Den of Antiquity Bargains: You've got an old friend in Pennsylvania. Chances are it's waiting for you, at a good price, between Reading and Lancaster at one of the area's more than 2,500 antiques dealers.

October 18, 1998|By Deborah Barcan | Deborah Barcan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a true American, whenever I hear that something is the biggest or the best, it attracts my attention. When I found that the Adamstown-Denver, Pa., area halfway between Reading and Lancaster has at least 2,500 permanent antiques dealers, I was hooked. To further affirm my affinity for the area, this summer USA Today chose it as the nation's premier antiquing location.

For many years I have made twice-yearly junkets here. On a nice weekend, the number of vendors swells by another 2,000 as transient hawkers selling from outdoor stands join the ranks. Cars from as far as Oregon make it their business to stop when passing Exit 21 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The vans and sport-utility vehicles sport license plates from a dozen Eastern states.

When I tell you that the die-hard fanatics show up before dawn for the outdoor dealers and the hardiest seekers are still at it while the sun sinks slowly over the horizon, it is no exaggeration. Not only quantity and increasingly better quality, but generally lower prices are the trio of drawing cards. Pennsylvania's hills are dotted with old houses that provide many of the items in the antiques centers.

In 1962, U.S. Route 222, state Route 272 and nearby local roads still bordered quiet farm country on the edge of Amish settlements. Then, Charles Weik, a local dealer, set up Sunday flea markets in Schupp's Grove. Several years later that vision expanded when Renninger's Farmers Market on Route 272 began providing dealers with a covered haven during the winter.

Today, farms are still scattered about, but the antiques stores are multiplying like mushrooms after an El Nino downpour. In the spring, the aroma of freshly manured fields wafts over Victorian chairs, myriad salt and pepper shakers, wooden propellers and all manner of collectibles.

Schupp's advertises: "Enjoy the romance of the woods, the thrill of the hunt, and the euphoria of 'the big find.' "

It's still true. Come earlier rather than later. You, too, may acquire the frame of an Eastlake chair for $35, several popped springs thrown in, or a propeller made in Baltimore for $350.

Morning victories

On a misty morning, the outdoor stands at Renninger's have been conducting a lively business since dawn. At 7:30, I am with a small crowd of shoppers clustering around the still-locked doors awaiting a crack at the 375 dealers inside who call this home. Doors open, grease from frying breakfast food hovers about, and everyone is off to seek his unique conquests. About half the dealers have opened already, often with coffee in hand. The other booths will begin commerce gradually, as the shower curtains, sheets and whatever else passes for dividers and a front door are pulled back to greet customers.

In general, Renninger's is a middle-of-the-road place. Curtis Nace's Iron Age Antiques attracts me, with its variety of old tools, kitchenware, Victrolas and early radios at Booth 21. At many of the establishments you can dig in and come up with good pickings. Eric Trickel of Paoli, Pa., sold me a 1930s cast-iron Tootsie toy car in good condition for $55. "It usually goes for $75," he swears from the confines of Booth E15. I also get a private lesson, gratis, on what to look for, and how to make repairs.

If Renninger's is the Chevrolet of antiques malls, Stoudt's Black Angus down the road is the Rolls Royce. Both are so large and spread out that they provide schematic plans for buyers.

At Stoudt's you can not only shop at 500 quality dealers both indoors and out, but sample the adjacent Black Angus Restaurant, Stoudt's own brewing company and (soon) enjoy an entire Stoudt's village where dealers can live above their own shops.

For me, the antiquing is the lure. The most interesting stands at Stoudt's Black Angus (many people use the name Black Angus only) are the ones that specialize. The Rice family has a number of booths and sells imposing Victorian furniture - big bucks, top quality. Weil Clocks, Booth 174, ticks away with old beauties. Val's Place exhibits thousands of salt and pepper sets at Stand 77.

Good and better

Next to Black Angus is General Heath's. I usually come home with a well-chosen item from one of its 70 dealers. Weavers, closest to Reading on Route 222, always has something good, especially in furniture or dog-related collectibles.

Just off Exit 21 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Antiques Showcase at the Black Horse is an upscale establishment. As the name implies, its treasures are locked away behind glass. The more glass and locks, the higher the price and the better the condition. It's not a frenzy of discovery, but if excellence is primary, come here. Should you see the perfect Staffordshire plate and the cost is too high, you can sleep on your decision at the Black Horse Lodge and Suites next door.

Quite new and often displaying museum-quality merchandise in both glass cases and small enclosed rooms, Adamstown

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