Owner of Joe Ley Antiques dies, auction scheduled for October

Sheila Ley remembers her father, Joe Ley, as “The Walt Disney of antiques.”

His shop at 615 E. Market St., housed perhaps Louisville’s most eclectic and famous collection of antiques and curiosities. Now part of that collection is going up for auction this week.

The longtime business owner NuLu was a treasure in this community and this week ― three years after his three-story schoolhouse-turned-antique-shop closed ― his fans have a chance to shop again from his assortment massive of local stories and memories. Ley, 79, died in June of kidney failure, which was a complication of cancer, his daughter said. The family did not publicize his death and arranged his burial without pomp or circumstance because it was Ley’s wish.

Ley was an undeniable institution in Louisville, and his store was loved by locals and attracted people from all over the country. The online auction for the Ley estate began at 1 p.m. on October 19 on HarrittGroup.com and will run until October 26 at 1 p.m. The auction will be offered in multiple sessions and includes items handpicked from its Louisville shopping complex, offsite warehouses and Ley’s personal private collection.

Even after the clearance sale in 2019, there was still enough of the collection to fill 35 storage units, her daughter said. She spent another 18 months after the store closed clearing the building for the next owner, and she doesn’t know how many auctions it will take to sell her father’s heirloom.

Joe Ley has been running Joe Ley Antiques for over 50 years in Louisville.  October 18, 2019

Scrolling through the long list of auction items is almost like stepping back into that old school. The first item listed is “Joe Ley Antique’s handwritten store sign”.

Among the dozens of items available for purchase are a Clabber Girl Baking Powder double-sided metal sign, a tin of butter cookies, Kentucky Fried Chicken type print pads, an 1800s Victorian pram, a German Glockenspiel xylophone, Boy Scout of American official first aid kit and a pair of Falls City Beer store billboards. The estate auction includes a wide selection of memorabilia from Louisville’s Fontaine Ferry Park, such as a cast aluminum horse and jockey figurines, as well as roller skates and a carrying case.

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Ley’s passion for Louisville history began with Fontaine Ferry Park, which was an amusement park bordering Louisville’s Shawnee Park that closed in the 1960s after the race riots. Ley grew up as an orphan and as a child he couldn’t afford the nickel to go inside, his daughter said. His father often looked through the hole in the park fence and swore that one day he would have a piece of Fontaine Ferry.

The park closed before he could afford to go, so instead he started collecting souvenirs there. This grew into a collection of other nostalgic commercial signs, and eventually he became the supplier and decorator to major national restaurant chains such as TGI Friday’s and Houlihan’s.

“You can come from nothing and be anything, and he’s a perfect example of that,” her daughter said.

Joe Ley, owner of Joe Ley Antiques poses with a carousel horse in his shop.  February 20, 1993

Ley’s lasting imprint on Louisville is almost as colorful as his taste for treasures. In 1990, Ley approached local businesses and landowners to join him in signing a petition to the city of Louisville to create a plan to deal with theft and homelessness issues in the area. of the East Market District. A year later, he became a founding member of the East Downtown Business Association, now known as the NuLu Trade Association.

“When you think about how this has affected the whole development of the neighborhood, I give him credit for making NuLu what it is today,” said Rick Murphy, the current president of association. “He was the original visionary who thought the Old East Market area could become a center for the arts.”

His daughter, who worked side-by-side with him for nearly 50 years, recalled hiring security guards to escort customers to their cars when they opened on East Market Street. His father clung to the potential, however.

“It just wasn’t somewhere you would go,” her daughter said. “He was a visionary, and he could see it when others couldn’t.”

He was the first NuLu business owner to commission a mural on the side of his building, she recalls. The design, which features two rainbow robots, seemed borderline absurd to him at the time, but in reality, he had as much personality as Ley.

More than 30 years later, NuLu has become a booming destination for retail stores, hotels and restaurants. Now, there are so many buildings covered in equally imaginative murals that the neighborhood itself has become a work of art. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, and it’s Ley’s vision and the enthusiasm of his customers that has helped propel the entire neighborhood forward.

“Everyone who set foot in that front door was part of our story, and I want them to know how grateful we were to them,” her daughter said. “We would have been nothing without the customers, and we can’t thank them enough.”

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Capital of Campisanoa New York City real estate development and investment firm, purchased the old school building from Ley in August 2019. For decades, Ley and his iconic ponytail have been a home on East Market Street , and he told the Courier Journal in 2019 that the “heartbreaking” decision to sell the business was largely due to his medical condition.

Antiquity was not only his job, it was his calling. He has dedicated his career to collecting and preserving the history of Louisville. Ley was a master at remembering the names of his longtime customers, their children and their dogs, and he remembered who bought what items and where they were delivered.

A rendering shows some preliminary plans to preserve and renovate the old school where Joe Ley Antiques and replace two adjacent warehouses.

“Joe was a really interesting guy and a nice person,” Murphy said. “He had a gruff exterior and was a really good guy, and his love of Louisville was unquestioned. He just thought Louisville was a really special place.”

Columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, southern Indiana, and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and sometimes a little weird. If you have something in your family, your city, or even your closet that fits this description, she wants to hear from you. Say hello to [email protected] or 502-582-4053. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.

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