Antique hunters keep an eye out for things like this U.S. letterbox.
Antique shops are America's attics, spilling over with junk and treasures culled from garage sales and estate sales, from flea markets and derelict houses being razed in faraway cities, and from auctions everywhere from Chico to the Internet. They are places where history and memory collide, where prizes hide in odd corners. A slow and careful browse might turn up a cigar box filled with World War II medals, an American Flyer sled, a beautiful silver cigarette case with the cryptic inscription: "Never forget . . . T.C.G. March 21, 1925." Old stories, old photos, old furniture. Old, old, old up to the rafters, heavily scented with nostalgia, background music by Benny Goodman. Travelers who revel in exploring America's back roads and the towns and villages along the way tend to know the basic steps to the Antiques Crawl. For some of these backcountry buffs, finding great deals on valuable antiques is the objective; the rest of us simply take pleasure in wandering through the repositories of the past.
Before setting out to explore Sonora and Jamestown in California's Gold Country and the historic neighborhood of Multnomah Village in Portland, Ore., as well as the nearby pioneer town of Aurora, I enlisted the aid of two veteran antique dealers—Jon Pedersen in California and Kimberly Stimac Booker in Oregon. They taught me how to "read" a shop, what to look for and what to look out for, and generally how to make antiques outings a happy dance for the whole family.
My mission was to explore only those shops that dealers call "true to the business." That meant no places cluttered with low-end garage sale leftovers, scented soaps, or modern collectibles like Beanie Babies. (Antique shops for purists are increasingly hard to find, dealers say.) The wares didn't necessarily have to be 100 years old (the official benchmark), but they did need to have some redeeming historic value.
Pedersen, who runs his business from his hometown of Oakdale, Calif., regularly scours Gold Country towns in search of antiques. One recent morning he stood with me on the wooden sidewalk at one end of Jamestown's classic High Noon Main Street to go over the lesson plan: I would step inside each shop, take a quick look around, and study how it was arranged. As we entered the Emporium, a two-story mercantile building erected in 1897, Pedersen said, "There is plenty of space and a little bit of everything but nicely organized." Gradually, my eyes adjusted, and the floor plan came into focus: old books and 1950s memorabilia on one side of the mezzanine, period toys in a back corner, oak furniture on the main floor, antique silver in glass cases near the front. Once I understood the layout, the visual bombardment ceased. Now I could plot a sensible path through what had seemed an overwhelming thicket, avoiding the Depression glass (which depressed me) and heading for the old silver (which did not). We found the proprietor, Mallory Barendregt, a third-generation Jamestownian, warming herself at a Round Oak stove, ready to discuss the antiques, their provenance, and value. The proprietor and the dealer launched into a discussion of antique silver—Pedersen's specialty. Until that moment, I had no idea how much I did not know about antiques.
To start with, anyone who really wants to get serious about antiques needs to hit the books. "Cutting-Edge Glass Info Helps Beginners Tell a Tiffany from a Target," an article in a recent issue of Antique Journal, advises those interested in collecting glass to "read, read, read" to learn all about its history, the ways in which it is manufactured, and its hundreds of styles. You need to seek out reference books, search the Web, look into newsletters, and find collectors' clubs. The resources are endless, and some of the best are the people behind the antique shop counters. Talk to them.
When making a substantial purchase that requires authentication, Pedersen says he prefers one-owner shops over antique malls. Having the owner on the spot also expedites the answer to that all-important question: "Is this a firm price?" Shop owners expect to be asked, and often the reply is "What did you have in mind?" Which means it is a good idea to have something in mind, perhaps 20 to 25 percent below the asking price, on the theory that many shops are willing to give you at least a 10 percent reduction. But bargaining should be polite. None of this "I'll give you two bucks; take it or leave it."
Temptation is part of the pleasure of antiquing. In a glass case, I came upon eight sterling-silver knives by the early-20th-century Danish designer Georg Jensen; the price was $275. Instantly (and unreasonably, since I have absolutely no need for more silver), I coveted them. Pedersen told me I could probably pick up more of the pieces on eBay or other Web sites that specialize in silver. I managed to resist, though later I did check eBay and found an assortment of Jensen silver.
Online auctions have created a groundswell of interest in antiques. So has the Antiques Roadshow on PBS, though according to the dealers I asked, the program has also created false hopes in people with family heirlooms to sell. Expecting $20,000 (because an item looks like something they have seen on the show), they assume any lower offer means the dealer is out to cheat them.
The next shop we visited was a collective, a large space shared by some 20 dealers, each with a separate niche and with someone else minding the store. Pedersen reached for a well-worn cowhide doctor's bag, took a quick look, and put it down, commenting, "The best ones are made of walrus." Then he drew my attention to a case filled with Nazi paraphernalia—popular and expensive to collect. "This is a reproduction," Pedersen said, pointing to a medal. "That would be OK if it were clearly marked, but it isn't." The world of antiques, he added, sighing, is full of reproductions and fakes. Buyers must either educate themselves or work with dealers whom they know they can trust.
