Monday, November 30, 2009

Book-Art at an Antique Shop

Unusual Books and Other Oddities: A Fine Line Between "Old" and "Old Junk"

I am particularly fond of antique shops. I have been for a long time. In fact, I think I had my first antique shop experience as a wee child, gazing upward among the glass wares, rare china, Gilded Age portrait paintings, and Empire furniture. It has long been part of my own childhood memories. So it is not difficult to understand why I still have more than just an affection for the antique shop phenomenon. As I've grown older and traveled more frequently, I've found comfort mixed with curiosity when I find a new shop, especially in places I haven't lived in or visited before. A number of years ago I visited Montreal and Quebec City with my sister. I remember strolling one very cold December morning around the old city there, upon the ramparts, slipping on hard ice and trampling over crunchy snow. It was a majestically old place, so European feeling in fact, that I felt I was more likely in France than North America. And the added flavor of the regional Quebecois patois, corner shops selling steaming crepes, and stately old antique shops selling Napoleonic wares all confused my mind into thinking I was a continental visitor, not a New Worlder. (My favorite line came from my sister: "It's like France without the plane ride!")

These Quebec City antique shops were extraordinary: they were packed full of truly antique items, French-style from every period of early modern ancien regime housewares to the Nouveau Realisme style art and decor envisioned in France fifty years ago. It was by all accounts a brilliant antiquing experience. This said, when I came to Chicago some years ago, I discovered that the midwest had a far different understanding of "antiques" and "antiquing." It often gets confused with "thrifting" and even more so with "crafts" and "crafting." It was, I discovered during scores of visits to rural Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan over the years, a clear case of what we might call "Junktiques" and "Junktiquing." This, as you can already imagine, is the portmanteau of "junky antiques" or some such combination. And there are not just dozens or scores, but hundreds of these in rural areas in a 100 mile radius of Chicago. In fact, I'm certain there are thousands across the country. This said, they are not all completely "Junktiquy" in quality. I've found some rather shocking and extraordinary finds, such as a magnificent painting of Castel St. Angelo in Rome, which I purchased in a basement junktiquery in rural Indiana for $40.

One of the problems in these establishments is that they often attract people, who end up selling honest to goodness junk. And I must confess that the most egregious form of junk in antique or junktique stores is the book. The worst case of this junk-puffery I've seen in recent years was up near Ludington, Michigan on the west coast of the state--a sandy Lake Michigan resort town, with a number of decent restaurants and lots of antique and junktique establishments. I recall a section of "old books" (in this case "old" referred to anything published before 1990! ...and usually nothing older than 1920)--and in this section were several copies of Winston Churchill's 6-volume set "The Second World War," among other ratty and tattered and in some cases water stained books. And these books were marked at $30+ each! The Churchill books weren't even First Editions! In most used book shops, you'll find these sorts of books running anywhere from 50 cents to $4, but no more. And a new set of the Churchill today will run you about $70 for all 6 volumes.

Perhaps one of the worst moments in my own junktiquing history, which nearly was the death knell to my nomadic junktiquing career, came when I visited a junktique shop in a rural India town southeast of Valparaiso. I don't remember the name of the town. But what I do remember was that I'd been stopping at all the antique shops in nearby towns. This was the last of the day. It was, in fact, someone's house, not a proper shop. A raggedy hand painted sign hung anemically from the porch "Antiques Inside." I haltingly went up, knocked on the door and entered. A glass case with junk jewelry sat squarely in the living room with natty old oversized dresses from the 1970s hanging from the window frames. Behind the glass display case was an oversized colored television blaring some game show. And in a recliner chair, hooked up to an slow-pumping oxygen tank sat an old emphysemic, a haggard woman with a furrowed face plowed by years of cigarette smoking. She got up slowly, approached the middle of her living room, just behind the glass counter, and with a deep bellowy voice, proceeded to tell a litany of one-line racist jokes. I left immediately, soured for years by that experience.

Living in Chicago, though, has afforded closer opportunities than Indiana. Many of the suburban towns, like LaGrange, IL, have some fine antique shops. There is a large shop in LaGrange that is a mix of antique and craft, with a lesser degree of junktiques. It was in this shop that I found the items featured in today's blog: the old books on "how to use a library" and of course this curious book-art. The book-art is actually an old Readers' Digest that was finely crafted into, well...into something which I have no idea how to define. It's round and stands erect and fans out. Maybe one of you readers has a good name for it! Living in the big city affords one the opportunity to search in both the depth of that city's neighborhoods, its downtown, and its suburbs; and I've never (thankfully!) had the chance to relive that dreadful emphysemic-encountered afternoon, either in an antique/junktique shop or any other shop for that matter. That house-shop probably no longer exists, its sick old lady gone to the cigarette lounge in the sky. And I'll surely think again about entering someone's house dubbed as an "antique shop." In retrospect, perhaps, it might have been as foolish as entering a run down house with a sign on it reading "Free money inside!" or "God lives here, he wants to talk to you: come in!" I'm curious, but not that curious.

1 comment:

  1. I have never seen this type of "book art". What I have seen are fanciful Christmas trees made from Reader's Digest Magazines. They are folded to look like trees; spray painted green, gold, silver, and decorated with glitter. Lots of those can be found in nursing homes. I guess it is something that the patients can do. I don't think I like the idea of doing this art form with a book.

    Also, the first picture shown on this post is a book called Great Lakes Cruising. It looks good. Did you purchase it?

    Thanks for all your really interesting articles. I really enjoy reading them!