For me, a trip to the beach is an excuse for antiquing. I mean the sun, sand and surf are great, and the seafood is sublime, but think for a minute about all those antique shops along the U.S. 50 corridor on the Eastern Shore.
Now that Labor Day weekend is fast approaching, the crowds at the ocean will soon be dispersing. The midday sun will be gentler, but the ocean will be slow to lose its summer warmth.
So as a public service to every beach lover-cum-collector who looks foward to Ocean City's second season, I made a two-day survey of antique shops in the U.S. 50 corridor. My visit to 30 establishments represents what a dedicated antiquer can accomplish coming and going to the beach.
Beside the shops right on U.S. 50, I made sidetrips to Centreville, to St. Michaels and Oxford, and to Pokomoke City and Princess Anne. Unfortunately, I was unable to get to Caroline County (with stops in Denton, Federalsburg and Preston). These I'll include next year.
As one would expect, the Shore hosts the gamut of collecting possibilities in a variety of venues.
The phenomenon of antique malls has taken hold, especially in Queenstown and Easton. In general, dealers rent mall booths by the month; sales are transacted at the front desk; dickering is discouraged; and an "All Sales are Final" sign is displayed. The merchandise in these multidealer shops tends to be newer and smaller (less furniture) than in single-owner shops.
The chief exception is the Chesapeake Antique Center, where ** U.S. 301 splits from U.S. 50 just south of Queenstown. Stephen )) Leocha and Kathleen Witte opened this mall in March after recruiting dealers at antique shows or by visiting their shops. Mr. Leocha says he requires dealers to stand behind the descriptions on the price tags. The center has 35 dealers and expects to grow to about 60 dealers spread over 9,000 square feet.
The quality control shows. Currently the mall's strength is 19th century American furniture, while new booths feature historical prints and '50s decor.
I did have some questions for Mr. Leocha about changes I suspected were made to some pieces of furniture. In one case we agreed that casters were added to a small table, but disagreed on the originality of a door to a washstand. Later Mr. Leocha said he spoke to the dealer about the matter but the dealer insisted the center panel of the door had not been reversed or replaced.
This illustrates the problems in trying to buy from absentee dealers. There's no one-on-one contact, no exchange of knowledge and little or no bargaining.
Fortunately, single-owner businesses haven't vanished. I know of two that are in their second generation of ownership. And they couldn't be more different.
One, Gary Young Antiques, in a 1835 townhouse in Centreville, glows in the rich browns of English and Irish period furniture. Mr. Young said his father started the business in Kansas City 20 years ago, moving to the Shore 11 years ago. He exhibits at all 10 of what he says are the nation's major antique shows. His prices reflect his high standing in the trade.
The other, at the little crossroads of Royal Oak southeast of St. Michaels, has been run by the Kilmon family for 20 years. The merchandise at Oak Creek Sales spills out onto the front porch of one building and stands sentry in front of the garage across the street. The furniture is largely reproduction, and the smalls fit comfortably within the description of junk. But this place has a sense of fun, of treasures just around the corner if you can only find them.
Two generations of the Upham family have side-by-side businesses in Mardela Springs, on U.S. 50 between Vienna and Salisbury. Charles and Irene Upham have run C.U. Antiques for 19 years. Their daughter, Charlene, set up shop next door. Both specialize in dolls and toys. The parents lean toward cast-iron toys, the daughter to tin, papier mache and lithograph-on-wood toys.
Specialties distinquish several shops. Sentimental Journey Antiques, both in St. Michaels and Preston, boasts the nation's largest stock of oyster plates. Diane Richardson, clerk in the St. Michaels shop, says prices range from $75 to $650.
Americana Antiques in Oxford, meantime, claims to have the largest stock of carousel animals in the East. These playful critters regularly outprice the stylish early American furniture that otherwise would distinguish the shop. I was startled that a repainted turn-of-the-century rabbit would be tagged $42,000. Owner Emmy Donohue says she has sold a few animals for over $100,000.
Jim Dawson's Unicorn Bookshop in Trappe, on U.S. 50 between Easton and Cambridge, has a room devoted to rare books. He says, "I've been told I have the best [selection of] Maryland history in the state." His books are as cheap as a nickel, as expensive as $2,000, as early as the 16th century and as recent as last year.