La Malbaie, part two – Bringing it all back home

malbaie2When our offer to purchase a small barn’s worth of antiques near La Malbaie, Quebec was accepted, we recognized we had two main problems to solve; getting it all back to our place, and having somewhere to put it when we got it there.  The church showroom was already quite full, as was our little storage sheds, so we talked to our friend and neighbor Dave who had a farm around the corner with some unused out buildings, and arranged to rent them at a reasonable rate.

There were many items in the lot that were outside our regular inventory; commercial products mostly like old beer bottles, tins, etc., so our plan was to sell most of this as quickly as possible to realize back some of our investment, and allow us to focus on what we normally sell.  We knew a lot of dealers by this point so we invited them all to come when all the stock had arrived, to have a first pick of it.  This generated a bit of excitement that we all shared.  It felt like Christmas was coming when you were ten, and you couldn’t wait to see what will be under the tree for you.  A date was set in three weeks time.

I rented the largest moving truck they would allow me with my license which was really, really  big.  If I’m not mistaken the box was 20’ long, and 10’ high.  A good friend named Sergio who ran a nearby apple farm offered to ride shotgun.  When I talked to the seller in Quebec I asked if he could hire four strong men to load, and he said it was no problem.  He knew such men who would be happy for the work.  He said he had a motel room waiting for us. Things were shaping up.

Sergio and I set out about 5 am the next morning. A time which allowed us to cross Toronto before morning rush hour, and which barring delays would put us in La Malbaie about 3 in the afternoon.  The  trip, although long, passed pleasantly enough as we chatted about anything and everything and occasionally munched away at our packed lunch.  Sergio is Italian so we spent a fair amount of time with him teaching me swear words, and street sign language. Did you know that if you are walking down the street with an Italian friend and he holds his hand straight out about belt level and waves it front to back it means “I’m hungry. Let’s go get something to eat”?  I didn’t either.

malbaie3We pulled into the farm about 3 as expected and drove directly to the barn.  There was our man with a team of 4 very large men behind him looking tough, and ready for action.  We only took about fifteen minutes to stretch and get our bearings, and then the trucks ramp was lowered and we got started. I stayed in the barn and pointed at the items to be loaded, and Sergio stayed in the truck and arranged the placement.  We started with the big, boxy pieces like cupboards, dressers and sideboards, stuffing smaller items like bicycles, signs, wall cupboards, etc. in all the little spaces.  The guys were amazing. Strong and careful and we filled the truck form front to back in less than three hours. As we rolled down the door you could see that we had taken approximately half on the contents.  We then all went down into La Malbaie where we had a delicious dinner and a few celebratory brews at our host’s motel.  His treat.  What a guy. Then we settled in for an early night and slept the sleep of the dead until about 7 the next morning. We grabbed some breakfast and headed west.  Pulled in at home about 7 pm and went straight to bed.

It was all hands on deck the next morning at 9 am.  It took us about five hours to unload in such a way that everything could be accessed.  We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at all the small treasures that were stuffed in the various drawers and boxes.  I had an early dinner and went straight to bed so that I would be ready to head out with Sergio at 5 the following morning for round two.

Essentially it was the same routine but with the added fun of the scrap metal dealer arriving to haul off all the recent and thus rejected cash registers and the like.  Where did this guy get all those cash registers? He must have bought out a local supplier.  When the truck was full again there was still a small pile of things left.  I said I would probably be back for them with my pick-up, but if I couldn’t make it back, I’d phone and he could call the local junk guy to come and get it.  I wasn’t sure if I had another trip in me.  Turns out I did, and Jeanine and I left a couple of days later in our faithful old pick-up.

Well that small pile turned out to completely fill the poor old thing, and I’ve never seen it sit lower on it’s chassis due to the large number of cast iron pots and pans which dominated the load.  The wheels were practically rubbing on the fenders and I thought I was going to run out of gears and have to back up some of the sharp inclines you need to pass to get out of the region.  Somehow she hung in there and we made it home.  I was so impressed I almost wrote Ford a letter.  We got home and had a few days to prepare for the pick.   We pulled out all the things that we wanted for ourselves and got them back to the church.

