Monday, June 24, 2013

Antiquities of the Republic


Along the vast expanse of Highway I-10’s 24-lane wide corridor in Houston are a dense jungle of commercial enterprise. If it can be bought or sold, illicitly or otherwise, it exists somewhere along the barely penetrable tangle of feeder roads and strip malls along I-10[i]. It’s a bizarre, unplanned scramble of commerce falling over itself to tempt the traveler[ii].

We like roads…

One of the places I’ve passed a thousand times but never stopped at before now is a massive antiques and collectables mall. I’ve never been an antiques sort of guy[iii]…I appreciate the history and interest in pieces of the past but usually don’t feel the need to own many. Curiosity, however, got the better of me, and I decided to stop by this weekend and check the place out.

I have browsed through little antique stores in tourist towns, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. It was an essentially a massive urban warehouse packed to the rafters with a combination of kitsch, furniture, and more kitsch[iv].  On opening the doors, I was met with a heady smell of dust, mildew, and desperation. Undaunted[v], I steeled myself and headed in.

Warehouse, Don’t Just look Buy Something, Treasure of the Pharoahs

What struck me first was the seeming lack of patrons in such a vast space. In the middle of a busy weekend, the place seemed mostly populated by a few vendors[vi].   I roamed up and down the deserted aisles, feeling more like a latter-age archeologist than a consumer. The vendors peered at me through piles of vintage coke bottles and knick knacks, like vultures waiting for prey to come near enough to be of interest.

While some shops were themed and organized, the majority were a dizzyingly dense yard sale mélange of items. Stalwart old tools slowly rusted against the flanks of vast beanie baby armies. Armadas of knickknacks sat in shelved dry dock under rusted tin signs. Unrecognizable vintage machines patiently waited to fulfill their functions once again. Velvet Elvis stood regally watching over all.

Some of the items were awesome in their sheer ugliness. Some simply didn’t translate well to the modern era. Some just defied comprehension altogether.

Creepy Elfin Heads

Hookah Lamp makes smoking pot an illuminating experience.

Shakespeare watches disapprovingly while you drink from his skull.
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Only $170 for a framed charcoal bag? Steal!

Let’s put the whiskies in the kid-friendly, cartoony containers….nothing can go wrong here.

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Yup, still racist.

Apparently Produce and Pornography evolved from a common ancestor.

Internet 1.0

Those early iPhones sure were clunky…

Plymouth Undies: They’re the Sneeriest!

Welcome to the Eagle’s Nest (Hitler’s mountain chateau in WWII).

There was a whole 360 degree view room filled with these creepy dolls. And their dead, dead eyes.

I am Hilde! I am from Holland! I EAT SOULS.

Historical Bears. Sadly no Theobear Roosevelt.

Working 9 to 5? Come relax on Dolly.

Native American artifacts from the Neversleepagain tribe.

Among the empires of junk, there were actually a few interesting relics (though still not interesting in the “this needs to be in my home” sense).

Columbia Grafonola Record Player

Well preserved Singer sewing machine with table

Stained glass in reclaimed wood

These dowels were from a Houston yarn factory, I believe

Poster from a Soviet Propaganda film

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Old school rocking horse

By the time I’d made my way through the main warehouse, my mind was already pretty overloaded. I had actually found two items that were kind of cool; an old wood and metal pulley (for hanging a flower basket or bird house) and a small sheesham wood and metal table for the patio[vii].

Old pulley, Sheesham table

After successfully haggling them down to reasonable prices[viii], they advised me I could not use credit card, but that there was an ATM in the “other building” and directed me toward a back door. A small desolate lot had a trail to an unmarked entrance which promised “More Shopz”[ix].

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Back Alleyway, More Shopz!, No more shops today please.

If the large open primary building seemed densely packed, this annex was nearly a rat’s warren of small, secluded shops. I crept through tunnels between the overflowing stock of Coin dealers, stamp dealers, a dealer of antique Japanese swords, vintage radio repairmen and some bored twentysomethings selling unopened action figures[x], to the ATM. Already burned out on the sheer mental onslaught of the place, I left these shops for another day[xi].

I haven’t told my wife yet about my antique purchases. We’ll see how that goes over.


[i] Want a three-tiered driving range or high-end gun club? Are you a SCUBA enthusiast, giant palm tree lover, or Vietnamese grocery afficianado? We got you covered. 
[ii] It reminded me a bit of the armies of old with the vast retinue of whores, peddlers, cooks, blacksmiths, etc. following in their wake. A vast wagon train following I-10 on its march through Houston.
[iii] I appreciate nice antique furniture or the odd piece here and there, but more often than not it’s mostly a long game of sorting through tons of never-to-be-sold trash for the hope of finding a diamond in the rough. I understand why some people like it. There’s a sense of history/mystery/capitalistic voyeurism in peeking about in the collected debris of ages past. I appreciate artifacts of the past, I just don’t feel an overwhelming need to own them. For me, antiques stores are much more akin to museums than shops.  They’re also a source of unbounded potential to revel in the hilarity of the poor purchasing decisions of the past. It would be fair to say that I approach antiques semi-ironically.
[iv] It was like the warehouse in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, except this is where they send the stuff they have their less-than-top men work on it. Or like the hoard of a dragon with a pronounced lack of discerning taste.
[v] …and recognizing the blog post potential…
[vi] And just like people resembling their pets, the inanimate items were not the only antiques here. Most of the commercial activity here seemed to be vendors buying and selling from other vendors. Maybe it’s a Highlander thing…like eventually there can be only one, and they’re all desperately trying to accumulate the biggest pile of junk on which to survey their holdings in their future reign.
[vii] I almost felt a little guilty as I bought the table from the older lady at the booth. I could tell this may have been someone’s sentimental possession, and it was all but guaranteed I was going to stick it out in the Texas elements with a level of disregard that could only be called wanton.
[viii] My wife hates haggling, but I have no problem with it. In the world of antiques, I think it’s like the “three cups of tea” principle. It lets you know you respect their culture.
[ix] “I came here because the spelling on this sign appealed to me”, said no hip young urban person ever.  
[x] There is nothing quite so sad as action figures mint in box, never opened, never to be opened, never to be played with.
[xi] I put it on the calendar for 10: AM on “that day in which there is absolutely nothing else to do in the world, including alphabetizing my socks”. 

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