Reviews | The New and Old Lure of Small Town Antique Malls

Once inside an antique mall, I have trouble remembering what city I’m in or what time it is; they are all bubbles suspended in a separate temporal medium, arising in the flat, self-annihilating time in which we usually exist. Upon entering one, you are likely to encounter the same range of items you encountered in the last, made between the late 18th and late 20th centuries. And, either way, you might see something quite unexpected (an anonymous artist’s strange assemblage from 1963, say). My friend Dave D’Amato claims that he once walked through the door of an antique mall in Essex, Massachusetts, and came out again in Galena, Illinois (he doesn’t did not specify the year of its entry nor that of its exit.)

An antique mall is not meta at all. You look at, lift and flip real four-dimensional objects, pay for them (cash is best, although there’s a general acquiescence to plastic these days), and take them home. Right now I’m replacing a shitty pile of particle board, shipped from Target or Home Depot when I just bought this house and was really broke. The libraries have begun to sag: I want new ones. But I want old ones. And when I bring my catches home, I’m usually a little happier than when I left. I liked to watch, and I liked to think, and I liked to tinker, and now I enjoy my new old things a little.

In an antique mall, aging slows down. Perhaps this explains why the demographics of antique malls are still quite old, although they seem to get younger the closer you get to Philadelphia. (It might have something to do with pandemic supply chain issues.) The generational change also applies to merchandise. These days you might find a 90s version of a 60s lava lamp or a set of Harry Potter lunch boxes, although I still haven’t seen crates of old iPhones or what whether it’s from Ikea. But if there’s an item from 2005, it’s probably sitting next to an old safe, under a sign that says “Motorola” or “Irwin S. Huber General Assembly” ($30). In other words, as time passes in an antique mall, dragging decades behind time outside, it also washes out and accumulates there, held back by just enough love to stay out of the landfill and at a modest price.

In an ancient mall, the past always disappears and is replaced again by the past, rather than, as in the outside world, by the present. Go back three years later, and you might barely notice anything going out or coming in through the door, even though it’s all gone. On the other hand, the very thing you almost bought three years ago might still be sitting on that same table. Don’t miss it this time and let it bother you until 2025.

Ancient time is therefore richer and less annihilating than external time, although the marks of time and loss are there too everywhere, perhaps in the form of multiple repairs and restorations. The chair I sit on while typing, which I got last week ($95 at Serendipity after a bit of bargaining), has been made and sold, then remade and resold, I don’t know how many times . What I’m sitting on has been built and upholstered for different reasons, in different places, by different people, and it’s all accumulated here, under my behind.

It’s true, I’ve found myself with buyer’s remorse from time to time (maybe that rickety “late Victorian” table was a $150 mistake). But by buying things that were already there and inserting myself into their ongoing stories, I helped preserve and continue to wear out something that was already there, rather than creating greater demand for shredded wood maintained with glue.

I have found absorption and small revivals in the antique shopping arcades: small interstices or interregnums, places to understand loss and also relieve it, places inhabited by things already touched and cherished or abused and restored by human hands, whose presence they still express. In a hunt for antiquities, I may lose a few hours, but I will know exactly where I left them.

Comments are closed.