Antiques hot spot is village on Shore

July 24, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

GALENA - You'd be hard-pressed to find a new pair of shoes, an auto mechanic or a screwdriver in this blink-and-miss-it farming community. But if you want a quaint corner cabinet, some porcelain figurines or a papier-mache rooster, you've come to the right place.

This Upper Eastern Shore crossroads town of 650 residents has seven antiques shops, and the proprietors say business is booming.

Part of the surge in shoppers comes from a weekly furniture auction in nearby Crumpton, where dealers jockey for the best deals amid fields of dressers, mirrors and lawn ornaments.

But an even bigger boost to the auction and shops is coming from the hot second-home market in the nearby Chestertown area, a popular retirement and summer destination for residents of Wilmington, Del.; Baltimore; and Washington, D.C.

"We always feel real good when someone comes in and says, `We're doing a house.' It happens about once a week now," said Paul Thien, who has co-owned Galena's Firehouse Antiques Center since 1995. "We feel like, finally, after 10 years, it is starting to pay off at a decent level."

Thien estimates that about half his business comes from antiques dealers and the other half from retail customers. Increasingly, those worlds are merging.

Dennis Cox, a retiree from Lancaster, Pa., owns a second home in Chestertown. Recently, he and his wife opened an antiques store in Lancaster. They often stop in Galena when traveling between their homes.

"I think the location here is the key differential," Cox said. "You're kind of on a path here between Baltimore and Philadelphia."

Galena sits at the junction of Routes 213, 313 and 290 in Kent County, and at first glance it appears to be little more than a place to stop for gas. It's so small that the town's part-time mayor, Harry Pisapia, holds informal office hours most mornings at Dixie-Jo's, a local diner attached to the liquor store.

Local residents, for the most part, aren't going to the neighborhood antiques shops looking for a bargain. At the Firehouse, an 80-year-old barber pole runs $125, while a set of papier-mache figures costs nearly $3,000. But Firehouse customers, particularly the second-home clientele, have the disposable income for such indulgences and will spend it for quality.

"I find a lot of fun things down here," said Christine Schafer, a Wilmington resident who also owns a home in Chestertown. Among them: a ship's brass porthole and an old croquet set, both of which she has turned into tables.

She said she and her husband bought their Chestertown vacation home seven years ago, attracted to the town's historic feel, its light traffic and its summer activities. Since then, she says, newcomers have fixed up nearly every house on her street.

In many ways, the Galena antiques shop owners mirror their customers - out-of-towners who fell in love with the small-town life and are gradually making it home.

Thien and his partner, Douglas Warriner - who wear identical white T-shirts proclaiming, "One man's dirt is another man's patina" - are Delaware natives who now live part-time above their shop. Bill and Holly Bogar, also from Delaware, came to the area 25 years ago and opened their shop, Holly's Hobby, in April.

Vernon Miller, who owns Cross Street Station Antiques, discovered the peaceful hamlet on a hunting trip 30 years ago. He and his wife left Woodlawn soon after. He commuted every day to his pipefitting job in Baltimore until he retired in 1998.

And Dick Wolfson, who owns four Galena antiques shops, put down roots in the area 20 years ago after retiring as a New York City management consultant.

They all have their unbelievable customer stories: for Wolfson, it's the people who call to order his carved wood furniture after seeing a piece in a friend's home. For Miller, it's the woman who paid $500 for an old oak icebox to store kitchen soap.

But the story that reverberates most through the Galena antiques world is the one about the torn, throwaway rug, actually a valuable serape, that sold at Dixon's Furniture Auction in Crumpton a couple of months ago for $24,000. That tale, plus the lure of a deal, is driving new residents to the Wednesday antiquing tradition that once belonged largely to dealers.

The dealers still dominate at Dixon's, parking their tractor-trailers next to the furniture-strewn fields. But it's not hard to pick out the growing numbers of second-homers and retirees.

They're usually well dressed-the men in straw hats, the women in Capri pants and stylish purses - and they take their time browsing. They sometimes appear flummoxed at the rapid-fire pace of the auctioneer, who drives down each aisle in his golf cart half-yodeling prices into a headset and yells "sold" only after an exchange of mysterious hand gestures. And they'll pay top dollar, even if the item has been baking in the fields all day.

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