Michael Robertson was already having a lousy month when his antique store caught fire and nearly burned to the ground.
“My mother had just gone on home hospice care, and the next week my brother died,” he said. “Then I get a call from a friend: ‘Hi, I think your store is on fire.’”
The fire started on June 22 at Twigs and Twine, the shop next door with which Robertson’s store, Michael Todd’s Treasures, shares a wall.
“It was a Tuesday, and we’re closed on Tuesday,” Robertson said. “Not that I would have been able to do anything if we’d been open. The fire went nuts. It burned their storage area and their workroom, then it shot up to the roof and through my wall.”
Robertson has made a name for himself in Phoenix with popular vintage shops he opened, then sold a few years later after they became popular. His stores always featured hand-painted furniture and a mix of old and new objects. He’d owned so many, he couldn’t always remember them all.
“Okay, so I opened Pomegranates in 1992,” he said. “Then Qcumberz here and in San Diego. After that, I had Michael Todd’s Furniture and a place called Mixture over on Camelback. Then my friend Heidi and I had a shop called Hollywood Regency, then Zinnia’s on Melrose, and then this place.”
Somewhere in there, Robertson took a break from retail and worked as a consultant with other local vintage stores who wanted in on his retail secrets.
“My secrets are pretty simple, and not very secret,” he confided. “Be nice to customers and make sure you’re open when you say you’ll be open.”
Robertson’s career was inspired by his great-grandmother and his grandmother, who scoured ghost towns all over Arizona in search of old things they could resell at their antiques shop. “I was a kid who watched them grab dusty stuff and re-create it as something beautiful,” he recalled. “They’d put glass milk jars on the roof of the house so that the sun would turn them purple. They put out coffee and cookies for customers. They were more interested in the people who came in than they were in selling stuff. Neither of them cared if you bought anything, they just wanted to talk with you.”
Robertson worked at Mervyn’s department store for years before opening his first boutique. “That’s where I learned about the importance of changing your displays every day,” he said. “Plus I’m gay and a Virgo, so cleaning and organizing and decorating come naturally.”
With his first store, he recalled his grandparents’ homey approach to customers and resolved to adopt that same standard. He’d noticed how other antique sellers weren’t always very friendly.
“I didn’t want that,” he insisted. “I still hear about it from my customers. They’ll say, ‘Everyone at your store is so nice. I was just at that other store, and no one would talk to me!’”
Robertson always takes the high road. “I say, ‘I’m sorry to hear that, but that store has great stuff! You should give them a second chance!’”
Not every customer was a load of fun, he admitted. “Sometimes, someone will irritate the hell out of me, but I’ll never let them know it. If someone upsets me, I just go in the back and paint something turquoise.”
The people from Twigs and Twine have apologized, Robertson said, about a thousand times. “I’m like, ‘Dude, it was an accident.’ They want to know how I can be so gracious. I don’t like people who are negative all the time. It’s not like they set fire to my store on purpose. I’m like, ‘We both have insurance. Let’s comfort each other.’”
Customers and others have really been kind, he said. “Oh my gosh, they’re coming out of the woodwork. If I ever thought that these were just people who bought things from me, I can’t think that anymore.”
His landlord has been a prince, Robertson said. Someone set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for whatever the insurance company won’t cover. One of the dealers whose booth was destroyed by the fire donated $350. Customers have had food delivered and sent messages, voice mails, and anonymous donations.
Even the insurance adjuster was sympathetic, requesting full replacement coverage with no deductible.
While Robertson waits for news on whether the strip mall will be rebuilt or torn down, he’s determined to stay positive.
“I refuse to lay down and die when something bad happens,” he says. “I learned to be a survivor when I was a kid being beaten up for being gay. If the fire department would let me, I’d be back at my store right now, sorting through things and cleaning the windows.”
He’s anxious to get back to work, and to add the fire to the list of stories he can tell anyone who drops by. “This is even better than the one about the lady who threw her COVID mask at me because her to-go order wasn’t ready. She thought my vintage shop was a Thai restaurant.”
Robertson laughed. “I’m going to get a lot of play out of that story, once we reopen.”