Discovering the stash

Most people are happy enough to keep their money in the bank but some folks, be it because they have lived through a time of bank failures, or shortages such as the war; or just because they have a general mistrust of institutions, and prefer to keep their money in their sock:  Or hidden in a cupboard, or buried in the back yard, etc.  People can be very imaginative when it comes to squirreling away money.

We live in Norfolk county, where if you ask around, you will hear lots of stories of lost and found money. This is perhaps due to the large contingent of Belgian, Dutch, and other European farmers who immigrated here to develop the tobacco industry. A lot of these people had experienced unstable financial times. Or maybe it’s the same everywhere.

Friends who bought a local farm decided to wash and put back the existing curtains, only to find that when they opened the washing machine to add softener, the drum was full of curtains and floating money.  The old couple had sewn hundreds of dollars into the hem of the curtains.  They had died without telling anyone.  Thus it was just dumb luck which averted their fortune being thrown into the dumpster.  I know a family that spent weeks digging up the back yard when they realized that dear old dad, before the Alzheimer’s had set in, had been burying money in canning jars back there over the years.   It makes you wonder how much money is swept away and forgotten.  The problem with secrets is that they are quite often buried with their creators.

It was on a late fall trip to the pickers barns in Quebec in the early nineties that I had my brush with dumb luck.  I was solo on a quick two day, there and back run to pick up more stock for the then active Harbourfront Antique market in Toronto.  During this period I would often leave our house at 4 a.m. make the ten hour drive to Victoriaville; then see three or four pickers that afternoon and evening before crashing.  In the morning I would make a few more stops before heading home about noon, which meant I would arrive home  about 2 or 3 a.m. if all went well.

On this particular trip I ran into some particularly nice western furniture at the barn of Alan Chauvette.  It turns out that the rumors were true.  One of the local pickers had family in Manitoba, and in spite of not speaking much English, he had returned home with a huge load of western pieces.  Many interesting  Ukrainian and Dukhobor pieces as well as furniture from early French  settler’s homes.  I bought five or six excellent cupboards, and chests,  feeling happy to have arrived at the right moment to have a crack at it.  I also spent a lot of money. More than I had budgeted.  Jeanine has always kept the books, (thank goodness as I am a disaster), and my method was to simply spend all the money I had, and write a couple of cheques if necessary.  I didn’t keep a running balance, but had an intuitive sense of when to stop.  Well, I threw that sense right out the window this time, for the opportunity to buy some good Western pieces. I knew I was pushing it.  We kept a tight operating budget in those days, so if we didn’t want to dip into savings  a big buying trip meant I really had to have a good Sunday at the market.   I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it would work out.

Phil with Marcel Gosselin

I was feeling pretty satiated when I arrived at picker Marcel Gosselin’s barn about 10 a.m. as a last stop before returning home.  I was still picking up a half dozen stoneware wash sets from him every trip, because they were still popular at the market and he was still finding lots of them. He was also my source for Aime Desmeulle’s folk art, which was selling well at the time.  As I finished filling in the last remaining little spaces in the load with smalls, I was about to write the cheque when Marcel piped in “Are you sure that’s all Phil? I’ll sell you that small cottage chest for $175.  You know you’ll get about $400 for it.”  It was a tidy, little 4 drawer pine cottage chest from Nova Scotia which were very popular at the time.  I looked at my full truck and thought about the cheque book.  “Thanks for the offer Marcel, but look, I don’t have room for it.”  The load was already well above my racks. “ Look there Phil, on the right side of your tailgate.  I can put it on its side and tie it on right up there.”  Sure enough, I could see he was right. “O.K. Marcel, throw it on and give me the total.”

I got home very late, and went straight to bed.    Next morning, going into the kitchen for coffee, there sat Jeanine looking at the cheque book, and looking worried.   “I understand this was a great opportunity, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a good market on Sunday, or we’re going to have to dip into the savings to cover ourselves.”

