Do you enjoy browsing antique and vintage shops? Join Jennifer as she thinks about what draws her to surround herself with old things, and also hear her review of the Amazon Originals series Vanity Fair.
This is a podcast episode. If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find the transcript.
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TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 6
I’ve just returned from a short overnight jaunt to a small town not far away from me called Bonners Ferry, Idaho. I visited a couple of antiques shops while I was there, and the feelings I got while I was in those shops inspired today’s topic.
But first, a bit of personal news. I’m sad today because we just lost our cat, who passed away this morning. He was nineteen years old, which is elderly for a cat, but still, my husband and I are going to miss him very much. We weren’t blessed with children, and while I won’t pretend that raising a cat replaces raising a child, he did fill a little bit of that nurturing instinct in our hearts. I know some of you have lost beloved pets, too, so you know what that’s like. But life goes on.
And now on to our topic for today, which is antique shops. I love them. I love how they smell, that musty, fusty odor. I love the hunt for just the right treasure to bring home. And I love the memories that are sparked when I see a set of dishes that look just like Grandma’s, or a china shepherdess figurine like one that she might have had in her house. Usually just looking at it is enough to satisfy that nostalgia urge. I don’t necessarily need to buy it and take it home with me. But at the antique store, I get to “visit” it.
I have met people, though, who detest antique shops that, as one woman declared, “are filled with dead, useless things.” I don’t think antiques are dead at all. Nor are they useless. But, to each her own, I suppose.
As I get close to sixty years old, I’m in a mode of downsizing my possessions more than I am adding to the clutter in my home. I’m becoming a lot more minimalist in my thinking than I used to be. But once in a while something catches my fancy and I do have to buy it.
A few years ago in an antique mall near my house, I fell in love with a painting. Actually it’s a print of a painting. It shows a young girl looking at a bird. She’s dressed in what looks like 1920s or 1930s clothing, with her hair and ringlets, and looks very much like a childhood photo of my mother. I found an image of the print online, so I’ll put both it and the photo in the show notes so you can see what I mean by the resemblance. Anyway, the print was a little out of my reach financially, but I liked to go into the antique mall occasionally and “visit” it. It always gave me joy. Well, one day I went in and it wasn’t there. There was just a big empty space where it had been hanging. Well, I tell you, I almost burst into tears right there, that someone else had purchased my beloved picture. But to my great relief, as it turned out, it hadn’t been sold, only been moved to another location. But I figured that if I had that strong of a reaction to the possibility of losing it, I should buy it, and so I did. It now hangs in the room where I write, and it gives me joy every time I see it.The point of this story is, one of the joys I get from browsing in antique shops is just that thrill of finding the perfect thing. Even when I come away empty-handed, I feel richer for the experience of looking at so many beautiful old things. And of course it’s good to actually buy things once in a while, when they’re the right things, to help support the store owner and keep the shop open for future browsing.
But sometimes I feel a pang of sadness as I look at things. It’s a feeling of loss, as if something precious has been lost and we can never get it back. It’s a little hard to describe, but it’s a feeling I get way down in my gut. It often happens when I look at old sepia-toned photographs of people, knowing this was someone’s loved one at one time. Maybe the photograph had a prized position on a wall or piano in a home. Maybe it was given to a sweetheart or to proud parents or grandparents upon an occasion like a graduation. Maybe it’s someone’s wedding photo, capturing forever a special event that no one left on this earth remembers firsthand anymore. I find myself feeling lonely, missing the people, even though I never knew them.
Another thing that makes me sad in antique shops are the inscriptions in books, say from a mother to daughter or from one friend to another. I don’t think people give books as gifts as often as they used to, although as an author, I think of course that they should. Even when I do give someone a book that I think they’ll enjoy, I tend not to inscribe it, in case they want to return or exchange it. I could do a whole episode just on interesting book inscriptions I’ve come across. Maybe I will do that sometime.
But the thing that makes me saddest of all in antique stores is the sense of loss to our culture, our society, of certain ways of living. Maybe sad isn’t the right word. A better word might be wistful. I’ll see things and think, the times just aren’t like that anymore. Once in a while that’s a good thing, but sometimes the thing we’ve lost seems precious to me. I’ll see a set of formal china dinnerware, and that will lead me to think about big family Sunday dinners people used to have, and that will make me wistful for a more gracious era when such things as china and silver mattered and people made the time and effort for big Sunday dinners. I understand that fewer brides nowadays even choose patterns for china and glassware at their weddings. They don’t ask for these things as gifts anymore. Family dinners are much more casual, and even entertaining has gone the way of paper plates and cups and sitting on the floor. Our more casual lifestyles have their good points, to be sure, but at the same time, something precious has been lost that so many of us have stopped making special occasions out of meals by bringing out the china and crystal. Do you ever feel that way?
I also love looking at feminine frippery like hats and gloves and jewelry. So many people today mock things that are dainty and feminine. They treat them as jokey, or cheesy, declaring they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing or using such things. When I was looking for podcasts similar to this one, I found so many that make a joke of femininity, or give a derisive third finger to traditional womanhood. And so, as a result, I started the podcast that I wanted to hear. You’re listening to it (or reading the transcript).