At the Daisy Tree II, housed in a defunct gas station, I was still making my initial visual sweep, trying to read the place, when Pedersen came across a curious black tooled-leather box, roughly 8 inches square and lined in red satin. It had a tiny silver box attached to the top and a cartouche engraved with the name Leslie.
"It's for storing collars," Pedersen explained, "from the days when men wore removable collars on their shirts. The little silver box on top is for the collar button." Closer inspection turned up an 1890 patent mark, which prompted a lively discussion of the history of men's shirts. Then we tried to guess the time period when Leslie was a popular man's name. Pedersen said he counted the box a treasure because of its emotional value, because it was nicer than the one he already had, and, at $50, it was a good buy. I counted it a treasure for the spontaneous history lesson it provoked.
Antique shops often have a relaxed attitude about hours: "Always Open Unless We're Closed." In a window display at the Jimtown Trading Co. ("Attempted Hours 11 a.m. to 4 p.m."), I came upon some dishes exactly like the ones I had washed interminably as I was growing up in the Midwest. I could almost feel them, soap-slippery in my hands. The Autumn Leaf pattern dishes, produced for the Jewel Tea Company by Hall China in East Liverpool, Ohio, were given away as premiums in the 1930s. Now, the casserole is $75; a soufflé dish, $60. Lesson learned: One generation's cheap and ugly is the next generation's collectible.
"There isn't anything you can imagine that isn't being collected," said Sheryl Breaux at Antiques Etcetera, on South Washington Street in Sonora. While Jamestown's Main Street is dominated by antique shops, nearby Sonora is the kind of robust, living antique that has evolved to embrace smoothies, lattes, art galleries, contemporary theater, and a newly renovated bowling alley. "Darning eggs, green dishes, duck decoys, tea bags, dolls, buttons," Breaux said. "Some people like pigs. Me, I love sweaters from the 1930s and anything with a little house on it. I don't know why—it just pulls at my heart." That day, "Mood Indigo" was the background music in the spacious shop packed with, among a thousand other things, old sheet music ("Toolie Oolie Doolie" and "The Ballad of Davy Crockett") and vintage clothing, much sought after by theater companies and photographers. "Nostalgia," Breaux said, "is what makes this business work."
Kimberly Booker is a sixth-generation Oregonian and a third-generation antiques dealer. For several years, she had a shop in historic Multnomah Village, originally a trading post and now a funky neighborhood about 20 minutes from Portland's downtown. On a two-block stretch of SW Capitol, Multnomah Village has half a dozen antique shops, several art galleries, gift stores, a superb independent bookstore called Annie Bloom's, and candy and coffee shops to offer respite from the Antiques Crawl.
Booker, like Pedersen, recommends buying from owner-operated stores, preferably ones with a shelf of reference books, which suggests that the owners do their homework before authenticating and pricing an item. "A dealer's knowledge," Booker said, "is her stock in trade." A buyer has every right to ask for chapter and verse, she added. "And make sure the sales slip has the same description the owner has given you verbally."
Booker marched us into a shop and, out of earshot of the owner, pointed out that, though the neat little tags affixed to each item seemed to give authentic information, she had reservations. She waded through narrow aisles littered with the detritus of life in the closing decades of the 20th century to indicate a miniature bottle labeled "Phoenician glass, 800 B.C.-1250, $225." "Whenever you find something of great value in a setting that is a mix of age and quality," she warned, "I would be cautious."
At J.K. Hill's—a shop filled with silver and china—Jim Hill logged on to an Internet auction to show us how he makes many of his sales these days. When Booker asked, "Anything new and exciting?" he brought out a few of the 18 German porcelain place card holders he had just acquired from an estate sale in Vancouver. "They probably date only to the 1920s or '30s," Hill told us, "but look, this is what is such fun." On the backs of the place card holders, an unnamed hostess had jotted remarks about her guests: "Art—dirty hat," one said; and another, "Lola—husbands."
Hill's sense of fun reminded me that antiquing is more than the search for a good buy. Exploring historic places and the charming towns where many great shops are found is a large part of the pleasure. That is what sent me to Aurora, about an hour south of Portland. Founded as a German Christian communal colony in 1856, Aurora is a National Historic District and bills itself as the antiques capital of Oregon. Most of its shops are collectives that, with their vast array of antiques, appealed to my "just looking, thanks" approach. Accompanying me that rainy Sunday were four members of the Schultheis family from Tigard, Ore.; they turned my antiques expedition into a multigenerational family excursion.