By the time we got all the wonderful pieces upstairs we were feeling good about it, even if it meant cutting it close.   We still have a wonderful four colour Ukrainian  sideboard from that load that I fell in love with while scraping it down.  We had a good dinner,  and I decided to go upstairs to look over the stuff one more time before hitting the sack.  I was excited by the pieces, but also feeling concerned about so completely blowing the budget. I continued to open the cupboards to inspect the interiors, and  when I finally came to the little pine chest I had bought from Marcel, I opened the top drawer to see how well it travelled in and out. What’s this?   I was amazed to see a small plastic wallet lying there in the middle of the drawer.  How did that get there?  It wasn’t there when I looked at it in Quebec.  Then I remembered that we had put the drawer on it’s side to fit it into the load, and sure enough, when I felt up inside under the top, someone had built a little open shelf up there.  The wallet was full of crisp, old issue Canadian cash.  $1,300 in all.   I couldn’t believe the luck.  I could easily imagine that had I continued to carry it upright I would have sold it  full of cash as it were, and maybe even then it would go into a home upright,  and never be discovered.

Jeanine was having one last coffee before going to bed.  Yes, she can do that. She looked puzzled when I handed her the little wallet.  “ I know you are concerned that I spent so much, and I thought this may help”.  It took her awhile to believe my story, and our good fortune.

When I saw Marcel a week later, he was surprised when I shoved a folded hundred in his shirt pocket.  “What’s this for?”

“Never mind.  Just take it and don’t ask any questions.”

Nova Scotia or bust

One summer, back in the late nineties we decided to take a quick trip eastward combining some antique picking and vacation activities as a fun time together with our daughter Cassandra before she left high school to go to university.  The objective was to have no specific plan, and wander eastward as we saw fit buying along the way, with the ultimate goal of reaching Nova Scotia.  Even if we didn’t have the time on this trip to explore further once we got there. We put about $4,000 in an envelope for purchases, packed out bags and food hamper into a full size cargo van we borrowed from our son Brodie, leaving him our pick-up to use while we were gone.  We were not looking for furniture on this trip, and felt it safer to leave our small sized purchases locked up inside a van at night.  We got a good, early start and made it to our regular stomping grounds around Victoriaville in time to do a quick circuit of the picker’s barns there before settling in for the night at our regular spot, the Motel Marie -Dan in St. Eulalie.  We didn’t buy much, wanting to save our money for buying in the previously untraveled regions to the east.

Day two, after a hearty breakfast we shot down #20 expressway past Quebec city until the village of St. Jean Port Jolie.  This pleasant little village on the banks of the St. Lawrence river is the home of the Bourgault brothers, who founded the “École de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli” in 1940 with the support of the Quebec government.  The carvings became very popular with tourists and locals alike, and still today the village is chock a block with wood carvers.  To be honest although we greatly respect this form of carving, we were hoping to find  a unique folk artist more towards the lunatic fringe of the spectrum who might be hanging out there.   We had a great time looking at the museum and several shops but didn’t find what we were looking for.

After a nice lunch we made our way along the coast on the two lane Hwy # 132 past Riviere-du-Loup  as far as Trois Pistoles, a trip which would ordinarily take about an hour, but in our case took over four due to several stops at yard sales, markets, and shops. We hadn’t expected it, but we found a lot of wonderful stuff and by the time we stopped for a coffee in Trois Pistoles the cargo area of the van was almost full, and our envelope was over half empty.  We had a little conference, and thinking of Nova Scotia decided that instead of going further into the Gaspe we would turn back to Riviere-du-Loup, hang a left on Hwy #85 which becomes Hwy#2 as soon as you cross over into New Brunswick  and on a good day with steady driving will get you to Amherst, Nova Scotia in about eight and a half hours.  Our goal was to sleep in New Brunswick.

