I have a love/hate relationship with antique stores. And by that, I mostly mean that I hate them. Every so often, in some delusional fit of desparation, I find myself in one, surrounded by teetering mannequins that are staring vacantly at warped mirrors and hat stands fashioned from antlers.
It happens like this. I walk into a normal store, one that sells things that are new and lines them up neatly in matching rows. I almost find what I’m looking for, but nothing is quite right. And that would be OK, except that it doesn’t seem to make sense to spend $80 on a bowl that’s only almost attractive.
Today, for instance, I was looking for a small container. It didn’t have to be anything special, but as it was going to be visible for all to see, I wanted to get something a little classier than tupperware. My thought process went like this:
“That’s a pretty color blue. If only it wasn’t shaped like a fish. Why does it have to be a fish?”
“That has ducks on it.”
“See, that’s all I need. Just a ceramic bowl with a lid. Oh. That’s a dutch oven. And it’s $175.”
And at moments like that, I think of the antique store. But I’m really not thinking of the actual antique store, I’m thinking about the platonic ideal of an antique store that exists only in those folksy movies from the 60s when husbands and wives slept in separate twin beds.
I like the idea of finding something unique, with history. And I like the notion of reusing what we already have in the world, rather than adding more clutter. And I like the vastly lower prices available. Say you need a vase. (I don’t know — maybe someone brings you flowers a lot? Just go with me on this.) You could go into a fancy furniture store and see a lovely vase and think, hmm. $100 seems like a lot, but I’ll keep it forever. And it will add a spot of happy color to my living room. Or, you could go to an antique store and see an equally lovely vase, and it would be $5.
No contest, right? Why not always shop in antique stores?
Well. Here’s the thing.
First, the whole antique thing is a ruse. Antique stores rarely contain antiques. Mostly they contain leftover garage sale items that have been left out in the rain and snubbed by those people who make a living by fishing things out of the trash and selling them on the sidewalk. The store might have one antique but it’s a felt hat with a feather. And who wants a hundred year old feather? Can you imagine the spider eggs that thing has accumulated? Would you really put that on your head?
I know this not only because I have been inside an antique store, but also because for a while when I was a kid, my parents owned an antique store. Or, more accurately, they owned an “antique” store. I had to work there. Don’t you ever wonder where antique stores get all that stuff? It’s not like people are calling them up every day and saying, “hey, I have all this really old awesome stuff. Do you want it?”
No. The items in antique stores generally come from auctions. Mostly from estate sales. In other words, someone dies, the family goes through everything and takes the good stuff, and the rest of it gets put in cardboard boxes which are then offered up, in bulk fashion, at auction. “What’s the bid on this box of random broken things? How about this one?” It’s a bit like buying a box of cracker jacks. You hope you get the magic decoder ring and not the sticker of a monkey. Because really, no one needs another monkey sticker, but we all have cause to decode things magically.
But of course, the heirs are likely to keep all the magic stuff, so you have to hope they just don’t know what they have. Ever seen Antiques Road Show? People swarm a convention center with their broken lamps, assumed to be invaluable by virtue of having been in great aunt Ethel’s attic for 50 years. 98% of the time, the experts weigh in with their analysis that what they have, in fact, is a broken lamp. And so it goes with what ends up in antique stores.
But when I’m looking at a $80 bowl shaped like a fish, I forget all of these things and desperately try the antique store. I would like to think of it like a treasure hunt, with unknown surprises around every corner, but mostly it’s like that one scene in Indiana Jones where he’s like walking around in this dark cave and keeps running into spider webs and then big bugs start crawling around everywhere. I don’t find the kinds of surprises I like, is what I’m saying.
I’m also not a fan of clutter, also known as “bric-a-brac” or “knickknacks” or “decorating”. I’m pretty sure this also stems from childhood. My mom LOVES to fill her house completely to the brim with, well, just about anything she can find. You can’t tell what color her walls are because paintings and wall hangings cover every space. Randomly, a row of egg cups are lined up on a ledge. Another corner may house a set of Santas. Even when it’s not Christmas. You may find it hard to sit in a chair, because a camel saddle could be propped up on it. Decorative plates? She’s got them. An actual fire hydrant (clearly no longer hooked up to water)? Check. A working model of an old-timey bicycle? Sure, although God knows why.
One thing I like about being an adult is that I don’t have to live with all of those things. So I don’t. Sometimes, I think I should add a vase or something to liven things up a little, though I’m reluctant to add anything that doesn’t provide value. Mostly these additions don’t last long.
It’s not that I have nothing beyond furniture. I recently brought back a painting from Paris. I have lots of books. Tons. The few others items I have mostly belonged to my grandparents — a Varga girl tin poster, a bell — things I keep around because they remind me of them. Which provide lots of useful value.
And, of course, I have that blue bowl shaped like a fish.