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The once-biggest antique store in the U.S. struggles to make ends meet after 13 years

Scott Evans moved among the stalls and tables of the Belgian furniture market like a man who knew what he was doing.

It was 5 a.m., but already he had his eye on a couch that soon he was single-handedly lugging through the aisles to a van parked about 100 yards away. Flea market purchases have a way of going missing if you don’t squirrel them away immediately, he knew. On the way to the van, a vendor unloading a station wagon caught his eye. There must have been 150 paintings on the ground just waiting to be discovered.

The thrill of procuring unknown treasures all over the world, then bringing them back home to sell at his antique store is exactly the kind of thing that has kept Evans going for nearly 40 years, despite the economic downturn, eBay and the cost of heating and cooling his 40,000-square-foot store, Euro Treasures, in Salt Lake City.

It’s also the reason he will ultimately stop.

After 13 years of running the once-biggest antique store in the U.S., the word “closed” hangs like a scepter over Evans' head, and yet he can’t quite bring himself to say it.

“We are definitely winding down. I can’t keep fighting the economic trends. I can’t keep battling an uphill battle,” Evans says with a mercurial conviction. “I’m too old to be moving this kind of furniture like I have done my whole life.”

Then again, if time and money were unlimited, he’d fill warehouses with treasures all day, every day.

“I would if I could,” he says. “I mean, if you just said go fill up these billion square feet of all the antiques in the world, that would be my ideal job 'til I die.”

Evans has always loved old stuff. When he purchased a massive collection of European furniture from a reclusive British collector in 2004, he brought 89 shipping containers of items dating back to the 1500s to Euro Treasures Antiques. He thought it would all be sold within 10 years. Nearly 15 years later, about half of the inventory still remains.

“I think he feels like it is his responsibility or duty to preserve this — like it’s up to him to save all this,” says Riley Booker, one of Evans’ family members who works at the massive store. “He will pick screws out of the garbage can because he doesn’t want to throw stuff away.”

To walk into Evans’ store is to enter a world of ghosts and spirits, dust and detail. Pieces of history lay disguised on the floor, shrouded in a casualness befitting a paper plate, buried under other pieces of valuable, aging furniture. Over there is a full-sized stuffed mountain lion, behind that is a stained glass window made by Tiffany and Co. A few aisles down, there’s an 1870s replica of a Victorian suit of armor, and that’s not even the best he has to offer.

“Scott doesn’t brag about what’s in here,” James Kirkland, a local artist commissioned to create paintings for some of the unique frames in the store, says as he stands and picks up a bowl from a nearby cabinet. “You know this Aztec pottery … it belongs on a permanent display in a museum, and it’s sitting there on the back of this rickety old shelf. This is not just a Utah antique store, this is an anomaly.”

The most valuable piece of furniture in the building is near the front of the store, next to a cluttered desk with a computer on it. It is an 8-foot-tall cupboard commissioned by the renowned Medici family in Italy in the 1500s with intricate carvings, Michelangelo’s reclining David on either side of the family crest and 11 of the 12 apostles etched into the top. It’s the kind of find Evans lives for, but he wonders if he’s the only one who sees the value in owning such a piece.

“If you gave me a blank check and said go buy three of these, I would just laugh, because where are you going to find that?” Evans said. “You’d have to go to the Vatican to try and buy something like that. It’s just not available on this earth.”

When Evans opened Euro Treasures Antiques, he imagined organizing each piece into its proper setting, clocks and cabinets grouped together like a real living room, chairs and tables displayed as they would have been seen in a home of the time. But as the containers kept coming, Evans and his family found more and more creative ways to fit the items in the store.

At one time, he had 3,500 antique chairs stacked in an upstairs room. Now valuable paintings are just as likely to be found on the floor as anywhere else, next to the books and old windows.

Critics take issue with the presentation in Evans’ store, but he is vehement that its casual nature is no reflection of his attachment to his collection.

“I’ve spent my life putting this together,” Evans says. “My soul is in this place and in these things I have fought to save. If this place burned down, I would die. I’d stand in the middle and burn with it. That’s my passion. That’s what I love.”

As Evans considers the cost of continuing business — the $4,000 heat bill in the winter that seems to bring little warmth, the $380 water bill, the $26,000 property tax, and on and on — he reluctantly says he thinks it’s time to do something different.

But what exactly? He’s not sure. What he does know is that if he had the chance, he’d do it all again — Belgian markets and all.

“This life is hard, but I think we maybe knew that when we were heading down,” Evans says. “… I think one thing that will be asked of us (when we die) will be, ‘Did you live your dreams?’ I would say, yes, I tried. I tried real hard. I don’t know if I got to that brass ring or not, but I was swinging for the fences the whole time.”

He looks at a piece of furniture that’s hundreds of years old and sees the hands of the artisan that carved every inch. He feels compelled to defend those painstaking works to a modern world that values speed over longevity. He is driven to give his customers hands-on access to items that would normally be behind glass in a museum, but he's vexed when others lack appreciation for humanity’s past.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a long-time Deseret News reporter covering the environment, local government and people of interest. She now writes a bi-monthly column about her family's history and the search to learn more about her ancestors.