European art glass from the 1920s on display at the Emporium.
European art glass from the 1920s on display at the Emporium. (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)

The joy you can't get on eBay

More than shopping for antiques is keenly sensing them and their bygone lives

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 11, 2004

SOUTH EGREMONT -- Martin Jacobs pressed his nose against an old bucksaw and sniffed histrionically.

"You've got to smell it," Jacobs said of the worn wooden handle.

Old saws are mere accents among the antique folk art at The Splendid Peasant, the shop Jacobs and his wife, Kitty, operate in South Egremont. His playful demonstration, though, made an important point: "You have to be in strong sensory contact with objects," he said. If you can't touch an antique, it can't touch you.

The antiques and collectibles business has been forever altered by the success of eBay. It's a cinch to log on to the website and find a few thousand Victorian brooches or a hundred cardboard Monopoly playing boards. Point, shoot, bid, buy -- it has all the soul of trading in pork bellies. For our money (literally), pixels on a screen are a paltry substitute for fondling andeven sniffing the goods. Moreover, shopping on eBay is like doing research in a library with closed stacks. Ask for auctions of Russel Wright Iroquois sugar bowls, and that's what eBay will spit out. But you never know what you'll stumble across out on the road. Serendipity rarely disappoints.

The Splendid Peasant was our first stop on a recent excursion into the Berkshires, and a fortuitous one at that. While the exquisite weather vanes, painted chests, carousel animals, and game boards were way out of our price range, they provided a critical lesson in connoisseurship.

"We see everything here as sculpture or painting," Jacobs said, which explained why the objects were spotlighted on white walls. With this treatment, even the humble bucksaws, eel traps, and ice-fishing spears assume a modern graphic punch, while groupings of badminton rackets and catcher's masks take on an order and dignity that each discard lacked on its own. The honest elegance of the Peasant's treasures prompted us to examine items we might have otherwise overlooked, and inoculated us (we hoped) against the temptations of junk.

In fact, the scales came off our eyes at Ole T.J.'s Antique Barn in nearby Sheffield when we spied the array of well-used lumber camp and backcountry saws pegged up among the rafters of the second story. The two-man crosscut saw with "lightning teeth" and the lance saw for cutting ice blocks from a frozen lake cried out for the museum treatment. Wood-handled baling hooks seemed to take on new life as hangers for pots and pans. We drew the line, though, at converting ice tongs to paper towel holders. Too clever by half, and somehow disrespectful. On the other hand, those hundred-cog iron gear wheels . . ..

Egremont, Sheffield, Great Barrington -- and the stretches of Routes 7 and 43 that connect them -- are dense enough with dealers to keep an antiques hunter busy for a week or more, but we couldn't resist detouring to Southfield to visit a piece of authentic Americana, the Buggy Whip Factory. In its working days (1792-1977), Turner & Cook Whip Manufactory was known for making rawhide whip cores that gave buggy whips their characteristic snap.

The rambling old wooden building now houses the Buggy Whip Antiques Marketplace and a cluster of complementary entrepreneurs, including a dealer in reproduction 19th-century Quebecois country furniture. Hokey handmade dioramas, old signs, and a public TV documentary film transferred to blurry video chronicle the rise and fall of Turner & Cook, "the oldest industry in the Berkshires." The film even shows some of the last employees making buggy whips.

Antiques dealer Terri Marshall focuses on books.

"My husband's family has been in the area for five generations," Marshall said. "We get first chance when older people are getting rid of their libraries. We find treasures like you wouldn't believe."

Local histories, local writers, and unusual small-edition rarities are shelved among the bestsellers of yesteryear. Alas, Marshall did not have a copy of "New Hampshire," Robert Frost's Pulitzer prize-winning collection of poems that we have been trying to track down since passing on a copy for $10 a few years ago.

As it turned out, our best "find" in town was running into Tim Newman, who was in the process of renovating the 1929 Southfield Store (itself built on the site of a 19th-century general store) into a combination cafe and gourmet shop. The work crew was sampling some of Newman's daughter's baked goods, and judging by the muffin and cookie we tried, we should have lunch there the next time we're in town. Newman promised a sandwich that will combine the local Monterey chevre, sun-dried tomatoes, and an olive tapenade.

