Published: June 28, 2022
In downtown Salem, Mass., on 11 Central Street is a grand brick Federal, familiar to all citizens of and frequent visitors to “Witch City.” Built in 1811 by Charles Bullfinch (1763-1844), it became known as the First National Bank Building as it was the first of its kind in Essex County. Two years ago this September, Christian Marcus and Erika Diehl moved into the ground floor and set up shop with their namesake business Diehl Marcus & Company. In addition to their signature line of tea, candles, soaps and other goods, Diehl Marcus offers a world-class gallery of antiques and vintage objects for those who expect more out of their souvenirs. The business has since expanded, including public and private events in their upstairs ballroom and parlor. Diehl Marcus has only just begun to tap into the potential of this historic spot, and we were excited to speak with Marcus about the past, present and future of this venture.
Congratulations on the fourth anniversary of Diehl Marcus & Company coming up soon! Tell us about your background and how your business came to be.
It’s amazing to think it’s been four years already! Thankfully, my mother was wise enough then to keep me busy by getting me a summer job at a local theater where I spent my time building sets and props at age 16. Being a part of something that allowed me to create environments and experiences for an audience was such a pivotal and eye-opening experience for my young self and I absolutely fell in love with that world! Still, finding myself less than thrilled with small town life at that age, I decided to start building my own world around me. Starting with my bedroom, I got my creative wheels into motion, turning it into a study much like Sherlock Holmes and then later expanding the world into my parents’ basement.
By the time I was 19, I felt that I wanted nothing more than to share my world with others and so I set about opening a shop. Not an easy task at that age and time, mind you, but I eventually met someone who gave me a great chance and opportunity, which allowed me to open my first shop, located in the back room of a fetish clothing store located in Cambridge, Mass. I sold vintage punk rock pins, postcards and posters. I learned very quickly that customers were more amazed at the environment I created than just the products themselves. I would sometimes joke that I should just turn my shop into a museum and charge admission.
Moving on in age, college seemed like a good idea and so next I found myself in art school in New York City, which I dropped out of, like any self-respecting bohemian artist. Not soon after, I finally realized that vision of opening a museum and this time it was a traveling cabinet of curiosities. I figured if I was limited to only a small, moveable museum, the exhibits should be very alluring and sensational, so in following in the footsteps of P.T. Barnum, I crafted strange oddities like the Feegee Mermaid, mummified hands and the like. Such a fun experience that I treasure many memories from and look forward to perhaps presenting again one day, at Diehl Marcus of course.
Next up, fate decided to catapult me clear across the states into California, where I somehow managed to open a variety theatre with some of my museum as part of the lobby. There we had weekly variety shows employing jugglers, sword swallowers, burlesque acts and magicians. Showbiz is a tricky business and it left me having to eventually find a way towards an “honest” living and so I began work as the production designer for a themed bar company, crafting environments throughout Hollywood, ranging from 1920s speakeasys to La Belle Époque Parisian bars and grungy basement hipster enclaves. Filling lulls with gigs such as building movie sets, props, escape rooms and a laundry list of pop-up stores eventually turned me toward the desire of opening another brick and mortar [location]. This time, [it was] with the great help (and patience) of my wife Erika, who is also quite creative in her own right and thankfully has a good mind for business and creating paths for my wild ideas.
We started by selling what we loved hunting for, antiques! The overabundance of unique antiques and props collected over the years would be the perfect products to offer with the environment I was itching to create in Los Angeles, that of a Victorian mansion which housed an eccentric collector of objects from all over the world. If you’ve met me, some might say, not a far reach. But it felt like Los Angeles should be privy to this dreamworld, even if only tucked into a small shop within her city streets.
