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An antique or collectibles store can be home to a wide range of memorabilia and history. This scene was captured at Beaver Creek Antiques.

Antiquing in the Tri-State

Connecting Collectors to the Past

written by Pepper Van Tassell
photography by Kevin G. Gilbert

Ironware and lightning rods drove a young Barb Sipling and her father to antique stores and estate sales across Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, where the pair scoured lots of heirlooms in search of unique primitive items her dad could make new again.

For Barb, owner of Black Rose Antiques & Collectibles, where 138 vendors showcase booths of antique, vintage and collectible items over 38,000 square feet at Chambersburg Mall, a childhood built on nostalgia is what led her to build her future in antiques.

“Our customers come in and feel they can reunite with an item that their mother threw away, or that they lost over time,” says Barb, who opened her first Black Rose Antiques & Collectibles at North Hanover Mall in Hanover, Pa., 20 years ago. “We have people that still want to add to their album collections. … It depends on what connects them to the past.”

Defining Finds

“It keeps moving up because as we keep moving into the future. It gets harder to pull those pieces out of the 1700s and 1800s”

— Barb Sipling

The needle for what makes an item an antique or makes something "vintage" moves with time. Among collectors, an antique — once a designation reserved in the United States for anything that predated mass production beginning in the 1830s — is a piece made more than 100 years ago, or — as of this year — prior to 1917.

A vintage piece is more than 20 years old, or a style definitive of a popular era. "Primitive" refers to crude barn furnishings, tools or fixtures, ideally made before mass production — what Barb’s father collected.

“It keeps moving up because as we keep moving into the future. It gets harder to pull those pieces out of the 1700s and 1800s,” Barb says. “Vendors and collectors say it’s harder and harder to find good pieces anymore.”

Pam Koontz, assistant manager of Antique Crossroads near Hagerstown, says she gets a good chuckle when someone describes an item as “old,” and it turns out that it’s from the 1970s or 1980s.

Pam, along with Rodger Smith, Antique Crossroads’ manager, says the 24,000-square-foot showroom on National Pike is never without valuable antique items. Recently, a Bokar Coffee neon sign sold for $1,800, and a Griswold skillet sold for $1,000, Rodger says.

Rodger and Pam work with 200 dealers who scatter to auctions and estate sales, returning to their booths with everything from blue decorated crocks, jugs and antique anvils to railroad lanterns, porcelain signs and bar memorabilia.

“It’s always hard to find the real rare stuff. It wouldn’t be rare if it was easy to find,” Rodger says. “The people who work really hard at it do really well.”

Finding Nostalgia

Placing nostalgia on shelves and showrooms throughout the Tri-State are hundreds of dealers like Donna Ragland and her husband, Ronnie Daley, who wait in large crowds at auctions and estate sales to place bids on items they see flying off shelves from their Retro Deluxe booths at Antique Crossroads and Rocky Ridge Collectibles near Hagerstown.

Donna and Ronnie’s fascination with antiques began when Ronnie started restoring old cars about 12 years ago. Now, when the couple isn’t driving around in their 1926 Model-T Roadster or 1967 Ford pickup truck, they head out in their cargo van several times a week — sometimes to a few different places a day — to estate sales and auctions, looking for vintage items they think will sell.

“We try to find anything that’s different,” Donna says.

Dave Brightman, a 65-year-old U.S. Marine and Army veteran, began building his personal Civil War antique collection about 10 years ago, and now runs three booths and a wall at Black Rose at the Chambersburg Mall with items ranging in price from $1 to $600, he says.

“I don’t buy what I like,” he says. “I found that if I buy what I like, it’s not going to sell. I buy what I see people are buying.”

Profits can range greatly for vendors in the antiques and collectibles game. Some people will spend $20 and refurbish it, only to turn around and sell it for $35; other people work hard to find the right match for their items and make a bigger profit, Pam says.

Ronnie says, “You can go from making a couple of dollars to a couple hundred of dollars. It depends on the demand and how popular it is.”

Rodger says, “Most of the dealers do it because it’s in their blood. They like what they’re doing.”

What Sells

Antique wood, porcelain and neon signs are some of the top items sold at Antique Crossroads and Black Rose.

“A lot of people are into signs. Men are decorating rec rooms and man rooms. Women come in and buy this stuff, too,” Rodger says.

Some popular antique items at Boonsboro Antiques and Collectibles on National Pike are dishware, glassware, bottle collections, phonographic records, vintage paintings, prints, toys and furniture, according to Lisa Stotler, manager of the antique mall, which pulls from 135 vendors.

