The more you look, the more you may be hooked
Whether you are a collector of vintage vinyl, a stagehand seeking the right theatrical prop, a homeowner looking for atomic-age modern, shabby chic or fine antiques, or a bargain hunter, antiquing at two of the hottest hunting grounds in Sonoma County might just be your thing.
Two of Sonoma County’s most popular antique collectives, located in Sebastopol and Healdsburg, are too fun to resist. In fact, your challenge is to come up with something not sold in these nostalgic hot-spots.
Whether you are a serious shopper, an interior designer or a tire kicker, you are welcome to browse for hours. You’ll discover antiques (defined as anything over 100 years old), collectibles (defined as being over 50 years old), and every article of anything you can name.
Your senses are romanced with each turn down a new isle: a beaded purse, redwood slab table, ceramic cactus, salad mold, doll house, fireplace screen, vintage cowboy boots and copper pots. It’s called the Antique Society, but it is so much more. Located on Gravenstein Highway—also known as Antique Row—along with 17 other such businesses, the Antique Society is the largest. When asked how many items the 20,000-foot space might hold, proprietor Lorie Silver is nonplussed for an answer, then laughs and says, “Millions for sure!”
Upstairs, in Lorie’s cerulean-blue office, she tells how her parents began the store in 1989. They leased a portion of what used to be Henderson Furnace Co. Today the building front looks exactly the same, a nice touch of nostalgia. Eventually Lorie, a graduate of Sonoma State University, left her teaching job at Oak Grove School in Sebastopol to run the business full-time. Lorie still uses a photo of her mother on the store’s postcard.
There are 125 dealers at the Antique Society. They rent a space, Lorie explains, and bring in their particular collection. Her dealers do not “sit” in their spaces. Instead, a staff of 10 employees handles customers’ questions as they ferret out treasures. Knowing where to find that #10 Griswald iron skillet or a vintage thimble takes dedication. Lorie says one of the favorite parts of the job is her relationship with the dealers, “an eclectic, artistic group of people who love beautiful things.” The turnover of dealers is low, she offers proudly, and many have been with the store from the beginning. For some being a dealer is a vocation, for some it’s a hobby, and others do it to fill a special interest in their lives.
When asked about so much inventory, Lorie says, “There is a buyer for everything—we just need to wait for someone to come in and fall in love with it.” Her oldest customer is 90 years of age. A nine-year-old girl had a birthday wish to shop at the Antique Society and spent two joyful hours selecting prized objects. From year to year, there are trends in what’s “hot,” Lorie explains. Right now folks are interested in record albums, manual and electric typewriters, and rotary telephones—things that are retro. Lorie also engages a full-time store decorator who helps dealers arrange their spaces attractively, and decorates a ‘show area’ each month to fit a theme, such as linens and china, or dolls and baby carriages.
These stores are not thrift shops, but the deals can be as good. “If you enjoy ‘thrifting,” Lorie smiles, “you will love antiquing.” Shopping for quality used-merchandise is an inexpensive form of entertainment, she says. “Buying a special item that you carefully searched out can lift your spirits.” Lorie observed this during 9/11 and the 2008 economic turndown. Christmas, of course, is always a big sale time, but she notes that traffic is generally steady throughout the year. In an article that appeared in “Antique Collective”, a prestigious industry magazine, their store was referred to as “a social gathering spot.”
When you come in or leave the Antique Society, you’ll pass the small Bumble Bee Café where baker Denise offers coffee and bakery goods that send aromas wafting through the air. “We need more kindness in the world,” Lorie says as we part. “We try to instill this here: making happy memories.”
Mill Street Antiques and Upscale Resale
“I learn something new every day,” says Liz Slendebroek of Mill Street Antiques and Upscale Resale. “Sometimes we’ll get something in and I’ll leave it up on the counter to ask people if they know what it is. We generally find out.” The building, one block off Healdsburg Avenue, has been active as an antique shop for more than 25 years. Liz and her partner Anne Williamson became the owners eight years ago and were both former dealers. Anne had worked with eBay and the Press Democrat. She takes care of the promotional side of their business; Liz does their bookkeeping.
Relaxing in an antique rocker, Liz greets a group of four customers, all male. “We keep a ‘man cave’ area in both of our stores,” she explains, so men feel welcome. These four are digging through a stack of army surplus backpacks. Many shoppers are looking for originality, maybe something repurposed that is distinctive. Originality is harder to find in today’s conventional stores, with their mostly homogenous styles. Old things, used but still usable, often have a certain flair that sets them apart.
Anne says that success in this business depends on offering a broad spectrum. One of their top dealers makes tables from bowling alley material and lamps from tin and wire. Another focuses on 1950/1960’s floral dresses, another on wedding items, such as tea cups and handkerchiefs. “We are recyclers,” Anne adds. “Our industry is ‘green.’ We give new life to someone’s loved lamp.”
Instead of hiring employees, their dealers share duties, each working at the store three days a month. “This allows us to offer excellent prices,” Anne says. Mill Street Antiques has 10,000 square feet; Upscale Resale is a much smaller space and allows for selected items to be displayed with a more concentrated focus. Both women relish what they do. Anne says the best part for her is meeting clients. Some are friends, sometimes newly married couples who are furnishing their first home, and many are locals who don’t have to leave Healdsburg to find what they need. Buying local equals no shipping charges, unlike eBay and other online stores.
“We have never stopped being dealers ourselves,” Anne says as Liz shakes her head in agreement. “The hunt is the adventure. After years of collecting, you run out of space. Having a store to sell the stuff you love to collect, well… it allows you to collect more!”
“It’s great therapy,” Liz chimes in. “Way cheaper than a shrink!”
A look through these two spaces shows a huge array of merchandise. They also offer an interesting outdoor section with wood, iron and plaster items for your yard or patio. They are proud of their mention in a House Beautiful article about the “50 Best Small Towns for Antiques.” Los Angeles dealers come here to buy and then resell in L.A. “Fine by us!” says Anne.
The partners’ newest venture sits just across the parking lot. A beer and wine bar called FLO: For Locals Only, soon to include food service.
When asked what advice they’d give to a dealer or buyer, they both agree, “Take the dive!”
We know about the past through antiques, but what about the future? While antiques make up 40 percent of “used” items sold in the United States, there is a trend away from antique furniture. Where there used to be hundreds of shops near the Louvre in Paris or stores along London’s “Brown Mile,” a road known for antique furniture shops, now there are many less. Kentshire in New York sold its eight-story gallery of furniture. Auction houses like Bonham’s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have cut back on furniture and instead focus on contemporary art, jewelry and wine.
This is why shops like Antique Society and Mill Street Antiques are so popular; they have it all… antiques, collectibles, retro clothes and furniture, and everything sideways and in between. And so, may I suggest a trip—a lovely afternoon when life slows down and you can appreciate the beautiful and interesting artifacts of history. Of course, you can’t see it all in one visit. But, definitely go—because here in Sonoma County, antiques are flying off the shelves.You will be recycling in the most pleasant way while finding that perfect something or better yet, you might find a surprise that you didn’t even know was waiting for you to cherish. SD
Antique Shops Resources
2661 Gravenstein Hwy.
Open every day of week,
10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Mill Street Antiques and
44 Mill Street, Healdsburg
Open every day of week
11 a.m.-5 p.m.
More Local Antique Shops
Food For Thought Antiques
fftantiques.com / fftfoodbank.org
Ratto’s Uniques and Antiques Cloverdale
Oat Valley Vintage Antiques