When the dozen or so dealers arrived we explained that the procedure would be for them to go through everything and make a pile of the things they would like to purchase.  We explained that as we had known them all for years and had done good business we would trust them to tell us what they would pay based on a reasonable, but not outlandish profit.  In other words “We trust you to be fair”.  Unless we felt we were totally being screwed we would go along with the price.  You know, it worked amazingly well.  Almost everyone was completely fair and the few who were not stood out like a sore thumb. “Oh, so this 100 year old, unopened bottle of Molson Ale in mint condition is only worth $15. I would have thought more, but if you say so.”  There were a couple moments of “I saw it first” tension but they got resolved without fist fights.  Everyone felt encouraged to share in our good fortune and grab what they could use.  At the end of the day we had reduced the load by about a quarter, and the venture was paid for.  A hellish amount of effort, but we continued to make money from that load for years, but I have to say that the best part for me really was the joy of opening everything up and discovering all the treasures inside.  World of Wonder.malbaie5

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When we hit the Motherload in La Malbaie

lamalbaieIn the late nineties when we were making regular picking trips to Quebec,  we would sometimes combine work with pleasure, and take an extra day or two to go exploring after making the rounds of the regular picking barns.  It was on one such trip in mid-summer when we had finished combing the barns around Victoriaville, that we headed up route 183 on the North Shore past Quebec city, to the Charlevoix region, and the town of La Malbaie.   Champlain named this place La Malbaie, or “the Bad Bay” when his ship got stuck in the harbour,  but it was known locally as Murray’s bay for years until 1967 brought a new awareness and emphasis on preserving our history.  Whatever you choose to call it, it is a beautiful and magical region of large rolling hills leading down to the mighty St. Lawrence river.  The wilderness is dotted with tiny, quaint villages made famous in paintings by Clarence Alphonse Gagnon, Marc Aurele Fortin and A.Y. Jackson, to name a few.  It has retained much of its early, rustic charm because the region was not easily accessible until the early sixties when the Quebec Government built the big highway, route 183.  However it has been a summer playground for the rich, both Canadian and American since the early 1900’s because its untouched natural beauty was accessible by boat along the St. Lawrence.  For this reason, you still find many impressive estates, and the magnificent Manoir Richelieu, established in 1899, with the current building being built in the style of a French Chateau in 1929.  It’s a wonderful region to explore, and only a two hour drive from Quebec city.

Manoir Richelieu

Manoir Richelieu

 

So on this occasion after a full day of enjoying the region we settled on a small strip motel along the river in town, which looked clean and inexpensive.  We had a great meal at the small, attached restaurant and settled in for a good night’s sleep. In the morning, we had breakfast and set about packing up to leave.  I was putting the cases in the truck when a pleasant looking middle aged man approached me.  “So I can see from your truck that you an antique picker.  Would you be interested in looking at some things I have for sale?”  I was a little taken aback as I was thinking about getting on the road, but answered “Well that’s what I’m here for so sure, what are we talking about.”  He explained that the antiques were not at the motel, but in a barn on the family farm, about a half hour drive away.  As it happened they had just sold the farm which had been in the family for years, and before the deal closed in a month’s time they had to clear a barn where they had stored the contents of their grandfather’s museum when it closed in the mid-sixties.  Their grandfather had  run a private museum in an old fishing boat which had been dragged up on shore along the river.  The kind of place you pay a quarter to go through. When they needed the land to build the new highway, he had to close, and at the time just moved everything, lock, stock and barrel to the barn on the family farm.  It had remained there untouched.   He explained that his grandfather was an eccentric who collected and displayed everything he could get his hands on, so that not everything in the barn could be considered a valuable antique.  There is a bit of everything there, furniture, farm implements, old signs,  bottles, eyeglasses,  furnishings, you name it.  Although the time frame seemed ominous, I was curious so we agreed to go and have a look.  What harm could it do.

by A.Y. Jackson

by A.Y. Jackson

We followed him up and down the twisting country road, until finally reaching a charming, old Habitant farm house and barn looking out over a picture perfect valley.  We drove straight up to the barn.  It was not a large barn, but when we opened the door we could see that it was packed from wall to wall with every sort of thing.  So packed that there was no possibility of entering without hours of shifting large cupboards and the like.  And dark.  As our eyes adjusted we could see about a dozen large armoires absolutely overflowing with objects.  The whole space was chock a block with everything you could imagine.  We spotted several old bicycles, one being a tandem. Lots of books and paintings. Right away I spotted several nice old signs, both commercial on tin, and hand painted on wood. There were quite a few cash registers, dressers, tables, and six glass store display cases. There were benches  and beds, and dozens of cardboard boxes filled with God knows what.   . I could see that four or five of the armoires were really nice, and it seemed he was making an honest appraisal when he suggested that about 80% of it was good but not extraordinary, but that there was some very good things in there as well. As he spoke I scanned the room and made a mental note of  everything I could see. malbaie4