“Old trunks sell really well here,” Lisa says. “Old windows sell well, too.” Civil War memorabilia, including bullets and stirrups from the Civil War-era, tend to draw interest, she adds.

Vintage kitchen ware, including Pyrex — many designs of which have recently moved into the antique category —

Corning and Fire King have gained popularity. Rodger, Pam and Donna note that a lot of the U.S.-made pieces have moved overseas to China, making some varieties harder to find here.

Donna, who has 407 pieces of Pyrex at her home, says, “There are a lot of different patterns, and I’m still learning.”

Advertising trays — like a Jackson Beer tray from Cincinnati priced at Antique Crossroads for $800 — are big draws, too, Rodger says.

Vinyl records — including 33s and 45s — also are making a comeback, Pam says.

Dave says, “Everybody buys what they grew up with. If you grew up with Star Wars, you’re collecting Star Wars. If you grew up with John Deere, you’re collecting John Deere.”

An antique pitcher and glasses wait for a buyer at Hancock Antique Mall and Indoor Flea Market.

Decorating Trends

Barb says a lot of interior decorators use Black Rose to find period furniture and accent pieces. When restaurant Ruby Tuesday went through a retro décor phase, Barb says the restaurant’s buyers brought a truck to her Hanover store and loaded it up. Movie crews filming locally have purchased props at the store.

“We went through a phase where everyone wanted something painted black,” she says. “We went through another phase where stainless steel and black had to go together.”

Buyers looking to decorate their own homes often are driven to buy what they see in magazine spreads, she says.

Barb adds, “Primitive never seems to go out of style.” But the way in which primitive pieces have been refurbished has changed a lot since she was a girl. “My dad had to scrape all the original paint off, shellac it and varnish it. Now they want it ‘the older, the better.’ ”

Pam notes that Victorian furniture doesn’t sell as well in the Tri-State area as it does in the South, where there are plenty of stately mansions that complement its designs. Locally, mid-century furniture, Art Deco, folk art and early country store items are routinely picked up for home decor, Rodger says.

Millennials tend to be practical in their purchases, choosing to buy furniture and lamps over knickknacks, Ronnie says.

“The millennials are very minimalist. They don’t like the silverware, the crystal or the china — that’s not something they use or want in their lives,” Pam says.

Losing Value and Popularity

Pam, who also is a dealer, said she recently watched an auctioneer combine two sets of China to beg for $1.

“A lot of the glassware has really gone down since the recession,” Ronnie says. “Now you can’t hardly give that stuff away.”

Some pottery has taken a hit, too, Dave says. An antique Bennington Glaze stoneware piece that could sell for $100 about 15 years ago wouldn’t sell for $5 today, he says.

Ronnie says turn-of-the-century solid oak furniture doesn’t sell as well as it has in the past, either. While some items might have dropped in value in recent years, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are cheap, Rodger says. “A lot of things have come down in price since 9/11, including my house,” he says.

Shoppers can find unique items, such as this display, at Boonsboro Antiques and Collectibles.

Dave says items reminiscent of old Westerns like Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy are losing popularity because the people who grew up watching those shows are in shorter supply. “The buyers are dying, plain and simple.”

Pam mentions that someone came to her store looking for Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia recently. She adds that an item’s popularity has a lot to do with what is in stock and who is browsing it. “It can change at any given time. It’s what walks in the door on any given day.”

Personality

Since an antique or collectibles store can be home to a wide range of memorabilia and history, Barb says it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes someone a typical customer, though she’s noticed some common traits among many of the people who have passed through her doors over the past 20 years. “There’s a psychographic that comes with people who love these items from the past,” she says. “They are earthy people.”

Pam says, “It’s kind of a mix. It’s no particular personality.”

She says teenagers come into the store in search of comic books. A 5-year-old girl wanted help finding a clock recently and the store sold it to her for a dime, Pam says. An older couple from Tennessee takes a vacation three times a year to shop at Antique Crossroads, she says.

Buying styles vary, too: Some buyers browse for weeks before settling on a purchase.

Dave says, “You need to be patient because in several instances, you may go to an auction and there may only be a few things you’re interested in and they don’t come up for two or three hours.”

Barb notes, “You have to be patient to wait and to find that item that you’ve been seeking all of your life.”

Finding Buyers in the Worldwide Age

Barb says she is lucky to pull motorists from Interstate 81 to her store at the Chambersburg Mall. In years past, it wasn’t uncommon for Sunday drivers to include a stop at an antique mall in their weekend plans, but that isn’t how most people find antiques anymore.