Antiques hunting works up an appetite. The ponytailed server at Bev's Homemade Ice Cream in Great Barrington scooped the best chocolate ice cream we've ever tasted. A dish of "Dirty Chocolate" provided the sugar spike we needed to wade through the crush of shops in town. The Emporium Antique Center boasted fabulous carved cameos. The multiple dealers of Coffman's Antiques Market excelled in country furniture. Antiquarian bookseller North Star had a treasure trove of rare and local volumes -- but no Frost.

Few of the Great Barrington dealers have such a laser focus as Country Dining Room Antiques, where we found perfectly set tables laden with antique dinnerware fit for a decor magazine or a coffee table book. Proprietor Sheila Chefetz, in fact, wrote "Antiques for the Table" (Penguin Studio, 1993), the bible of neo-Victorian dining room decorating.

"Everything is for sale," said Chefetz, a former Gimbel's fashion director. "A woman came in and had me ship a table and everything on it to Texas in time for a dinner party."

Her decorating panache offers hope to those of us with more modest pocketbooks and eclectic tastes. She notes that fashion is moving away from matching sets in favor of mixing and matching.

"Use what you really love as a focal point and build out from there," she said. The antithesis to the elegance of Chefetz's shop is Sawyer Antiques at the Shaker Mill in West Stockbridge. Scott Sawyer acknowledged a brief flirtation with eBay, but he's come back around to pride in the antiques emporium, which his father started 30 years ago.

"When I was growing up, this is what I remember antiques stores being like: dusty, big, barn-like stores," Sawyer said.

In keeping with that tradition, merchandise is neatly -- but not too neatly -- jammed into every nook of the old wooden building, which the Shakers of Tyringham constructed as a grist mill in 1836.

As we rifled through the old prints and maps, wooden rolling pins, and striking country furniture, we unearthed a book on the Berkshire Hills published under the Depression-era Federal Writers Project and we scooped it up for our collection. We also found a nifty postage scale (from the era of the three-cent stamp) destined to join the clutter on our desk.

"We sold a lot of stuff to Jane Fitzpatrick at the Red Lion Inn" in Stockbridge, said Sawyer, who added that many of his sales are now to decorators. "If you lift up some of the teapots and other decorations at the Red Lion, you'll still find my father's price tags on the bottom."

Upscale Lenox marked a return to the orderly shops of small valuables, not least among them Stone's Throw Antiques. Sydelle Stone Shapiro sat at a beautifully set table as if presiding over a dinner party, greeting friends and casual drop-ins alike. Online auctions have affected her business.

"The glory of scarcity and the find is missing due to eBay," Shapiro lamented. "Part of the mystique is to find the rare, unique item. No matter what you are looking for, you will find one, 10, 30 on eBay." Maybe so. But even though Shapiro didn't have any Russel Wright sugar bowls, she had an incredible green glass deco decanter we had never seen.

Antiques shops thin out north of Lenox, so we had time to stop in Pittsfield to pay our respects to Herman Melville and to one of the all-time great collectors of Melvilleana. The Herman Melville Memorial Room in the Berkshire Athenaeum, the public library, was established by Henry A. Murray's 1953 donation of his Melville research materials and memorabilia. (Professor Murray was a preeminent Melville scholar at Harvard University.) With additional Melville family donations and modest purchases over the years, the room contains intimate items that would make any antiques hunter's pulse race: Melville's Turkish slippers, the tomahawk he kept over the fireplace at nearby Arrowhead, the mahogany desk where he penned "Billy Budd" while living in Manhattan.

We continued north to see the funky decor at The Porches Inn, which brought 21st-century technology and whimsy to a cluster of Victorian-era row houses built for North Adams mill workers. Porches may be operated by Nancy Fitzpatrick of the Red Lion Inn family, but it's worlds apart from that sprawling old stagecoach hotel.

The sitting area near the reception desk is filled with a mix of red leather club chairs and old oak office armchairs. An Arts and Crafts table holds a 1950s lamp. The foyer walls sport an extensive collection of Mohawk Trail souvenir plates. The alcove behind the reception desk is lined with red and green ceramic TV lamps from the 1950s, when they were considered an essential accessory to keep tube watchers from going blind.

"People love the TV lamps," said Katrina Skiffington, the front desk manager. "They come in and it's so modern, and then they see something like they remember from grandma's house. People always want to buy them."

Our hunting instincts kicked in. We asked Skiffington where all these waggish lamps, paint-by-number pictures, and knickknacks came from.

"Oh, Nancy Fitzpatrick gets them on eBay," she said, shrugging.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers based in Cambridge.

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