"Cool!" 11-year-old Nicholas Schultheis murmured as he ran his fingers over the runners of a racer's toboggan, circa 1900. We came upon the toboggan in a corner of the rambling Main Street Mercantile, big enough to accommodate 51 dealers. Our party of five wandered off in all directions, then came together in varying configurations. From a perch on the balcony, I could see Nicky and his dad engrossed in a collection of old spurs, Nicky and his mom discussing the price of a cap gun, Nicky and his grandmother checking out a row of school desks from the 1940s. He joined me to examine a box of marbles, fingering the aggies and peewees that occupied generations of kids before computer games.
Between rain showers, we dashed up the street to what had once been the town mortuary but is now Impressions of Aurora, an antique store presided over by Earl Leggett, who looks like Santa Claus in mufti. To see antiques original to the site, we signed on for a tour of the Old Aurora Colony Museum, where we learned how 600 families had managed to produce everything they needed to survive in the wilderness of mid-19th century Oregon. We strolled the spacious streets those pioneers had plotted, then stopped to visit the William Fry House (1874), now a shop called Time After Time, three generations of us dancing in and out of time warps, happily practicing the Antiques Crawl.
A N T I Q U I N G 1 0 1
Is it a fake? Is it a treasure? What's a fair price? Antiques can be intimidating. But there are simple steps you can take to feel more confident when you walk into a shop.
READ. The list of books, magazines, and Web sites devoted to antiques is endless, and when you get around to collecting something specific, like mission furniture or Amish quilts, you will find hundreds of titles just for you. Until then, Antiquing for Dummies is a terrific primer, with useful advice on how to buy old glass (check for oil that might make the glass appear artificially brilliant) and how to test the age of a chest by sniffing the drawers: "Reproductions smell of lacquer or fresh wood." A price guide is also helpful. Guides like Kovels', Warman's, and Schroeder's are crammed with ballpark prices on everything from Wedgwood teacups to Stickley chairs.
SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP. In a cluttered shop, Jon Pedersen spots a nondescript gadget. He whips out a magnifying glass and scans the base for a marking. Bingo. It's a Will & Finck lemon juicer (circa 1880), priced at $125. Ridiculous? Sure. Because it's so cheap. These exquisite juicers go for up to $1,200 in San Francisco. How did Pedersen acquire his expertise? Shopping.
PATRONIZE SINGLE-OWNER SHOPS. Enormous antique collectives are seductive. But single-owner shops are usually a better place to learn about—and purchase—antiques because the person at the counter is probably the same person who acquired the goods and knows all the stories. And with antiques, the stories are everything.
DON'T BE SHY. Talk to the dealers. They're in the business because they love (and know) antiques.
GET JEWELS APPRAISED. When you buy antique jewelry, ask if the piece has been appraised by a gemologist. The right answer: Yes. Then get it in writing.
BARGAIN. Dealers expect you to—but they won't urge you to. Try offering 20 percent below the marked price, but be prepared to accept a smaller reduction. Bargaining probably won't work when the price tag says "firm" or "net." And you may not get a discount on pieces that are marked less than $25 to begin with.
BRING CASH. There is sometimes a discount attached if you pay cash. (But you'll have to ask for it.)
DELIVERY IS A BARGAINING CHIP. Ask for free delivery of large items. If you can cart them away yourself, you should request a discount.
GET IT IN WRITING. A cash-register receipt won't do. Be sure the dealer writes down the date and a description of every item you purchase, including age and condition.
KEEP YOUR RECEIPTS. If you later learn that an item was misrepresented by the dealer, you may be eligible for a refund. —Jennifer Reese
Great Antiquing Towns
You'll find wonderful antique stores throughout the West, from funky malls in little towns like Healdsburg to breathtaking shops in Seattle and Los Angeles. Amador County in California's Sierra foothills is famous for its antiques. Visit Amador City for quilts and tools. Ornate French chairs more your style? Head to San Francisco's Sacramento and Jackson streets. Petaluma's main drag is lined with shops selling art deco and mission furniture, and just north, in Sebastopol, shops are strung along the Gravenstein Highway.
Heading south? Consider making stops in Morro Bay, Cayucos, and Paso Robles.
In Oregon, check out Seaside and Astoria. But don't go looking for an armoire: The tourists these places cater to like treasures that fit in a suitcase. Medford has a couple of worthwhile shops, and in The Dalles and Hood River you'll find dealers selling old Americana.
Photography courtesy of Quadell/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in September 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For information on Jamestown, Sonora, and the California Gold Country, pick up AAA's Northern California/Nevada TourBook. Or contact the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, (800) 446-1333, yosemitegoldcountry.com. For more information about Multnomah Village and Aurora, pick up a copy of AAA's Oregon/Washington TourBook.