With her location at Chambersburg Mall — unlike a standalone flea market or antique store — Barb has the added benefit of foot traffic, leading people into her store who might otherwise overlook antiques and collectibles. Antique Crossroads advertises on the interstate with road signs and billboards, and in antique magazines like Sunday Driver, Pam says.

Some collectors have gradually turned their attention to the online marketplace; the debut of eBay started to drive prices down for a lot of items, Dave says. “Somebody in California might have thought they had something exceptionally rare, but now they see it in California, New Jersey and Delaware,” Dave says. “eBay showed us that stuff wasn’t as rare as people thought they were.” In other ways, the Internet has worked to the seller’s advantage.

Antique and vintage signs, such as this one at Boonsboro Antiques and Collectibles, are popular with buyers, according to local antique dealers.

Barb posted a photograph on her store’s Facebook page of an 8-foot, wooden, turn-of-the-century American Railway Express sign, and it sold quickly for $1,500. Pam says Antique Crossroads posts photos online, and many vendors do, too. “We have to get a little more savvy in how we become more convenient.”

How to Buy

True antique collectors know what to look for when shopping for antiques, Lisa says. Collectors of McCoy Pottery, for example, know how to identify authentic pieces based on the pottery’s markings, including an overlapping "N" and "M" for Nelson McCoy.

Serious buyers will consider the grade of the item, how much wear and tear it has endured and whether it has original paint or an original design, Barb says.

“Some people are happy with low-grade because it’s the look they are decorating with,” Barb says. “Some people have been collecting for a long time and are just looking for something with the best quality.”

Dave says shoppers should have a different mentality when walking into a large store with several booths.

“If you see an item, don’t immediately pick it up and buy it,” Dave says. “Ask if there are more items like that. There’s such a wide range of prices. Someone might have a piece for $40 and you go to another booth and find it for $10.”

Ronnie says counterfeit items can make their way onto auction blocks and into stores, and buyers who decide to collect something should educate themselves about it. “Familiarize yourself. If you’re looking for one thing, just learn about it. Look around and get an idea on prices before you go shopping.” Experience makes the process easier. “After a while, you get a feel for it.”

Bargaining

Some vendors and stores offer small discounts for what is sold in the booth, while other outlets prohibit bargaining.

Some vendors at Boonsboro Antiques and Collectibles are willing to barter, and will sometimes accept less for an item if they’ve had it for a long time, Lisa says. “Sometimes the customer can lose the item” if another customer comes in and offers full price, she says.

Donna Shaffer, manager at Rocky Ridge Collectibles, says her store won’t bargain on price, but some items are excluded. They used to offer discounts, but found it was causing some problems.

Antique dealers often purchase crocks and jugs, such as these at Beaver Creek Antiques, from regional estate sales.

Pam says bargaining is part of the experience for an antique collector. “We’re always open to calling the dealer and seeing if we can work it out both ways.”

Ronnie says Retro Deluxe typically gives a 10 percent discount off something sold at its booth, and might give a bigger discount to someone who buys more than one item.

There are many layers to collecting, and not everyone is suited to shop antique malls and estate sales every week, Barb says. “What makes them successful depends on the extent of their collecting and how far they want to get into it.”

Collecting

Blaine Gordon checks his phone during a lull in shopping at Hancock Antique Mall and Indoor Flea Market.

Barb says the first thing she collected was bottlecaps, and the first antique she possessed was probably a primitive rocking horse. Now she lives in a house in Hanover, Pa., that was built in 1857, filled with many of her favorite pieces, including a beautiful stained-glass window from a Victorian home in the area. She chose her house in the same way she chooses her antiques: It was from the right era in the right setting. “It’s all about the passion that you really feel for that time period,” she says. “Every piece has a history.”

Collectors will keep hunting, racing against the clock, riding the fads and bringing customers what they demand — if they can still find them. “You can only go to the well for so long and keep bringing this stuff out,” Barb says. “As time goes on, these antique pieces that we’re talking about today, they’re eventually going to run dry.”

Pam thinks about all the items that have passed through Antique Crossroads over the years, and how many pieces are still in homes today, tucked away from public view. She’s not discouraged that people will lose interest in old things or have trouble finding them when they want them. “They’re going to run dry, but where are they going, and where are they going to resurface? And with that, I’m hoping for a renewal.”

She has expectations that the younger generations will keep the antiquing tradition alive. She thinks of the little girl who bought the 10-cent clock, and a young man who is taking classes in clock repair now, after spending his middle-school years at Antique Crossroads, browsing and buying watches.

“I’m not sure how or where you fall in love with it, but you just do,” Pam says. “It gets in your blood.”