Antique shops lose their appeal when we start seeing our own mortality reflected on the shelves. But porcine paraphernalia never loses its charm, no matter its age.
Many small towns have found economic success in the development of antique “districts.” The people who tour the antique stores run the gamut from locals just taking a walk to urbanites looking for that unique something for themselves or as a gift. But if you look carefully, there aren’t too many “old” people buying antiques and I think I know why.
When I was a kid I loved going to antique stores. I would pick through the offerings looking for things that my grandmother had, or could have had. I looked for things that would remind me of the summers I spent with her in the East Texas countryside. When I started my search, she was still living and still using her “antiques,” so I had to find my souvenirs elsewhere. Grandmother thought I was a very strange child. She simply could not understand why I would want something not only “old” but “common” as well, such as the cast-iron irons she heated on her stove (despite having a nice new electric iron). But it wasn’t that I wanted something old, or common, I wanted her and reminders of her.
But with time my treasure hunt took a disturbing turn, and where I had been looking for my grandmother, I now began to see myself in the assorted miscellany of the antique store.
It started when I realized many of the toys I played with now lined the dusty shelves of the backroom of many stores. Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Scooter were all there, as were the Breyer horses they saddled and rode on my bedroom floor. It bothered me that the dolls I played with were now “valuable” as collectibles. It bothered me that someone’s cherished toys were now available to anyone who wanted them. It bothered me that they gathered dust, waiting.
It bothered me so much I quit going to antique stores for a few years.
Now I realize it wasn’t the dolls, but unconsciously I was beginning to see hints of my own mortality and was afraid that I would eventually end up on those shelves.
After a while, I started going back into antique stores, but I always went with a group of friends. We would go in and move through stores as a cohesive unit, my friends picking up objects and saying things like “I remember these,” or “Oh my goodness, I haven’t seen one of these in years!” They would laugh with delight, trade stories and memories, and move on to the next object, starting the process all over again.
I would smile and nod the whole time thinking “What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they realize they are getting old and going to be dead soon and it will be their stuff on these shelves being giggled over by strangers? What the hell is wrong with you?”
When my Kierkegaardian reflections got to be too much, I would make excuses about needing a cigarette or some air (after all, antique stores are famously musty), and I would go outside. Standing there, I would look around and watch people coming and going from shops and wonder if it was just me, or if others felt the same way I did.
And then it hit me. Although groups of younger people and families were moving in and out of stores, there were several of us standing outside, and we were all about the same age, old.
I looked down the block. At every antique store there was someone my age standing outside. Some paced a few steps back and forth in front of the stores. Some just stood there, arms folded, looking up at the sky. And one turned, saw me, shrugged and waved.
It wasn’t just me after all.
These days when I tour the antique district in my town, I go by myself, don’t stay very long and I am very careful about what I stop to look at it. I move by anything I recognize, or could attach a memory to – I have enough of those that belong to me, I don’t need to drag anyone else’s possibilities into my living room.
But I will hover over anything with a pig on it. If I come home with anything, it’s some kind of pig paraphernalia. Usually it’s a figurine that I carefully wash and dust and put on a shelf. It pleases me that someone else out there liked pigs. I know the original owner of the figurine is in all likelihood dead, and the only reason that pig showed up in the store at all is because of an estate sale. I also know it was on that shelf because no one in the family wanted it. Some people just don’t get pigs or the people who love them.
One day the pig item will return to an antique store, maybe the same one where I bought it. But not today. At least for now it’s mine to look at it. And when it does finally return, I can only hope that the person who buys it wonders about the crazy old lady who liked pigs, if they think of me at all.
Kelley Snowden, an adjunct professor, teaches geography at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She is also a research associate with the Center for Regional Heritage Research at SFASU.