The Old and the Beautiful
The quest for the perfect table leads to an unexpected discovery of American culture.
The Washington Post
May 8, 2002
Let me start with this: I am not, by nature, an antiques buff. So what was I doing a couple of recent weekends ago in Adamstown, Pa., practicing what can only be described as "antiquing?" The answer: Adamstown, an old boyhood haunt, is the exception to my no-antiquing rule. Plus, my wife, Naomi, had recently given me an unusual shopping list.
There exists in Naomi's head, you see, a dream house in which she and I will one day reside. Never mind that the house remains a figment. It's a naked figment, and Naomi says it's in bad need of a farm table, a hutch or a Dutch cupboard, and a Windsor chair or two.
And so it was that I found myself two hours from D.C. in Adamstown -- self-described Antiques Capital USA -- clutching my small directive and hoping to make some finds. Well, did I ever. Brochures boast of "2000-plus dealers in 7 miles!!" But don't believe the double exclamation hype; see for yourself. Drive along the main drag in Adamstown and the shops simply whiz by in an unbroken blur.
Two remarkable jewels top this crown colony of the old and rare: the Stoudtburg Antiques Mall and Renningers Antique Market. Both are Sunday-only affairs. (Fear not, weekenders: the bulk of Adamstown shops are open Saturdays, too.) The former has about 500 dealers; the latter around 375 vendors indoors and more outside in every season except winter. I went to lower-brow Renningers first.
There, Don Mays affably instructed me on the finer points of a drop-leaf Chippendale table that I'd begun to picture in my dining-room-to-be. A mahogany number from the 1700s, it was most likely English, he said, and going for $775. I asked him if he'd consider coming down in price. He smiled. "We're here to sell," he said. (Now I was smiling.) He added quickly, though, that he'd negotiate "in reason." Fair enough, I thought. For now, I was "just looking."
Striking as the Chippendale was, I had orders: find a farm table. I moved on.
But thanks to Teno and Susan Valerio, I got only across the aisle. They had a Lebanon County (Pa.) corner cupboard I just couldn't ignore.
"I'd say about the 1860 era," Teno said. It was a tall, gleaming triangular cupboard carved from poplar trees. Teno, like most of his fellow dealers, had the time-honed ability to date most of his inventory at a glance and give a spot lecture on his area of expertise: country furniture and, well, wood. "They pretty much depleted the pine in Pennsylvania by 1820," he explained, "then they had to go to poplar."
I started to ask him about his quilt selection but he shook his head and gave a don't-ask-me shrug. Quilts were Susan's department.
No biggie. I wasn't looking for a blanket anyway.
Neither were Myles and LuAnne Tart, although the couple was scouring Renningers for blanket chests. The North Carolinians had driven to New York and now back down to Adamstown for one reason, which they stated in unison: "Primitive furniture." The Tarts represented a breed familiar in Adamstown: the hard-core antique collector. I could not relate to them at all. But we agreed on the appeal of bargains. "It's much better price-wise" in Adamstown than at other East Coast locales, said Myles. Other visitors told me the same thing.
Prices do seem reasonable at most of the Adamstown shops. At Barry Hurchalla Antiques, in the labyrinthine Stoudtburg complex, I saw a set of four "typical eastern Pennsylvania" straight-backed chairs from the mid- to late 19th century for $195. Low to the ground and comfortable, this quartet could make a home around our future table in our future dining room. They were also of an infinitely superior style to any Windsor chairs I saw (and I did see quite a few.) Sorry, Naomi, I also discovered that I find the things coyote ugly. The dream house gets no Windsor chairs if I can help it.
Not everything is cheap in Adamstown, though. A trip to the Country French Collection will convince you of that -- but you will get what you pay for, which is top-notch, gorgeous stuff. I saw a lovely cherry farm table from 1850s Normandy for $6,000. Another one nearby went for $8,500. A fantastic "Deux Corps" -- a kind of cupboard -- was listed at $5,600. The CFC serves wine and cheese on Sundays. It's that kind of place.
After Country French I was beset by furniture overload, so I broke for lunch (at Zinn's Diner, where I inhaled some delicious chicken corn soup) and went into collectibles mode at Barr's Auction & Antique World.
At Barr's -- where as a teenager I had bought a used copy of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" -- Roger Drolet proudly displayed his 20,000-strong postcard collection. "I'll show you the beauty of it," he said, proffering a German-looking card from 1906 and holding its winter house motif up to a flood light. The nighttime scene came alive as light penetrated the cut-paper candle wicks in the windows. Fellow Barr's postcard dealer John Klein reckoned he had "a couple hundred thousand" cards in stock. I didn't count, but I believed him.
Klein and Drolet's booths are typical of perhaps the greatest pleasure of Adamstown: browsing. You wade through decades -- and in some cases, centuries -- of memorabilia, collectibles, exquisite antiques and myriad tchotchkes. Maybe 1830s Mountain Man-era knives are your thing. See Chaz McCabe, at the Adamstown Antiques Mall. Need some stained- and leaded-glass windows? Try Oley Valley Architectural Antiques. For Union and Confederate money, look up Andy Muller Sr. at Renningers. The inquisitive visitor learns a lot in Adamstown. Indeed, the place gives the lie to the harebrained notion that Americans have no culture. If it's old and American, chances are it's in Adamstown.
But my furniture list was calling. Back at Stoudtburg, I met Tom Fisher, a freewheeling salesman in possession of two eye-catching tables: a walnut Chippendale circa 1790 and a Berks or Lancaster County (Pa.) farm table.
The first one had been sold moments before. I considered the $2,400 walnut farm table. It was, after all, what Naomi wanted. Also, I couldn't deny that in my Adamstown travels, I too had become a farm-table fan. I had gone from being an antiques refusenik to saying things like, "This table has really nice lines." I loved the simplicity and slightly beat-up veneer of Fisher's offering, which dated to the 1800s.
"That's real country," Fisher declared. I agreed. I'd found a farm table to report home about -- and I could definitely see the piece in a happy, polygamous marriage with those Pennsylvania chairs from Barry Hurchalla. Two items down, one to go.
It was the hutch or Dutch cupboard that was the problem. There were just too many to choose from. Fisher had an extraordinary circa-1780 Pennsylvania Dutch cupboard sporting 15 panes of glass. Country French had a fetching late-1800s sage-green English hutch. And that armoire with dovetailed drawers at Adam's Antiques Annex! Not to mention the Valerios' corner cupboard! Whew!
There is one good thing about this embarrassment of choices, though. It'll allow for -- necessitate, really -- an Adamstown trip for Naomi and me together. But only one. I'm not an antiques buff. Remember?