May 25, 2011

Time Waits For No One...Unless You're "Vintage"

“They sure don’t make things like they used to…”  It’s one of those trite phrases that someone who’s inevitably old says about anything that's not old.  Skepticism is usually a good response to such statements.  If everything was so great back then, why am I texting on my smart-phone, listening to leaked downloads of Lady Gaga’s next album on my iPod, and relying blindly on my GPS to get me to the next sentence?  Instead, shouldn’t I be looking for a pay phone, listening to Grand Funk Railroad's latest cassette with my ears pressed up against the 20-pound Sony boombox on my shoulder, and wandering lost in the streets? 
As much as I’d love to wallow in my own smugness, my assumptions about the superiority of all things new were proven wrong recently.  Sometimes it’s actually true - they don’t make things like they used to.  I realized this when I was introduced to the world of vintage and antiques.  I always viewed antique items (unless they were cars or guitars) as curiosities, and the people who seek them out as curious eccentrics, at best…and downright goofy, at worst.  I also assumed incorrectly that antique stores were graveyards for old junk and that their customers were nothing more than affluent junk collectors. 

What changed my mind?  Well, I recently accompanied my friend on her year-long quest to find antique clothing racks for her vintage store.  Initially, my curiosity was piqued because it seemed like such a meticulously particular search for something so obscure.  Not knowing what to expect, I was amazed and somewhat amused to discover the places her quest led us. 

First, we drove from the let’s-gentrify-and-homogenize-everything ethos of Washington, DC to the coolly artsy-without-trying-to-be Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to a warehouse loft space and home of a collector of vintage artifacts – cameras, iron electric lamps, schoolhouse stools, and other miscellaneous items.  To crank up the otherworldly volume to eleven, his cluttered space was divided into three smaller apartments walled with fake wood paneling held up by rows of industrial plastic ties.  The place was best described as “Jabba the Hut’s lair meets Beetlejuice" chic.  The monsoon-in-Vietnam-like rain outside and the décor of the place seemed fitting for the overall “search for the Holy Grail” vibe of the day.   

The guy had not one but two vintage clothing racks.  The racks were like none I’d seen before.  This wasn’t some mass-produced piece of molded alloy spray-painted chrome from your local Wal-Mart.  It was entirely hand-crafted cast iron and stood on an ornate base, and was very obviously the work of an artisan.  I imagined they were once on the third-floor ladies-wear department at an R.H. Macy’s or Abraham & Strauss in the garment district during the 1930s.  On one level, the rack was just an old object (and I’m nerdily waxing poetic about it).  Yet it was also a unique hand-crafted relic from long ago that wouldn’t seem out of place in a museum.  My friend selected the better of the two.  Carrying the heavy rack to my car, it occurred to me:  “They sure don’t make things like they used to…”

Then, we visited an antique store in the neighborhood called Luddite.  The place looked like a cross between someone’s dimly-lit attic and an old movie set, featuring everything from glass showcases and bell jars to nautical lamps and slightly creepy long ago-taken family photos, to wrought-iron chairs and mannequin hands wearing heirloom baubles. 

Luddite, soon to be located at 201 Franklin St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY

The owner seemed to fit in perfectly with the ambiance, as he had the look of a rural villager or a younger, hip version of the old peasant on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV. 

He explained to me that his customers are often collectors and set designers for movies (so much for my theory of junk collectors…).  Here we found an even more impressive-looking rack made of burnished copper. 

Who knew there was such an underground market for antique clothing racks?  Who knew an entire thriving alternate universe centered around long-forgotten artifacts existed?  Who knew that vintage and antique items are sometimes of greater value and better quality than what's being manufactured today?  Who knew my iPhone-carrying friend was so attuned to this arcane niche?      

I’ll just have to ponder these questions as I look for a pay phone, listen to Grand Funk Railroad’s latest cassette with my ears pressed up against the 20-pound Sony boombox on my shoulder, wander lost in the streets, and think to myself:  “They sure don’t make things like they used to…”   

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