Furniture, vinyl, watches and paintings: Inside Ulysses Modern, Iowa City’s newest vintage shop

Clara and Ryan Quinn in their vintage store Ulysses Modern, 1224 S Gilbert St, Iowa City. Jan. 2021. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Ryan Quinn attended auctions and scoured thrift stores and junkyards for car parts with his family as a kid. In his teen years, he started searching on his own for punk rock albums from artists like The Clash. These days, he travels thousands of miles a month in his minivan, hunting down art, watches, vintage denim, mid-century modern furniture or anything else that catches his eye in a process he calls “picking.”

“I started getting interested in mid-century modern 12, 13 years ago, really just by chance,” Quinn said. “I’d been a record and vinyl collector and I was out all the time looking for records.”

His interest led him to open a store in Cedar Rapids called First Class Finds, with Dave Owens. That first business venture didn’t work out, but Ryan ended up working with Owens again for two years at Mad Modern.

In the last year, Owen’s decided to sell the property.

“That kind of forced my card on either finding my own place or trying to do business online in a different way than I had been,” he said.

The result was a new store front in Iowa City. In October of 2020, Ryan opened Ulysses Modern with Clara Quinn, his wife and business partner.

“We were feeling cut off, and we were feeling like we needed to make an exerted effort to try and put our values and what we really cared about in action into our lives, and that things were crazy and hard already, so there weren’t really any excuses left, we just had to kind of go for it,” Clara said. “And we weren’t willing to just kind of be miserable and fall into the despair that was 2020.”

The Quinns have amassed their collection of art, furniture, records and clothing from Ryan’s travels, sometimes making as many as 40 stops a day.

Art, furniture and decor on sale at Ulysses Modern, 1224 S Gilbert St, Iowa City. Jan. 2021. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“I do about four to five thousand miles a month. I go north, south, east and west and I go to just about anywhere you could think that sells stuff. I do auctions, I do estate sales, I do secondhand stores, I do antique malls,” he said.

Even as stores closed and auctions ceased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Quinns were able to keep picking via dealer-to-dealer sales with their “network” of fellow buyers and sellers.

Especially now, it can take persistence to uncover a true gem, Ryan said.

“You might not find something for three or four hours and you’ve gone to 10 or 15 places, and then you’ll find that one thing that pays off for the day or that really makes it worthwhile,” Ryan said. “I get a kick out of the hunt too, the treasure hunt. I love that part of finding it and feeling you get when you find something great.”

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Ryan is self-taught when it comes to design, he said. He is also fairly new to the world of vintage fashion, having started buying and selling clothes about two years ago.

“Part of the antique business and dealings [is] that you have to watch the trends and what people are doing and what people are buying — where the industry is going, I should say,” Ryan explained. “Vintage clothing [is] really mainstream popular right now.”

Being open to trying new things — something he learned from previous business ventures — also led Ryan to discovering a new obsession: watches. He wasn’t a “watch guy,” he said, but his friend kept asking him to find him some watches while Ryan was out picking. Finally, he put down around $50 on a box of watches at a garage sale.

“There were two really great watches in there, and he was elated. I kept one,” a 1969 Omega Seamaster, Ryan said, “and I sold him the other one.”

Clara has also been bringing her own style and interests to the store.

“I like some things that are kind of quirkier than what he likes and he likes some things that are way avant garde to me,” she said. “He likes a lot of brutalist stuff that I think is a little intense and some of the Memphis ’80s stuff. I am more willing to play in the kind of old vintage world of the ’40s and ’50s a little bit more. And I’m trying to try to bring a little bit of a more feminine touch here and there.”

Clara introduced Ryan to studio pottery when they first got together, and now they carry a collection of ceramic work at Ulysses Modern. Once, a customer even came in and recognized a piece of pottery they made that was being sold in the store.

Besides the design aesthetics of the pieces the couple sells, Ryan and Clara also value the history behind the art in their store. Clara said they enjoy researching designers and artists, and have several pieces from notable Iowa artists in the store. This include artwork by Mauricio Lasansky, who started a printmaking workshop at the University of Iowa, and UI graduate Susan Hale, who also has a piece in the Smithsonian.

They even met the widow of Richard Pinney, who visited the store and saw a piece by her late husband hanging on the wall.

“She was very emotional about just seeing his art in a local place and people who loved it,” Clara said.

Of course, the Quinns don’t just collect pieces by renowned artists. Take the set of wooden farm characters Ryan found in a Cedar Rapids basement at an estate sale, each with a different emotion carved onto their faces.

“I buy like I think anybody who likes to buy art: you buy what you like. What makes you feel something, what turns you on,” he said. “I really love playful things, unique things.”

Clara said the store is designed to inspire customers.

“We really look for things that are unique that somebody might walk in and decide to redecorate an interior room around a specific piece or it gives them an idea, spurs their imagination in some kind of way,” she said. The store can also serve as a source of nostalgia or education; a recent customer enjoyed flipping through the vinyl collection, and said he didn’t even know record players were being sold anymore.

Among the thrifted finds in Ulysses Modern are vinyl records. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Ryan has plenty of vintage items he bought for himself stored in his garage. He considered bringing some of them into Ulysses Modern to serve as decoration, but the Quinns decided they didn’t want to display anything customers couldn’t purchase. There are only two items not for sale in the store: a sketch of Princess Diana that a customer made, and a sign with the store’s name on it designed by artists at Crossroads Tattoo in Coralville.

“They made the sign for us when we first opened,” Clara said. She’s good friends with Todd Thelan, owner of fellow Iowa City vintage shop Artifacts, and “we’re making new friends,” she said. “We’ve stopped and talked to some of the new businesses here on Gilbert Street.”

They keep business cards for other local shops at the counter to introduce them to Ulysses Modern customers. They want to work as a community with other local businesses, rather than compete with them.

Despite opening their doors during a stressful time for small businesses, Ryan and Clara say they have received support from the community, which they are gratefully for.

“We’ve heard so many really wonderful comments from people about how excited they are about the shop and how fun they think it is and how happy they are that we’re here and doing this,” Clara said. “We’re feeling the love, I guess is the best way to put it. We always thought that that would be a great place to have a vintage shop and you’re proven us right, Iowa City.”