“So here’s the deal.  I want $20,000 for it all with the condition being that the barn must be cleared of everything by the sale date.  When you have everything you want, I know a couple of scrap dealers who will come and scoop up anything that is left, especially metal. There has to be about forty cash registers in there, and a lot of them are newer and nothing special, not to mention heavy so I doubt you will want to take them.”  I stood there in the sunshine, looking out over that beautiful valley and thought “this is a tough one. It would seem the value is there, but it is a hell of a lot of work, and this place is a long, long way from home.”   Jeanine looked over at me and shrugged.  “ O.K.”I said, “it’s a lot to take in. We are interested, but we need a little time to think about it.  Give me your number and I will call you back within 48 hours with an answer.”  He agreed and gave us 48 hours.

We then left after saying our goodbyes, turned west and headed towards home.  We didn’t talk about it until we had travelled for a couple of hours and stopped for a bit of lunch at a roadside food truck. When in Quebec I always have to get my poutine and “vapeur” fix.  A “vapeur” being a steamed hotdog in one of those funny Quebec buns. As we sat there at a picnic table looking out over the St. Lawrence towards Ile d’Orleans  we finally got around to discussing the elephant in the room. I started, “So, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and we have to recognize that it is a rare opportunity to buy so much from one source.  Also, from what I could see there is easily $20,000 value, but how much more I’m not sure, and it is definitely a lot of work and expense getting it all back home. Not  to mention we only have a month to accomplish it.”.  Jeanine agreed and added “well let’s make a list of everything we could see, and assign what we would think to be a low retail value, and go from there.” We did this and determined that of what we could see, there was about $35,000  worth. Of course we also recognized that what we could see was just scratching the surface of what there was in total.  We drove a few hundred more miles and then Jeanine said “I think we should offer him $15,000, and if we get it fine. If he says no then let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.”  I agreed. It was obvious he was under pressure to find someone fast and if we were going to take it on, we had to be sure it was worth all the trouble.  Jeanine phoned him right away on the cell, her French being so much better than mine, and I was surprised to hear her offer what sounded to me like $10,000. Then there was a pause, and she gave me a big smile and thumbs up .  A moment later she was concluding the conversation by saying, “O.K. it’s a deal and we will be in touch when we got home to arrange the details.”  I looked at her and laughed.  “Am I correct that you made a snap decision there to offer him $10,000, and he agreed?” “Yes, well I was going to say $15,000 but then I started thinking it’s typical in Quebec to ask twice what you really want because everyone negotiates so fiercely, and $10,000 just came out of my mouth.  He jumped at it.”  Good work Jeanine.  Now we just have to go home and figure out what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Next week – Bringing it back from La Malbaie.malbaie7

 

Lunch in St Eulalie

vue-aerienne-ste-eulalie Just as many of the dealers and pickers active in the Victoriaville area in the eighties would meet at the Esso Station across from Kojak’s place on the outskirts of town for breakfast;  the same bunch would  turn up for lunch at a trucker’s diner twenty miles away, on the north side of the big highway 20,  in a tiny place called St. Eulalie.  At lunch time the parking lot of this busy establishment would have from 6 to a dozen pickers trucks lined up, and typically you would find small groups of men checking out what was tied down there, and discussing the possibility of a transaction.  Most of these pickers were loyal to one or the other of the half dozen antique centers in the area, so they would not sell to you directly, but they may tell you where a piece was going and to whom you needed to  inquire about it.   There was always a lot of lively dialogue and laughing going on.  Tips, news and gossip in equal measure.  Sometimes you would witness heated arguments.  Eventually everyone would make their way inside, and take their favorite seat in the crowded dining room, and the talk continued.

