Old business

The sudden, unexpected death of Maurice Levy's Knox Street antiques business came early July 8, while he was on a roof, repairing an air conditioner.

Marcie Williams, the manager of Knox Street Antique Mall, delivered the news with a phone call.

"She told me that Keith Cecil came early in the morning and put up two signs saying that the mall was closed, and that I needed to make arrangements to move my merchandise," Levy recalls. The 62-year-old air-conditioning contractor sells fine estate jewelry and watches as a side business.

The closing came as a shock to Levy and other merchants at the mall. When his tenants paid their July rents, Keith Warren Cecil III, the landlord who leased space to dealers at 3319 Knox St. and at the Windsor Antique Mall in Preston Center, gave them no hint that the shops were in trouble.

No hint, that is, except a history of bad debts and troubled finances that his tenants were unaware of until Cecil's past caught up with them. Now, when it comes to collecting the rent they paid Cecil and the money he owes them from sales of their antiques, some fear they may be out of luck.

To Cecil, shutting down the two malls is just business -- closings happen -- but the 100 or so small dealers tossed out of Cecil's malls on July 8 are left contemplating another lesson: Let the tenant beware.

Like most antique dealers, Levy conducts business out of a mall because it affords him the convenience of owning a retail business without the red tape. In exchange for rent and 6 percent of his sales, Levy received space to display his merchandise at Knox Street Antique Mall. Cecil's company took care of hiring a full-time staff, advertising and promoting the mall, and paying the sales taxes on merchandise sold. Twice a month, the mall issued checks to the dealers for their sales.

Three days after Cecil collected rent for July, the malls went out of business. About the same time that dealers were told to remove their merchandise from the buildings, they also heard that checks issued for goods sold between June 15 and June 30 were bouncing. When they rushed down to First National Bank of Park Cities, the bank where the checks were issued, they learned that the escrow account where their money was supposed to be deposited had been closed by Cecil.

The only communication most dealers had from Cecil about the closings were signs posted on the malls' doors, instructing them to call his lawyer W. Michael Read with any questions.

Barbara Falk, a dealer at Knox Street, says Read told her that Cecil's company had been evicted from the building that housed Windsor Mall, which Cecil leased and then sublet to dealers. After being evicted from one, he decided to close both. Before Read could tell Falk anything else, he said, he would need to speak with Cecil. Several dealers who spoke to the lawyer said he appeared "clueless."

Read says that he was aware that Cecil would be closing the mall but that he was unprepared for the multitude of phone calls he would receive. He began representing Cecil's corporation, 6126 Luther Lane L.L.C, after Cedar Springs Realty, the company that owned the Windsor Mall location, took Cecil to court for unpaid rent and taxes that originated with the mall's former tenant, Windsor Antique Mall L.L.C. From the time that Cecil acquired the Windsor Antique Mall in February 1998, he had been in dispute with the realty company about the lease agreement, arguing that he was not responsible for the former tenant's debts. Cedar Springs Realty disagreed, and convinced a court to issue an eviction order in late June.

To appeal the decision, Cecil was required to post a bond of $24,600. He decided to call it quits instead.

"Now, I decided I'm not going to put $25,000 more into this store, so I said, 'I'm tired. I'm tired of messing with these people. Let's shut them down,'" Cecil says. "And that's what I did."

Cecil says that he decided to shut the Knox Street mall down as well because he believed that fickle dealers would leave once they heard he had been booted out of the Windsor space.

Cecil's abrupt decision to get out of the antique-mall business has created much work for lawyers in the last few weeks. Several dealers say they are consulting attorneys, issuing demand letters, and considering filing a criminal complaint if Cecil does not pay what he owes them.

But, judging by his history, the dealers may need more than a few letters and angry phone calls to get paid. According to court records, Cecil has been sued twice for nonpayment of debts totaling more than $10,000 and once for writing a bad check in the past 10 years. In 1990, the IRS filed a tax lien against business property he owned in the 2700 block of Fairmount. Cecil filed for personal bankruptcy in 1994 and says that he now is exploring that option on the corporate level.

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Felicia Mccarthy