

 On weekends, Nelson Mayes sells antiques and collectibles at Tri-County Flea Market, located at Frazho and Groesbeck in Warren. His booth is located in the back of the market in “Antique Alley.”

On weekends, Nelson Mayes sells antiques and collectibles at Tri-County Flea Market, located at Frazho and Groesbeck in Warren. His booth is located in the back of the market in “Antique Alley.”

Photo by Sara Kandel


ROSEVILLE — Every weekend, Nelson Mayes does the same thing. He sits in a worn pink chair, peering at a computer propped up on a TV tray, researching old things.

Mayes has an eye for antiques. He always has, since he was a boy growing up on Detroit’s east side, where he had a rough childhood that he says helped prepare him for the difficulties in starting a business.

“There has been some struggles with the way our economy has been, and I really haven’t made any money, but I’ve always wanted to do this,” he says.

Mayes, 53, sells antiques from a booth at Tri-County Flea Market in Warren. He’s trying to make it at a business he’s dreamed about since he was young, but his troublesome past in many ways is making it hard for him. Still, he remains confident and dedicated to trying hard and doing things right, even though it would be easier for him if he cut corners.

It’s been a learning experience.

“When I started, I was doing it all the old-fashioned way,” he says. “All the research I did, I did it through books.”

Now a computer has replaced his stack of books. He still resorts to them, but on the weekends he likes to use the market’s free Wi-Fi. He doesn’t have access to the Internet at home.

Less than a year after he started, his inventory has grown from a van full of old knick-knacks to a true collection of prints, dolls, books and other collectibles.

This isn’t his only job. He lives in Roseville with his goddaughter and baby-sits her five kids during the week, when he’s not working at yet another of his jobs — cleaning vending machines. In his spare time, Mayes also works for the Help for Hire for Senior Citizens Program through Macomb County — where he does yard work, paints and shovels snow for seniors for minimal cost.

“I’ve always liked kids,” Mayes says. “It started with (his goddaughter’s) kids. When they was young, they was always calling me Nel-Nel instead of Nelson. Four of the five all call me Nel-Nel.”

So he named his antique business Nel Nel Nelsons.

Not in it for the money

He has about 15 regulars now.

Dan and Juanita Buszek visit him almost every weekend. Dan Buszek, 64, was the originator of the market, located at Groesbeck and Frazho. He took an instant liking to Mayes.

“He sits there for 10 hours a day studying art and researching his inventory — he’s dedicated,” Dan Buszek says. “When other people here were pulling out, he was dedicated to stay. He’s persistent.”

They, like most of his regulars though, aren’t really there to pick anything up. They don’t buy anything, but Nelson doesn’t mind. He likes the company. He’s always inviting people to stop by without pressure to purchase.

“Even if you’re not buying anything, come on by and I will try to help you if you need research, or let you look at my books,” he says.

He doesn’t charge to assist with research. He says one day he might, but for now, he just doesn’t have the heart.

His inventory overflows into the empty booths surrounding the one he rents, with items like a vintage Raggedy Ann and Andy decorative wall set and a 1950s typewriter. On eBay the same make and model typewriter sells for $60. Mayes has it priced at $30. He generally charges very little more than he paid for an item because, he says, he doesn’t want to rip people off.

Juanita Buszek calls Nelson a dedicated and honest businessman. “He’s very honest with the customer — he doesn’t want to rip anyone off — he doesn’t want to overcharge.”

“When you buy something, you always think, ‘Somebody is going to like that and somebody is going to buy that,’ but especially where our economy is at today, your price has to be reflective of what’s going on,” Mayes said.

In 11 months at the market, Mayes hasn’t made a profit. But he isn’t giving up. “For most of my life, I really never had it really easy,” Mayes says. “So I say, if you can’t go through the bad times, you ain’t gonna be able to handle the good times.”

Troubled youth

For Mayes, the bad times started in childhood.

“I come from, for the most part, a broken home,” he says. “My mother had some mental issues and she wasn’t takin’ care of us right.”

He was 9 when Child Protective Services removed him from his home. A complaint was made accusing Mayes’ mother of being gone for days at a time.

