I love old things. If it can’t text or tweet, email or dial without creating a spark, I’ll take it. I love old wood. Old appliances. Old luggage. Old maps – even though I can’t really read them. I just like knowing there is a place I haven’t been, and it makes me want to stick a pin through it. I love anything a AA battery doesn’t fit inside, anything you need to wind to work.
And not because I like to take them apart and see how they function, because I am a collector, or enjoy living in the past. I just like the idea that they belonged to someone else.
I suspect it has something to do with my childhood.
Growing up, my bedroom housed a desk belonging to my dad. Inside was a box containing my grandfather’s pipes. Years after his death, they still smelled of the sweet cherry tobacco he smoked. There was still a residue inside the bowls. I would take them out and turn them over in my hands, bring the stems to my nose and breathe the scent. Sometimes I would chew on the mouthpieces just to see what it felt like. I loved those pipes.
They were the only belongings I had of my grandfather’s. Those, and some gold buttons that came off his Naval uniform which I kept in a small wooden box high on my shelves. I thought they were valuable. And they were. To me. To your average antique dealer, ordinary vintage pipes and old buttons aren’t worth much. But for me, they were all I had.
Last weekend I visited the Alameda Antique Faire. Entrance cost $5. And it was worth every one. Rows upon rows of vendors sold everything from picture frames and lamps, bed frames and bicycles, to suitcases and ceiling tiles. The only prerequisite was that all items had to be at least 20 years old. At 28, I’m still not sure how I feel about that being considered “antique.”
I wandered in search of new old bedroom furniture, winding around the stalls until coming across an area with a distinct nautical theme. I pointed to a shelving unit made of metal box containers. It looked like it belonged in an auto body shop storing tools. Immediately I wanted to put my underwear inside.
“I want to move here,” I announced to the merchant. “Where did you find these? They look like they were ripped out of a lighthouse. I love them.”
He answered without taking his eyes off his cell phone: I don’t know. The shelves are $1,300.
I looked longingly at them. I would be so organized with those drawers. What once likely held mail, could carry my undergarments and sweaters that never seem to fit anywhere. But at $1,300, I had to pass. There was no way I could afford them, let alone transport them. I wonder who eventually bought that unit. If it wound up in a garage covered in grease, or if it is holding children’s toys somewhere in Berkeley.
Eventually I came across a nightstand. My nightstand. I could tell from the pair of cowboy boots leaning in the open cubby and the chips in the paint along the edges. I love old furniture because it has a story. Before you, it had a home, a history, a past. It is in someone else’s memories. And it is your future.
Old wood is romantic. Just listen to the scratches. It understands loss. It must. Or it wouldn’t be in front of you waiting for purchase. I like thinking about where the wood came from and who chopped it down. I like picturing the carpenter. He always looks a little like my dad. But with more facial hair.
Each piece on display had an owner who died or upgraded, grew up or moved out, lost their job or their lover, a someone who gave them away. And then another someone else came along and picked them up, held them to the light and said, wait, there is hope for you yet.
When you purchase something secondhand it is as if you are saying, ‘Of all the rummage sales, in all the cities on this Sunday, you were meant for me. I never imagined you were possible before. But here you are. And you are perfect. You, with your sticky bottom drawer. You will hold my buck knife. And my glass of water. In return, I will save you from becoming kindling.’
What attracts me is not necessarily a piece’s age or worth, but that it survived. Each overcame something. It was victim of a heartbreak all its own. It says, ‘I was once loved. And then I wasn’t.’
Sure there is plenty of junk at antique fairs. Older doesn’t always mean better. Antique doesn’t translate to quality. What anyone does with a box of doll parts I don’t know. I don’t really want to know. Still, I find they are hopeful places. I like the idea that someone else will find value in an item thrown over. That someone will eventually hold us up, turn us over, smile, and say, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for so long. Come. Now. Let’s go home.’