WESTFIELD, NJ — For the past 40 years, Betty Gallagher has operated her popular antique store in the Felice building on Broad Street. No more, as of Aug. 31. The sign in the window says it all: “Closing: 50% off everything.”
Over four decades, customers and friends frequently popped in for a chat, usually greeted by Jesse, Betty’s Labrador retriever. She’s always had a lab, each one adopted from The Seeing Eye in Morristown.
Tail wagging, Jesse strolls around calmly greeting customers. Then he drifts off for a nap. He's almost 15, considered a senior senior among dogs.
Jesse’s owner is also considered a senior senior. She’s perfectly happy disclosing her age: “I’m 85,” Gallagher announced with a big smile.
“I’m moving on now to have more time to devote to gardening, grandkids and travels,” she said, adding with mock sincerity, “And to clean my closets.”
“I’m not selling the business but liquidating,” she explained. “Whatever is left after the 50 percent off sale will be sold to an auctioneer.”
This self-described Jersey Girl was raised in Glen Ridge, successfully completing their school system before attending Bucknell and NYU. That was in the 50s. Because career options were severely limited back then for females, “In a rash move, I became a United Airlines stewardess based in Chicago,” she said. They flew DC4s, which were unpressurized.
“We flew over the Rockies like that and had no problems, just a good time,” she said.
That’s when she met and married a pilot who was subsequently based in Florida, where their two daughters, Reni (a nickname for Karen) and Robin were born. When that marriage ended in divorce, Gallagher returned to New Jersey with her daughters. After a short stint at Plainfield radio station WERA selling ads, she then tackled selling real estate, which is where she met and married Mr. Gallagher, her second husband, a real estate broker.
But how did any of the preceding events translate into Gallagher becoming an antiques dealer?
“For starters, in 1970 our house burned down in Warren Township. It was a sunny summer day when we slipped off to the shore,” she recalled. “But while we were sunning ourselves, our house in Warren was burning to the ground.” There went her own real estate.
Added to that tragedy, Gallagher owned an upscale restaurant, Gallagher's Colonial House, in Middlesex. It barely survived hurricane Dorian because the restaurant was perched on a hill with hip high flooding below. That was enough for her. Reflecting on her two years as a restaurant owner, she groaned, “Owning a restaurant, you are a slave to it. Those were the longest two years of my life.”
Of course once their home was rebuilt, it had to be furnished. Her shopping expeditions included auctions and house sales. She purchased antique furniture that required her to invest hours in refinishing, which she enjoyed.
“That became a passion and then a business,” she said. “I guess you could say that I got caught up in it.”
That was the impetus to open her Westfield store in 1978. She also had established a keen eye for antique art, having minored in art at Bucknell and NYU.
Obviously a multifaceted woman, when Gallagher’s store was doing well enough she began buying American Saddlebreds for show.
“I've had a lifelong passion for horses,” she confessed. She has owned a total seven champion stock Saddlebreds but she hastened to amplify, “Only one at a time. It’s very expensive to show horses and pay professional riders experienced in competition. I worked myself up to show at Madison Square Garden and in Louisville, Kentucky.”
Occasionally, she rode in competition herself.
“I didn't do too badly. Once I was proudly ‘in the ribbons.’ I came in seventh out of 35 entries," she recalled. Her horse Sultan's Knight Whispers became a world champion in Louisville.
To offset the equine expenses, she augmented her antique store income by designing her own Saddlebred styled gold jewelry, which she sold at the American Saddlebred Museum as well as horse shows.
While versatile Betty only creates jewelry on occasion, it is her daughter Reni's main focus and expertise.
After the store closes on Aug. 31, “Reni will continue to excel in the jewelry profession,” said her mom. “And Robin’s sons, Tristan and Phil — my pride and joy — will be an added bonus to my retirement.”
Then there's her friend with whom she's traveled to Kenya, Tanzani and the Galapagos Islands in recent years who is primed for their next international adventure.
“And why not?” Gallagher asked. “I feel fine, I’ll have more time and I’m raring to go.”