Ever wondered from your booth at Applebee’s—as you peered past an antique carousel horse and layers of kitschy wall hangings and curiosities—who was in charge of decorating these chain restaurants with such regional flair? According to antiquer and professional picker Joe Ley, if there’s stuff on the wall, he’s most likely the man behind it.
Ley, now in his late 60s, was orphaned at an early age, and passed unwanted from family member to family member all throughout the South—mostly in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky, where he now resides. “In order to survive, I started picking stuff out of the alleys and would try to fix them up to sell,” says Ley.
As he got older, he graduated to salvaging buildings and buying estates; eventually, with his eye for the unusual, Ley established himself in the industry as a go-to guy for the obscure—though he describes himself simply as a “professional hoarder.”
“My first restaurant that I ever did anything for was for a friend,” Ley explains of his interior flair beginnings. “I won’t say his name because I don’t want to embarrass him, but he calls me up one day and says, ‘I have $100 and I want to see what you can do with this restaurant. And I jokingly responded, ‘Just $100? Well, I suppose I can find a nice sign or something for you to use.’”
From there, Ley’s reputation as a purveyor of perfectly nostalgic items began to grow.
In the mid 1980s Ley began supplying theme restaurants such as Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, Houlihan’s, and Max & Erma’s. Today he estimates that he receives about 50 to 60 emails each day from such chain restaurants requesting specific types of items to fill their wall space.
As such, Ley spends much of his time traveling the country in search of specific items. “My job gives me an excuse to be obsessive,” he says.
For example, Ley’s obsession with carousel horses began when he was a child. He would visit Fontaine Ferry Park, an amusement park in downtown Louisville, and stare through the fence as the carousel horses would circle around and around. “It cost a dime to get into the park—a dime I didn’t have,” Ley says. “So I told myself if I ever had any money, I would buy myself some carousel horses.”
He has since acquired 30 or 40 horses and spent six years chasing one particular set—those very same horses from Fontaine Ferry Park. “Every time I’d follow a lead, I’d end up at a dead end,” Ley explains. “Then one day, after years of looking, I ended up at a farm in the pouring rain.” The owners had dismantled the carousel frame that was rusting in their backyard and placed the horses in an old semi truck trailer that had weeds growing up almost to the door.
“‘They said, ‘We think they are in there, but are you sure you don’t want to wait until the rain stops?’” Ley recalls. “I told them, ‘I wouldn’t care if it was snowing!’ And sure enough, they were in there.”
Currently, Ley owns and operates Joe Ley Antiques, an old school house with a total of two acres of oddities and merchandise for sale, in downtown Louisville. He also still spends time traveling to estate sales across the country in search of potential treasures.
“It’s like one big treasure hunt,” Ley explains of his penchant for new acquisitions. “If it doesn’t end up in my store or in someone’s restaurant, I make sure to donate it to charity. I partner with churches and organizations in the area—just making sure I remember where I come from."
All images courtesy Joe Ley Antiques