After close to two years in the [Los Angeles] shop, building a beautiful community around us, the dreaded pandemic hit, and our shop, business and events came to a halt. Hope and supportive friends around us kept our spirits up for most days, but eventually we had run out of savings and had to pivot to survive or settle with throwing it all into storage, which would’ve been like death to us and our dreams. The unknown future of Diehl Marcus was frightening but also inspired us to take a leap of faith and relocate back to Massachusetts, and during this moment, as fate would have it, we manifested an actual eccentric collectors’ mansion, which is where we are now, right in the heart of Salem. Shop, museum, venue, theater, everything has come full circle and culminated into this world of our creating! We are forever grateful to be where we landed.
Since arriving in Salem, you’ve slowly taken over 11 Central Street and have given it new life. Tell us more about that process.
Moving into a historic building, especially a commercial one, is always a journey of discovery, various alterations and renovations. The 200-year history of this grand building has since added heating, central AC and indoor plumbing. We are quite happy to say it has not detracted from the historical charm of the place but made it more attractive to modern comforts as one could imagine. We have, and are, going room by room crafting and designing a look that is suitable for each area so that it feels right when our guests are here. From a dark, wood paneled library downstairs to a [Robert] Adamesque ballroom, the massive and imposing brick façade of the building seems to suggest a certain dark, worldly, academic interior lies just beyond the front door and so, we mustn’t disappoint! We have let the sense of what should be inside inform us as to what we go about putting inside each room. We feel that we must also make efforts to lend the spaces and layout to our hospitality and retail endeavors, without losing that residential feel.
What kind of curios can visitors expect to discover when visiting your shop?
Typically, we try to associate our antiques with our product line of teas, handmade apothecary items and candles, allowing for a great amount of variety in soap dishes, candle holders, teacups and teapots. The more curious items evoke the age of sail and trade with India, China and the South Seas, such as opium pipes, idols and the odd monkey paw. We also carry antique nautical tools and instruments.
Your teas, candles and apothecary products are original to Diehl Marcus. How does your love of history and antiques influence their creation?
Creating our product line was arrived at by looking at what merchants of 200 years ago were carrying and what we could make our own. Tea, soaps and candles were a mainstay of importers and shops then as they are now. Crafting scents that evoke far off lands and exotic spices adds a layer to the experience of history. It’s wonderful to explore historical connections and context in relation to a tangible object, such as a cup of tea, where one can discover the taste of a favorite author, artist or explorers preferred blend. Many of our candles are named after books such as Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, in which we imagine what scents that story evokes.
The gallery spaces and event areas of the building are decorated with both stock and objects from your personal collection. How do you decide what to keep and what to sell?
When we come across items that really define our brand and our environment, we keep them. Some items do end up going on sale, but only if we can replace it with another, that will even better define a certain look or feeling. For example, we had a tea crate that was about 60 years old and served as a wonderful display, until we procured a 200-year-old tea crate, which was far superior, and so it took its place. We are also guilty of collector’s fatigue and just get bored of seeing something on the shelf for too long and so we try to only keep things as long as it brings us happiness. It can occasionally be a mere case of running out of space and having to give something the axe.
How has Salem as a destination location informed the direction of your business?
Salem is a proudly unique destination, both a charming historical seaside New England town and an internationally known pop culture mecca. Tourists relate the city to witches and pirates and so there is no shortage of businesses eager to capitalize on those tropes. Having grown up in the area, I was keen to complement, complete if you will, the experience by adding edginess to the area’s overlooked history of maritime trade. By looking through the modern-day lens of Harry Potter, Stephen King and the like, we’ve been able to recapture interest, intrigue and romance in an otherwise staid subject. As a tourist destination, we must carry products that fit both a certain budget, size and recognition that we find large or very high-ticket items are a much harder sell for travelers. It’s beneficial to carry products that are also available for reordering on our website, such as tea, soaps and candles that are best experienced in person first. Often customers will forego getting too much to pack into their luggage and decide to order it online when they get home.
What wonders are in store for devotees of Diehl Marcus?
Well, without giving away too many of the surprises up our sleeves, we can say more of a good thing! More retail areas, astounding shows and peculiar performances, along with some very exciting gallery exhibits, surprising collaborations and a very haunting Halloween experience!
– Z.G. Burnett
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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