As I browse in antique or vintage shops, I think, why does all this gentle graciousness have to be over? Why can’t we turn back the clock in certain small and thoughtful ways? We can adopt some of the calmer, gentler, slower behaviors and customs of the past. I believe they will serve us well even–or maybe especially–today. And taking home that china plate or that crystal goblet or that tarnished locket might just be the first step.
Do you like to browse in antiques stores or vintage stores? How do they make you feel? Feel free to leave a comment at jenniferlamontleo.com/blog.
Today’s grace note: I’ve been binge-watching and highly recommend the Amazon Original series, Vanity Fair. It’s beautifully done, with gorgeous costumes and delightful acting. Above all, the story drives home the message of the futility of striving for things in this world that don’t matter. It’s a message that seems as timely these days as it did when William Makepeace Thackeray wrote it in 1848. At that time he wrote, “Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.” That sounds like it wouldn’t be very fun to watch, but on the contrary, it’s very entertaining. The main character, Becky Sharp, played masterfully by Olivia Cooke, is not a heroine in the traditional sense of the word. True to the name “Sharp,” she’s an amoral, scheming social climber–conniving, brilliant, and cold hearted, in contrast to her saintly friend Amelia. I’ve read that her character may have been Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, to give you an idea of what she’s like. Again and again, Becky Sharp and other characters must face the consequences of their rash and ill-considered behavior, but it never comes across as preachy or didactic…just good fun.
Set in England against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, Vanity Fair is a story full of intrigue and scandal, and yet it’s not disturbingly graphic. Much is left to the viewer’s imagination, which is a great relief nowadays, so kudos to Amazon for that. If you enjoy historical fiction and costume dramas, I highly recommend it. You’ll find it on Amazon Prime.
Antiques* stores hurt my heart–in a good way. As much as I love browsing their musty, dusty interiors in search of treasures large and small, I almost invariably come across something that makes my chest squeeze tight, which sounds painful and sort of is, but not really. I catch my breath. swallow hard, blink, and try to look normal, hoping the clerk won’t think the customer in the ladies’ accessories aisle is having a heart attack. She’s not. She’s just having a nostalgia attack over an embroidered handkerchief.
It could be anything that sets me off–a glass snow globe, a teddy bear, a lamp that reminds me of Grandma. I never know, never see when or if it’s coming, which is part of the fun of antiquing–getting blindsided by misty watercolor memories, dreams, and yearnings.
Antiques stores help me unwind and forget (at least temporarily) my cares by drawing me into a world completely different from my own. Often this makes me appreciate my own that much more (chamber pots, anyone?). Sometimes I mourn the things we have lost, or that are increasingly hard to come by. Fine stationery and elegant pens from when people had the time and inclination to write real letters. Hand-sewn, knitted, and crocheted items that someone took the time to create instead of “finding them cheaper” at a chain store. Vinyl or shellac recordings of dance music from an era before anyone had ever heard the word “twerk” and when being asked to dance gave you an adrenaline rush like nobody’s business. Dishes and silverware and gravy boats (gravy boats!) from when families made the time and effort to sit down together at mealtime instead of passing fast-food bags around the minivan. Dolls dressed as belles of the ball instead of Bratz. Such items hurt my heart because they represent a world that is gone, or quickly going, and I can’t seem to hold onto it. Hard as I try, it eludes my grasp like vapor. And the worst is when I feel like the only person on earth left who gives a whistle. (Whistles, see toy section.) Obviously I’m not, since antiques stores abound, but it can feel that way sometimes, like everyone else can’t wait to gallop forth into the Next Big Thing while I’m saying “Wait! But…gingham aprons! But…rhinestone-encrusted owl pins! But…ceramic mixing bowls that held the batter of a thousand pancakes!”
And don’t get me started on the photographs. People sat for those photographs, and had prints made, and passed them around and exclaimed over them, and they were special and expensive and rare, unlike the there-and-gone images we send each other on Instagram and Facebook. That photo of a son or daughter, a husband or wife, was once a great treasure. And now here they are, gathering dust in an antiques store, flipped through by strangers like me who giggle over the fashions and hairstyles but know absolutely nothing about the people in them, or the stories behind them.
Oh, the stories! For a writer, everything in an antiques store holds a story, or a potential story. Every. Darn. Object. No wonder that by the time I tear myself away, I feel simultaneously exhilarated and completely wrung-out. (Wringer washers, try the housewares section.)
If cheerfully going through the wringer sounds like fun to you, check antiques.com for a dealer near you. And get ready for the routine: Squeeze, breathe, swallow, blink, smile.
(*I debated whether the correct term is “antiques stores” or “antique stores.” I decided that the former describes a store that sells antiques, while the latter describes a store that is itself antique, like stumbling upon a hardware store in some small town, complete with wooden floor, glass jars filled with metal doodads, the scent of sawdust and machine oil, and the creaky voice of an old-timer who knows how to use every tool known to mankind and is happy to tell you about it. The store has been at the same location for so long, it still has a cast-iron hitching post out front. Stepping through the door (complete with jaunty bell at the top, natch) is like stepping back a century, like the Brigadoon of retail. Just the thought of such a store makes me want to weep, and I don’t even like hardware. )