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It’s not just acquiring old stuff, it’s the thrill of the hunt

by Jodi DeLong

It’s a little alarming to find out that toys we once played with as kids are now considered vintage—or even antique. Likewise, the china dishes we ate Sunday dinner on are often found for sale at antique and vintage shops. Everything old is new again, it seems; or rather, has appeal for collectors of items that are now considered antique.

These “gently loved” things—furniture, toys, clothing, dishes, tools and more—are a delight to those who collect them, and to those who make a living, part-time or otherwise selling them to appreciative individuals who see more than “junk” in an old Coleman lantern, or a collection of Royal Doulton china.

What’s behind the passion for collecting? Interestingly, of the highly unscientific research I conducted in asking people why they collect a certain item or items, the overwhelming response had nothing to do with investing, or purchasing to resell. It had to do with love—love of a particular item, be it old axes or tiered cake plates, hooked rugs and books—and to do with the thrill of the hunt.

“I have several antique rug hooks, and I love holding them in my hand. It’s like literally reaching through time to hold the hand of someone who came generations before.”

“I collect jugs, glassware, textiles … for the love of the old, well-made, and well-used. Can’t stand the throwaway culture we’ve become.”

“I collect antique tiered plates. I love the designs, colours, and it brings back memories when life wasn’t all fast food. I love old dishes.”

footed cup and saucer sets are much sought-after

Perhaps one of my favourite comments came from a friend about her passion. “My collection of antique books began innocently enough with purchases made purely from nostalgia—school readers, children’s stories, classics my mother read me in Grades 3 and 4 (yes, my mother taught me for two years!).” Debbie Symonds told me recently. “Then it became an obsession. If I bought one or two that I remembered reading when I was young, then there must be more out there that I would now read and they would take me back to a time when life was simple and easy and free of responsibilities and adulting.

“Then I discovered first editions. How exciting! These were rare and wonderful books by authors I admired. Before I knew it, my bookshelves were overflowing with more precious books. I now need an intervention.”

Those who collect—no matter what they collect—can no doubt relate to this.

It’s interesting how many people relate to the quality of items made in years gone by, and see it as a sign of hope. One woman I asked about collecting mused that, “There is a sense of humanity’s continuity that gives us some assurance that we just might be able to continue on despite the looming travails. Looking into the depths of time past gives us hope for the future.”

Let’s not throw out the family china, just yet.  While some find that the younger generation don’t care much for fine china and crystal—especially in these days of so-called clutter-busting and celebrity organizers who think everything should “spark joy”—those who sell such items are seeing a different interpretation.

Norm Plant and his husband Jim Smith run an antique and collectibles shop at their home in Upper Granville, NS. Norm says they can’t keep sets of of tiered cake/dessert dishes in stock, and also observes that, “Young people, the 20-somethings, actually really like china and dishes. They roll their eyes at people who buy from dollar stores, knowing the quality is crap. There’s an older to younger connection happening—yay, taste returns!”

Some love the connection to local history, too. Heather Pick is an avid collector of dishes and glassware, in particular glassware produced at the long-closed Trenton glass plant, but also other items including gorgeous handmade Windsor chairs. Her father collected chairs made in Nova Scotia, which were stamped or otherwise marked with the builder’s name.

It seems that those who collect particular items, especially things like furnishings, china, crystal and other practical—as well as stunningly beautiful—creations enjoy using them, too. They aren’t just dust-busters. I have a small collection of Blossom Time china, and use it regularly. It connects me to my mother, who had a set and who had worked for GR Palmeter, an Annapolis Valley man who was involved with the local Apple Blossom Festival. Palmeter helped Royal Albert design the china pattern which was available from the mid-1930s to 2001, when it was discontinued. It is avidly sought after by collectors and you can often find pieces for sale at antique and speciality shops. One of my closest friends gave me a place setting, and I have the tea set. They get used, not just collecting dust in the china hutch.

Although collectors do flock to antique and vintage shops to look for those pieces they need to add to their home décor or collection, they also love to visit yard sales, flea markets, and even roadside collections on the yearly or twice-yearly cleanup days. I’ve heard many stories of finding beautiful hardwood chairs, or stoneware crocks (they are terrific for making pickles!) or galvanized washtubs and other fascinating discoveries. You can’t be squeamish when you go picking through piles like this, but just remember—one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Tips for successful seeking

If you’re going off to yard sales, flea and crafters markets that also sell vintage and antique items, here are a few tips from fellow enthusiasts.

Make a list of places to go. Many communities have online event listings, or social media pages, that announce local events like craft and flea markets, yard sales, and such. Of course, if the thrill of coming across a sale or shop is half the fun, just get in your car and go.

Start early. The early bird gets the worm—and the great finds, too. Many roadside sales start by and are finished by noon or early afternoon.

Set a budget. That might not sound like much fun, but it’s so easy to overspend if you’re handing over your debit or credit card, and suddenly you have $500 worth of treasures in the back of your car.

Bring cash. While most stores will have means of taking debit and credit cards, yard sales are generally cash only—or occasionally, cheques are still accepted by some. And if you’re carrying cash, you might be less inclined to overspend, and will think harder about each purchase. Maybe.

Bring bags/boxes. We’re all trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use, and many of us carry reusable tote bags in the car for shopping at stores and markets. Those who enjoy collecting fragile items like china, pottery, Christmas ornaments and the like often carry old newspapers or flyers or even packing paper to wrap their newly found treasures in for transport. 

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