“I was small but I do remember the day they came — my mother wasn’t there — they took us out of the household.”

He was placed with his maternal grandmother. There, life got even harder. “When my grandmother disciplined us, she would make you get naked and then beat you with an extension cord, so you never wanted to really get into trouble.”

Not long after he moved into his grandmother’s house he went out exploring with a couple of kids his age. They climbed to the top of an old post office building, and Mayes fell off. He fractured his skull and broke his collarbone.

He got no sympathy at home. “I remember my grandmother telling me, ‘Once you get a little bit better, you are gonna get it,’” he says. “That day came when I got well and I don’t know why I remember it, but one of the things was, she stomped me with her high heels.” The heel punctured his thigh, scarring him to this day.

That night, Mayes ran away for the first time. He was just 10.

A family living on the west side of Detroit had adopted one of his brothers. When they brought Mayes back to his grandma’s, he got another beating. So he ran away again.

“I was headstrong and I just got it in my head that I didn’t want to live there anymore, so I just kept running away.”

During the day he would play with other kids in the neighborhood, but at night when they went home, Mayes would sleep in unlocked cars and abandoned houses. For a long time, nobody knew his secret. Then one day he told someone.

He had a friend who lived with a grandmother, and Nelson spent time sleeping in her garage. One day she found him in there, and he told her his secret. But instead of throwing Mayes out, she legally adopted him and enrolled him in school.

“It was a beautiful thing she did adopting me, but I think — and I have had counselors tell me over the years that that was probably the reason why — I had too much of a touch of that street life already.”

Mayes says he was 11 the first time he drank, 14 when he started using hard drugs, and 15 when he left the home he’d been adopted into.

What followed was two decades of drug and alcohol abuse. He was on heroin when, at 17, he was arrested for breaking and entering. He spent his 18th birthday in quarantine at Jackson State Prison. He served two years, but the drugs didn’t stop there.

“When it is all said and done, I’ve been to prison three times, and numerous times I been in and out of county jails.”

Most of his offenses, like breaking into cars or shoplifting, were drug related, he says. In 2000, he was arrested after trying to steal a phone from a Kmart.

“When I got caught with that last charge, I had it in my heart that I wanted to quit, that I wanted to do something in life.”

Turning it around

He attended Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous classes at the Macomb County Jail. On the day he was released, he’d been sober for nine months. Ten years later, he still is.

A few years clean, Mayes landed a job with a moving company. Customers would regularly give him old belongings they no longer wanted.

Their gifts became the start of his inventory and the motivation he needed to take a risk on a dream he had since childhood — owning an antique shop.

“I don’t think I’ll ever make a million dollars,” Mayes says. “Most collectors dream of finding an original Rembrandt or Tiffany lamp, but I just want to have a shop, to do something constructive with my life, something I am passionate about, make a little profit, but just enough to live on.”

He thinks everyone should do something to give back to society. He plans on giving back by sharing his story with prison inmates. “I feel like I have a story that could help some of the guys, but I haven’t pursued doing it just yet because I think I should (first) have an example of success to speak to the guys.” He says he doesn’t calculate success in profits, but instead in the way he’s learned to do the right things in life.

Behind a display cabinet, Mayes keeps a large envelope with an important piece of paper in it – his state license to peddle junk.

“I was going to hang it up but I never got the city one — I was going to hang them together.”

The city of Warren denied Mayes his license because of his criminal history, he says. He appealed, and was denied again. He has one more chance — a final appeal before City Council. If he doesn’t get it, he might have to move his little business somewhere else.

His customers have never asked to see a license; the flea market hasn’t either, but it was under different management when he started there. Having one probably won’t increase his sales. But he’s determined to get it anyway.

“I want to do it the right way,” he says. “I want to live the right way. I’m supposed to have a license, so I want to try and get a license.”

He doesn’t know yet what he’ll do or where he’ll go if his final appeal is denied. But he won’t give up the business if that happens.

“I have aspirations of sticking with it,” he says. “In all my struggles to where I am today, even with the drugs, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for God. Since I started this he has blessed me, so I don’t really think I can’t make it.”