Artifacts iowa city

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The Future is Unwritten

After 25 years in Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood, vintage and consignment shop Artifacts is tripling its space.

The business, located on the corner of Market and Gilbert streets, is known for its narrow aisles packed with artwork, tchotchkes, vintage clothing, toys, tools, instruments, kitchenware and much more. Owner Todd Thelen said he’s long dreamed of a bigger space, but opportunities for expansion in the past have been cost prohibitive.

When he learned neighboring restaurant El Bandito’s was closing their Market Street location, he said he jumped at the chance.

“Sadly El Banditos is closed, so this is our opportunity,” Thelen said. “It’s weird time to do it but we’re excited by it.”

Thelen is optimistic the renovations can be completed in a month. They plan to “blow a hole” in their western wall, gut the former restaurant’s space and use the wealth of new square-footage to spread out their aisles and add new items.

“There are so many times where we’d gone to estate [sales] and things and just didn’t have the space to accommodate sofas and larger pieces of furniture, so this will really be great for us,” Thelen said.

The store will likely continue to sport its signature crowded shelves — “There is never a shortage of stuff in this world.” — but the move “will just mean that when we have a dining set it won’t be covered with other items — you’ll be able to see it,” Thelen said.

He is also thrilled for the additional wall space to better display Artifact’s collection of artwork.

“I have my degree in arts, Margaret has her degree in arts, Steve had his degree in design — we’re all a bunch of artists and we have so much art, it gets piled up on the floor. Now we’ll be able to actually hang all the art that we get.”

Artifacts has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began in Iowa City, save for a month in June when reported case numbers dipped. The expansion will allow the business to reopen its doors to two or three customers at a time while maintaining social distancing, Thelen believes.

Business has been slow and difficult during the pandemic, he said. The store has been able to sell enough items through social media, over the phone and curbside pick-ups to pay rent and employee salaries, and a PPP loan has also helped them get by. They’ve continued to take consignments and are eager to display some of their newer acquisitions.

How does it feel to be expanding one’s business during a public health and economic crisis? According to Thelen: “Terrifying. It’s absolutely terrifying.”

“But the virus will end, and we’ve set aside enough money that will allow us to work on [renovations],” he said. “It’s our 25th year, so we had all kinds of big plans for a big celebration and those didn’t materialize. So this will kind of be our celebration.”


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Artifacts plans to continue to sell items online and over the phone during the expansion process, Thelen said. He encourages the public to follow them on Facebook and Instagram to stay updated on their progress.

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Artifacts celebrates 20 years

A variety of salt and pepper shakers are seen at Artifacts on Friday, June 19, 2015. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen

Artifacts, the antique and collectible shop located in the Northside Marketplace, will celebrate 20 years in business on Saturday.

Owner Todd Thelen attributes his success to paying attention.

"Paying attention is the big one as far as the business goes, because it keeps changing," he said. "It used to be certain antiques — Victorian and glassware and all of that stuff — were hot, and now it is as dead as a doornail. No one cares about it. They really want the mid-century, post-war really."

Thelen came to Iowa City with an art degree from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., to attend the University of Iowa graduate program in printmaking. He had been interested in antiques from an early age. After moving to Iowa City, he furnished his apartment from garage sales, thrift shops and auctions. This led to his involvement in the local antiques and collectibles scene, and eventually to his purchase of Artifacts, 331 E. Market St., from one of the founders 12 years ago.

"This business was started by three other people, Mark (Stevenson), Jefri (Palermo) and Bradley (Stout)," he said. "They started off with crafty furniture, handmade things, and then they moved into antiques.

Sherry Pardee of Iowa City browses Artifacts on Friday. The store will celebrate 20 years in business on Saturday.

"I used to be in a shop called Granny's, which was down on Highway 6," Thelen said. "Mark wanted to get out of the business. I thought, OK. I jumped on it."

Today, Artifacts sells almost anything vintage. In addition to furniture and decorative objects, the store carries an ever-changing collection of vintage clothing, jewelry, artwork, postcards and knickknacks. The current inventory includes a 1,000-year-old Indian temple fragment, an extensive collection of salt and pepper shakers and a 1988 Guns N' Roses T-shirt.

"Our theme is if it's boring, we don't have it," Thelen said. "We just try to keep it interesting, and we have a really great following with some amazing customers."