I loved the scene.  If we were nearby at lunch time we would turn up there along with everyone else.  After checking  out the action in the parking lot, we would make our way inside  to order a lunch special, or sandwich, followed by a nice piece of sugar pie.  A Quebec delicacy that is as disgustingly sweet as it sounds, but it goes well with a cup of coffee and dialogue.12260907_4_z

It was always crowded with locals, and those who were travelling on the Grand Route 20, and the wait staff was plentiful and efficient. The joint was jumping.

I remember one sunny summer day in particular sitting in a booth looking out onto the parking lot with one of the main dealers of the area, and a good friend, Ben.  Ben was always smiling, and his sunny disposition rarely changed.  On this day however, we were sitting there peacefully having a coffee before ordering when he looked out the window, saw a man get out of his truck, and suddenly jumped up and said” I’ll be right back.”  I watched as he raced out the front door, crossed the parking lot, and went right up to the fellow, parking himself about an inch from his face; and then started yelling.  I could not hear the conversation but you could see that it was heated.  The intense conversation continued back and forth for another moment and then suddenly, bam, Ben hauls off and punches the guy in the face.  The guy falls back a couple of steps rubbing his chin A few more angry words are said, and then to my surprise both of them come together back into the restaurant and sit down at our booth.  “You didn’t have to hit me like that Ben.  I told you I was sorry about the deal.”  “I didn’t have to but I wanted to, and I told you that if you ever crossed me again like that, you’d pay for it.”  Well, o.k. I was wrong but I’ve apologized and now it’s water under the bridge, right?  “ Yes, but don’t you ever try to pull anything like that again.  You know I will find out about it and It’s no way to treat me after all the business we have done.”  “You’re right Ben. I’m sorry.”  After that it was all sweetness and light.  Pleasant conversation, jokes and eating a good meal together, as if nothing unpleasant had happened.  I realized then that the Quebec guys ran a little hotter than we do in Ontario, and they have ways of resolving differences that we wouldn’t consider.  I respected that they could be so open in expressing their feelings, and that  issues got resolved quickly, and then they moved on.  Still, I made a mental note to avoid pissing off Ben.15798173115_46487d98c9

I cannot remember the name of the place.  It was something  generic like Voyager’s Inn or the like;  so I went on to google map to see if I could see the sign out front.  I was shocked to discover that there is nothing there now save for the big paved parking lot and a lot of weeds.  The place must have burnt down.  It made me feel sad that if we were to go there now, we would have to discover where the new place to meet is,  if they are still even doing it, and it would surely not be the same.  That’s the problem with going back after so many years.  Everything changes and some things disappear.  Brings to mind Thomas Wolfe who so succinctly put it in his 1940 novel, “You can’t go home again.”facade-immeuble-commercial-a-vendre-ste-eulalie-quebec-province-large-592792

Cabin Fever beats the winter blahs

cabfever2As I write this the approximately 40 dealers who will be participating in the Kingston Winter Antique show or “Cabin Fever” as it is known, will be waiting patiently in line for their turn to enter the big loading doors and unload their truck inside.  Only two or three dealers can enter at a time and you are expected to unload as quickly as possible and exit to let the next person have their turn.  There are four or five strong, willing helpers provided which definitely speeds things up, not to mention lessening the wear and tear on the dealers.

Cabin Fever is the first important Canadian antique show of the season, being held early in February, and it is always filled with top quality dealers and items.   Many dealers showing here do only a couple of shows a year, with the Bowmanville Spring Antique show being the other big show for “serious” collectors of Canadiana and folk art.cabfever1

Kingston, and Eastern Ontario in general have traditionally been the home to many of the most serious collectors of early Canadian country furnishings  so the dealers work hard to offer their best.  People really look forward to this show.  They line up hours before the 10 a.m. opening to be certain that they will be first through the doors, and directly on to their favorite dealers.  Many of the best items are sold within an hour of opening.