It was dark and raining by the time we had made our way past the endless forests of this part of Quebec and then we hit the construction.  On a 1 to 10 scale of “hairy” driving this was a solid eight. Pounding rain, mud, and lots of starting and stopping. We white knuckled it for about another hour and finally made it to Grand Falls, New Brunswick.  It was pushing ten o’clock, and we really needed to stop.  Turns out there was a convention in town and we were turned away at every motel, and feeling quite desperate before we got the advice that the only room we could get would be at a bed and breakfast in a recently converted old nunnery a few miles out of town.  We’re not big B and B fans but great.  We’ll take any port in this storm, and after a call ahead to confirm they had a room, we went off with the little hand drawn map we were provided.

The storm grew stronger, and the thunder and lightning more brutal, as we wound our way up into the surrounding hills, until there in a flash of lightning worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, the huge, old, Victorian Gothic Institution appeared, with a giant cross above the entrance;  and we drove up the hill and pulled into a parking space, wondering what we had gotten ourselves in to.

I can’t recall, but I’m sure we were greeted by a perfectly nice night attendant, although in my imagination he was someone akin to Igor.  We were lead down a long, dark, corridor to a pair of rooms which seemed to remain untouched from their former life.  I remember the institutional green walls and old steel beds.  They were small, and basic, but a blessing in our situation.  In bed, with the lights out, and the still frequent flashes of lightning and thunder I began to hear people moaning in the distance. It kinda freaked me out, but I had no desire to investigate.  I put the pillow over my ears and did my best to fall asleep.  It was a long night.

Next morning, we met Cassandra in the canteen, and after coffee and hot chocolate decided to get the heck out of there.  “Did you hear all that moaning” Cassandra said.  “It really freaked me out”.  “  “Me two.”  “Me three” said Jeanine.  We saw the caretaker on the way out, and he explained that it had become a B and B, slash old people’s home, and that some of the old dears were restless.  The place didn’t look all that spooky in the daylight.

In town, we sat in a little mom and pop restaurant, finishing breakfast and discussing our plan.  We had learned that the construction which we had only experienced about an hour of, continued for several more hours ahead as they were making the highway into a divided four lane.  Desperately need by this point especially with all the summer tourists.  We sat there for a while discussing our progress, and what lay ahead.  We were grateful for the use of Brodie’s van, but it was noisy and fairly uncomfortable.  We realized we had a full day of crappy driving ahead just to reach Nova Scotia, and then we would only have a couple of days to look around before heading back.  Then our conversation turned to how much we loved Quebec City, and we could be there by late afternoon if we turned back.  It was an easy decision for us.  We called our favorite, cheap hotel in old Quebec, Le Manoir des Remparts and made a reservation for three nights.   We had a wonderful time, and felt happy and relaxed on the twelve hour drive home.  Resolving to make it to Nova Scotia another time.  Perhaps, looking into air fares.

Rain or Shine

It’s Friday May 5th , and I’m looking out the window at a constant, cold rain, with a forecast for two more solid days of rain to come, and I am feeling  grateful that I am no longer doing outdoor antique shows.  It’s a younger person’s game. Here in Ontario there is an outdoor antique show occurring almost every weekend from now through the end of July, then only a couple of shows in the heat of summer, and again almost every weekend through the fall until the beginning of October.   We used to do a lot of them, and in every contract you would read the phrase “show will take place rain or shine”.  Of course this is a necessity for the promoters because the venues must be paid for well in advance, and all the promotion has gone out, and rescheduling is just not an option.    It is understandable, but can be a dilemma for the dealers if the forecast is for rain.  If you don’t show you are out your contract money and you will not be looked upon favorably by the promoters who rely on dealers to turn up so as not to disillusion the clients whatever the circumstance.  Besides, a bit of rain does not discourage the more serious collectors from getting out so you can have a pretty decent show in any case.  Not always.

