- Not ForgottenFirst Things
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For almost thirty years, my parents ran an antique shop in an old two-story house in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. When I was little, stuff arrived and departed by way of my mother's van, a matte-green 1970s camper, stripped of its bunk and golden burlap curtains. It had no air conditioning and smelled of cigarettes and french fries. Daddy kept the shop while Mom went out on buying trips or traveled to set up her booth at antiques shows in Raleigh or Charlotte or Asheville. This arrangement suited them, as he was sedentary and depended on routine, and she liked to be out and about.
She enrolled first my brother, then me, in a morning preschool at the Episcopal church down the street, but we spent our afternoons at the shop. While Daddy, up [End Page 91] stairs in the office, read the Wall Street Journal or wrote sales in his ledger, and Mom talked to customers on the telephone or researched her latest find, my brother and I squabbled in the downstairs playroom, which smelled of the products our mother used to brighten her wares: Wright's silver polish, baby oil to clean lacquer, Old English to fill in scratches on furniture. Penned in by a baby gate, we played amid the toys and books strewn all over the floor, the radio playing the hits: "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," and "Funkytown," and "Sexual Healing."
For lunch, we ate peanut butter or bologna sandwiches and drank Coca-Cola out of Bugs Bunny glasses that had come free or cheap with a meal at a drive-thru. Sometimes customers would look all around the shop, unimpressed until my mother offered them a Coke in a glass with Superman or Yosemite Sam on it.
"Oh, we're collecting these, and this is the only one of the four we don't have," a customer might say, and Mom would reply, Just go on and take it, privately disgusted that a mass-produced glass with a cartoon character on it had been the only thing in the whole shop to incite any interest. Ignorance of antiques she could pardon, even welcome, since it gave her an opportunity to teach, but lack of interest was unforgiveable. Her own curiosity was so powerful that she just couldn't fathom people who showed no desire to know things.
That curiosity was what she and my father shared, and they both loved to tell what they knew. Spend more than a second looking at a particular object, and they'd start talking about it. They would explain what cultural developments in China or Japan, England or Germany had led to its being made at a particular time. They would hypothesize about how it had come to North Carolina and what sort of people might have owned it. They would show you how to tell the difference between cast glass, which has a seam, and blown glass, which has a rough place on the bottom where the pontil was broken off. They would show you how an object came apart, how it was used, how it was made. One of my mother's favorite moves was to announce that it was time to perform a "full rectal" on a table or chair. She'd then ask the stunned customer to help her flip the piece over so that together they could study the joinery and look for secondary woods, cabinetmakers' marks, or evidence of repairs.
My brother and I watched these interactions with customers and learned to imitate them. We were given to understand that developing a knowledge of antiques went far beyond familiarizing yourself with current tastes and the momentary caprices of the market. Your eye had to be trained to...