Fun and funky collectibles draw a crowd to the Zeppelin and the Unicorn in Delaware
By John Chambless
“I wanted the shop to be someplace that’s embraced by the community. Something approachable and fun, with things for everyone,” said Jacqui Donahue, who co-owns The Zeppelin and the Unicorn Antiques in Wilmington, Del., with her husband, Larry. “I didn’t want it to be high-end, because that’s not me. And I didn’t want it to be a thrift shop with junk. We’re a destination where you can come and spend some time.”
Anyone who has visited the rambling red barn knows that it will take some time to see everything in a shop that takes fun seriously.
There are more than 50 dealers exhibiting in the various rooms, and Larry’s whimsical sculptures and mobiles are part of the overall experience. The shop is packed but accessible, with some stacks of antiques and collectibles for customers who don’t mind digging, as well as bright, airy displays that highlight jewelry, mid-century design and vintage clothing.
Jacqui is a lifelong doll collector whose mother taught her the value of finding second-hand treasures. She was a biology/art double major in college “and I had a vision of doing museum work,” she said, but her artistic side brought her to art classes at the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pa., where she met Larry at a kiln they were both using.
Larry has his master’s degree in ceramics, and worked at Delaware College of Art and Design. Their son, Chris, is frequently seen at the shop, helping customers find just the right items.
The unusual name of the shop comes from Larry’s affinity for zeppelins and Jacqui’s fondness for unicorns, and it stands out as a memorable hook for customers. Jacqui was selling dolls as one of the dealers in the shop under its former owner for about 10 years, and when the owner passed away, she and Larry decided to take the plunge and buy the business. They settled on the property on Nov. 11, 2011, and brought the collection of dealers along with them.
The one-story barn sits in a hollow next to Silverside Road in north Wilmington, making it look smaller than it really is. The most frequent comment the Donahues hear from new customers is, “I had no idea this place was this big!”
There are various personalities to the rooms in the shop, although the quality of the merchandise is kept high. The pricing is attractive, with fun little finds at $1 or less, on up to highly collectible 1960s furniture.
One large room holds the JAM record store, which stocks a huge amount of vintage vinyl records and music collectibles, and has its own loyal clientele. But there are also areas brimming with toys, folk art, military antiques, repurposed vintage items, books, glass, paper collectibles and gently used fashions. In short, just about everything.
The Zeppelin and the Unicorn has been voted “Best Antiques Store in Delaware” three times – 2015, 2017 and 2019 – by the readers of Delaware Today magazine, an honor that the Donahues do not take lightly.
They offer free appraisal nights about four times a year, when anyone can bring in an item they’ve been wondering about and get a history and approximate value from appraiser Bob Lucas. There are Ladies Night events with cocktails, as well as Halloween and Christmas sales that bring out the decorations and pile on the savings for customers.
If a customer doesn’t find what they’re looking for, they are referred to other antique stores in the region. Jacqui and Larry are frequent visitors to surrounding shops and malls, and they know where to find items they don’t have at the Zeppelin and Unicorn.
And young visitors also enjoy the shop. In stark contrast to antique malls where children are regarded with suspicion, the Zeppelin and the Unicorn offers free candy at the front counter, and young guests can pick a free toy from a box when they leave.
“Kids are our future customers,” Jacqui said. “We want to make families comfortable when they come here.”
Having built longtime relationships with all their dealers – the shop doesn’t have to advertise for new vendors – both Jacqui and Larry admit they succumb to buying items for their own collections sometimes. “I don’t resist,” Larry said, laughing, and Jacqui added, “I buy all my clothes second-hand.”
They are also always looking for new items to sell. On weekdays, they are happy to talk to people who come in with things to sell, or they will refer people to auction houses or other dealers in the area who might be interested.
The store is open every day except Tuesday, with either Jacqui or Larry behind the counter all the time. The couple lives only about a block away from the store, which is convenient, but means that they never really get away from work.
“We haven’t had a vacation since we bought the place,” Larry said, smiling. He listed “taking a vacation” as one of his goals for the future, and Jacqui added that she’d like to increase the social media presence of the shop. But for the most part, the Zeppelin and the Unicorn has built its reputation on a welcoming atmosphere, a diverse selection of items ranging from funky to functional, and a genuine willingness to help customers find just what they’re looking for.
“We really use word of mouth,” Jacqui said. “That’s how we have gotten our dealers, and that’s how a lot of people find out about us. People come in, love what they see, and tell their friends. People walk out and say, ‘This is my very favorite shop.’”
The Zeppelin and the Unicorn Antiques is at 400 Silverside Road, Wilmington, Del. Call 302-792-0555 or visit www.zeppelinandunicornantiques.com.
Outside-Jacqui and Larry Donahue took over as co-owners of the Zeppelin and the Unicorn store in 2011. Traveller is the store’s canine mascot.
Inside-The Zeppelin and Unicorn features antiques and collectibles from more than 50 dealers.
Mid-century-One of the dealers at the shop specializes in mid-century furniture and décor.
Records-One of the large shops features vintage vinyl records and other music collectibles.