When we were doing shows, Cabin Fever was our favorite.  It’s run by some very nice folks who make it their business to take care of everyone’s needs.  Your rent includes two nights at the nearby Fireside Inn, and coupons for free breakfasts and Saturday night dinner. Because everyone stays at the same place they cut a deal, and pass  it on making it quite reasonable for the individual dealer.cabvever6

The promoters do a good job bringing the dealers and collectors together. They offer a good rate on rooms for collectors,  and throw a big party on Friday night.  Everybody relaxes, has a drink and snack and mixes it up. You overhear conversations like “what did you bring me that’s really special”, and “ did you happen to bring any redware” etc.  The savvy collectors are lining up their plan of attack for those first vital minutes.  Some arrangements to put things aside are being subtly worked out.  It’s all part of the game.cabfever8

It’s funny what you look forward to.  One of the great pleasures of doing this show for me was the coffee room. During set up  they always present a tray of the biggest, gooiest cinnamon buns you’ve ever seen, made by a local bakery.  They are delicious and are sure to raise your sugar levels high enough to provide plenty of energy for all that unloading and unpacking.  That and a good strong cup of coffee and you are away to the races.  The coffee room remains open throughout the show and is the place everyone likes to come to hang out and tell stories. In the old days it was also the smoking room.  It got so smokey in there it was ridiculous, and the nonsmokers eventually forced the organizers to see reason and kick them out.  First to a dinky little closet near the furnace room, and eventually right out of the building.  The smoke was hard to take, but the stories  being told by the old-timers in those days while they enjoyed their smoke and coffee was almost worth the potential lung cancer.  Talk about your picker’s stories.  Once these guys got started it didn’t stop.  Then when everyone gets set up and you are back at the Inn, everyone goes for a cocktail and again the stories begin to flow.   Maybe it is the actual cabin fever effect of the season, but people do seem awfully glad to be getting together, and shooting the crap, as it were.  The set up on Friday can see a lot of dealer business.  You notice a lot of items moving from booth to booth. Deals can continue to be made well in to the night.cabfever3

Saturday morning, 10 am. The flood gates open, and you are run off your feet for the next couple of hours while the keeners swoop through and make their selections.  At a show of this caliber, the first three hours can either make it, or break it.  Sure, you can have a good sale anytime right up to the last minute, but your odds are greatest with this first wave. It can be very exciting or quite frustrating.  People hardly slow down to look.  You can stand there quite a while answering questions and greeting your regular customers before someone breaks the ice and buys something.  You can also sell five or six things in rapid succession right off the bat, and then sell nothing for a long time. While people continue to move in and out of your booth you do your best to stay engaged and make the sale where possible.   By the time you are sending somebody out for lunch sandwiches about 1 pm you’ve got a pretty good idea of how your show is going to shape up.  That being said, it usually worked out well for us and we felt pretty comfortable early on.  It’s a whole other crowd in the afternoon.  More of a general crowd like you would encounter at any outdoor or mall show.  There’s typically a lull in the middle of the afternoon, and then sometimes a bit of action towards closing.  People coming back for something they had looked at earlier, for the most part.  “We’ll think about it over lunch”.  Ya right, but then once in a while they do come back.  Win or lose, by the tie five o’clock rolls around you are ready to head back to the Inn and put your feet up.  Then you’ve got a little bit of time, or a lot of time to relax and enjoy a beverage before dinner, either at 7 or 9 pm.  Being basic, farmer types we always went for the 7 pm dinner so we could be in bed sooner.  The real fun people all went to the 9 pm sitting.  We would hear about it at breakfast the next morning.  Reports on all the fun and festivities which often included the throwing of buns. Too much fun for yours truly.  I remember one year when our friends David and Mary Jo Field introduced me to the joy which is  the martini.  I liked it so much I had another and then had to go to bed, missing even the 7 o’clock dinner.  cabfever7

Sunday is a good day to really look over the show, and get caught up on news and rumors with the other dealers.  Somebody is typically designated to go and fetch a wonderful lunch from a downtown bakery and café called Pan Chancho.   Whoever has the biggest harvest table will host and we would enjoy the spread while everyone kept an eye on each other’s booth.  By 2 p.m. you are anticipating the 4 o’clock finish,  and starting to pack up in your mind.  By 3:30 everyone is getting their boxes ready, and getting their trucks in the line up to be brought in as soon as the show closes.   Everyone waits until closing time and then swings into action.  Some who have no large furniture will park beside the door instead of waiting to come in, and will bring everything to the truck.  This was my routine the last several years of doing the show.  For the most part it was o.k. but I remember a few years when it was -20, and your hands are just burning as you stand out there in the blinding snow trying to tie down your load.  Facing a five hour drive home, and that is on a good night.  If you drive through a snow storm, it can take a lot longer. Mind you, if you are coming off a good show you are feeling great anyway, so you can take that positive energy, tune in a good station on the radio,  and just head towards home.cabfever4