My Lifelong Love Affair with Hunting Vintage Treasure

Revisiting my earliest memories, I have always loved antiques – but it is the hunt for that elusive piece that really rocks my boat. Actually, it is finding a treasure at a bargain price that keeps me hunting, although that has become increasingly challenging with the advent of the Antiques Road Show and American Pickers. My parents allowed me to gallivant alone at an enormous antique show at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago at the age of 6 or 7. I was transported to a magical place, imagining how people lived in the past surrounded by these beautiful objects. I only had pocket change and bought a small piece of natural turquoise.

That following summer, I cannot remember where we went on our family vacation, but I do remember a cool coin and collectibles show at the motel where we were staying. Once again, my parents allowed me to roam alone at this show. I was drawn to the antique coins, but didn’t have money to buy anything.

By the time I was 12, my mom would take me every summer to the Park West Antique Fair in Chicago. This venerable fair was an institution in Chicago for as long as I can remember, with dealers setting up shop in alley garages near Orchard Street. What I liked most about this fair was the European-like set-up – an upscale flea market where you could browse outside at leisure. We didn’t buy a lot, but this fair impacted me so greatly that I do remember exactly what my mom bought me over the years – a gorgeous ornate doll from Yugoslavia with a composition face and red leather boots; a Chartreuse Art Deco plastic department store butterfly display; a delicate Victorian gold ring with tiny opal; and a sterling silver brooch with a green art glass centerpiece.

When I went to college in Providence, my love affair with hunting treasure led to long walks through downtown via Westminster Street all the way to Olneyville. It is there that I discovered the Big Top Flea Market, which still exists on Manton Avenue. To this day I still regret passing up a slew of Beatles memorabilia – back then I already had above-average knowledge about antiques and vintage and wasn’t quite sure these were real, especially since the vendor had a dozen or so. In retrospect, I know now that these pieces were real and I could have bought them for a swan song. Alas, I was a poor art student, making minimum wage waitressing at the Providence Art Club, so I had to spend my money wisely.

It was also in Olneyville that I discovered Wolf E. Myrow, Inc., a really cool wholesaler of costume jewelry findings. The elderly owner reluctantly let me look through the bins and fill a brown paper bag with anything I wanted for a bargain price. I think they were accustomed to nutty art students from RISD picking through their treasures. Almost all the pieces I bought were circa 1930s to 1950s Czech and European glass beads and flat back cabochons. Providence has long been a wholesale costume jewelry findings mecca.

Closer to my digs on College Hill, there was a cool vestige of Providence’s glory days as a mill town. Pilgrim Mills at 101 N. Main Street was a dark and grungy mill wholesaler where many a RISD fashion student bought antique fabric and notions. Among the treasures I found were stunning small lace runners circa 1930s, Japan – I bought up a huge lot and my mom sewed them together to make a long table runner. I also bought a really cool bark cloth bed spread, circa 1940s. The store was run by an old Portuguese man and his son and the building now houses Mills Tavern.

When I would visit my older sister in NYC, I loved going to Canal Street and sifting through the strange job lot stores – most of which have since disappeared. There was also a flea market off Canal on Saturdays and I loved browsing, but rarely bought anything. In August 2010 I visited the Antiques Garage flea market. There weren’t a lot of bargains, but I picked up a few unique charms for my assemblage necklaces.

Fast forward many years to the present. Among my favorite stomping grounds these days for treasure hunting is Wolff’s Flea Market in Palatine. I haven’t been to the outdoor market in Rosemont since 2010 – they raised the admission fee to $2.00 this year. Last Sunday, Jeff and I went to Palatine and although it is hard to find a bargain, I love the atmosphere of this place. My unemployment blues dissipated quickly and I was almost giddy at the prospect of finding a hidden treasure among junk and overpriced items. I mean where else can one find slightly outdated snacks at greatly reduced prices, mattresses, knick knacks, antique coins, junque … get a haircut … and yes, even buy the kitchen sink? The bazaar-like atmophere is a sight to behold and a great way to spend a few hours on a Sunday morning. My find of the day was an old Czech porcelain pig for 50 cents.


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