Margaret Roberts is one of two sales associates at Artifacts. Five years ago, while working at Design Ranch, she was looking for a change. She liked the idea of selling vintage items instead of new.

"I'd been shopping here forever," she said. "(Working at Artifacts) just made so much sense."

A fragment of a 1000-year-old sculpture is seen at Artifacts on Friday, June 19, 2015. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen

She helps with sales, book work and displays, and serves as Thelen's right hand, Roberts said.

Students frequently stop by Artifacts to browse, buy vintage clothing, or purchase items for their apartments.

"Kids who are in college now were born in the '90s, so they are looking for completely different things," Thelen said. "They are looking for '80s and some '90s stuff."

"We sell a lot of postcards and vintage photographs to students," he added. "Fortunately, Margaret knows that stuff better than I do. It's all rehash. It all comes back around."

Keeping an interesting inventory has been important to Artifacts' success. To reduce carrying costs, about 80 percent of store items are sold on consignment.

"We have close to 1,000 consignors now," Thelen said. "Some of them will just bring in a dozen things, but then we have some pretty serious ones who come in every week and bring us things.

"I have some pretty strong pickers who bring me good stuff, who are always out scouring the countryside looking for things," he added.

"People inherit stuff and want to keep a few boxes," Roberts said. "It's like, what do you do with everything? So we try to help them see that it's not just something to put in the landfill."

Margaret Roberts helps a customer at Artifacts on Friday. She was a longtime customer before she started working there five years ago.

"We rescue a lot of stuff," Thelen said. "We don't call ourselves recyclers … I guess we are. It's more like rescuing things because so many things get pitched. And they are still functional and far more interesting than the things that are being made today."

Location and low overhead also have been important parts of the successful business.

"This building was built at the same time as John's Grocery across the street," Thelen said. "It's got the same decorative elements above all the windows. It's one of the earlier buildings."

Thelen would like Artifacts to continue to grow, but he is constrained by its 19th century space.

"Unless a really great space came up in this neighborhood, that was reasonably priced, we're going to be here a long time," he said. "Hopefully another 20 years."


• What: Antique and collectible shop.

• Where: 331 E. Market St. in Iowa City.

• Phone: 319-358-9617.

• Website:


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The Future is Unwritten

Artifacts was voted Best Vintage/Consignment Store in Little Village’s 2020 Best of the CRANDIC awards.

Todd Thelan has owned Northside corner store Artifacts since 2003. This year he knocked a hole through a 150-year-old brick wall in the shop, tripling his space in the process.

“It still freaks me out when I walk through that doorway,” he said. “It should not be there.”

2020 presented challenges to the small, artsy staff at Artifacts, causing them to close the vintage shop’s doors for weeks on end and cancel their 25th anniversary celebrations. But it’s also offered massive opportunities — most notably, the chance to expand into the neighboring storefront, which Thelan has dreamed of for years.

“We’ve been setting aside money just waiting for an opportunity like this; we didn’t know if it was going to happen. It happened pretty quickly in July.” El Banditos announced it was moving in with Billy’s High Hat Diner, leaving 327 E Market St unoccupied. Thelan claimed the space and set about a three-month renovation process.

The new, huge Artifacts — full of antique furniture, metal signs, wall art and even a giant painting of Richard Nixon’s head — opened in early November (a mask mandate and customer limit enforced). The reactions have been “immensely positive” and “heartwarming,” Thelan said.

“I think it’s a sanity issue for a lot of people,” he said of customers’ attraction to vintage shopping during the pandemic. “The best compliment I got was the other day a woman came in, she said, ‘I feel like I’ve been on vacation. This is a brand-new place I’ve never been to and it’s right here at home.’”

Artifacts’ tight-knit four-person staff—who have sold everything from mammoth teeth to rare, hand-painted African movie posters to an actual monkey paw—have also found the expansion fulfilling.

“We have a lot of fun and we laugh most of the day,” said Margaret Roberts, an Artifacts employee for 10 years. “There’s just a chemistry that works as far as just us as people. Todd’s a very generous boss and real and easy to talk to. It’s never boring here—there’s always something or someone new coming in. It just feels like there’s a creative atmosphere and we all just get along.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 289.

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