I remember the Odessa (near Kingston, Ont.) show in the early eighties where I first encountered a gentleman selling a 10’ x 20’ tent made up of metal poles and corner fittings and a big blue tarp that you bungeed tightly over the frame. It was selling for about $300.    There was nothing much available otherwise except smaller garden tents at Canadian tire, and I had already experienced a few days of standing in the pouring rain at shows so I went for it.  This was before shows offered tent rentals, which for a price will be set up and ready for you when you arrive.  Even when these rentals became available the price was somewhat prohibitive.   My new tent took about a half hour to set up and required quite a lot of swearing and pinched fingers before it stood ready for use, but it was worth it not only for the shelter from potential rain, but just as importantly for the shade it provided on a hot, sunny day.  It was the half hour taking it down at the end of a long day which sometimes wore thin, but overall it was worth the effort.

These makeshift tents worked quite well against sun and gentle rain, but became a real menace on wilder, windy days.  One memorable occasion occurred in the late eighties at a show held in a conservation area near Collinwood, Ontario.  I had arrived Friday afternoon because it was a four hour drive from my home and the show was Saturday only.  The forecast was for heavy winds and rain, and I was doing it alone and on the cheap in case of poor sales due to the weather, so I decided to sleep in my van to save the cost of the motel.   I felt uneasy as I arrived late in the afternoon because I could feel that something big was coming.  The pressure had dropped and the wind was already picking up so I decided to play it safe and not set up that evening.  Most dealers who had arrived were all set up and doing a little preshow business so it was hard to not join in.  I took out the tent and a few large pieces of furniture so I would have room to sleep in the van.  I tied the furniture together and secured a tarp over the pile before calling it a day and having a few beers with some friends to pass the time and make sleeping a bit easier.  It became very humid about 1 a.m. and I had a restless,  too hot, intermittent sleep until about 4 a.m. when all hell broke loose.  The wind came in like a locomotive and amid the crashes of thunder, and flashes of lightening I could hear the occasional thumps of furniture hitting the ground, and crashes as tables of glass and china, flipped and sometimes flew a few feet away from their original resting place.  You could hear some people shouting and see their flash lights flashing around as they tried to save their set up.  I just hunkered down and did my best to rest until sunrise.

When I woke up with the sun the worst of the high winds had passed but the steady rain which would last the entirety of the day was upon us.  I put on my raincoat and ventured out the back door of my van.  It looked like a war zone.  Many tents that had been set up and tarped, had been forced  loose from the ropes staking them down, and had flown like kites for several feet before landing in a pile of tarp and metal that looked like some kind of abstract metal sculpture or bomb site.  There were big cupboards being lifted off the ground with smashed doors and trim.  There were tables upturned over piles of broken smalls.  There were paintings obviously soaked beyond repair. It was devastating. Some people were just standing there crying.  Others were struggling to accept what had happened and doing their best to undo the damage.  It was truly heartbreaking.  Many dealers live fairly close to the bone and for some the loss was substantial. 

I helped a few people set their cupboards back upright and extended my sympathies to many, and then  cleaned myself up in the washroom, got myself a large coffee, and went back to my van to assess the situation.  I was happy that I played it safe and had waited, but now I was faced with the decision to either set up my tent and display in the pouring rain, and hope that a few brave souls would face the elements and maybe buy a few things, or perhaps it was just better to accept the loss, pack it in and head home.  Either way it looked likely the show was going to be a wash and I would lose my investment in the rent and transportation. But I had signed a contract, and I was already there so  I decided on a compromise and set up a smaller version of the tent which allowed me to bring the tarp down over the sides.   I brought out some sturdy, country furniture which would not be harmed by rain, and a few smalls that would not blow away, and left the more delicate things packed.  Attendance was way down of course, but from the couple of hundred people who showed up, I managed to connect with a few keen collectors who bought regularly from me, and was quite happy when five o’clock closing rolled around, to have sold enough to cover my costs and have a couple of bucks to take home.

Sometimes I think  people look at dealers at an outdoor antique show and think “that looks easy”, but let me tell you that is not the case.  Aside from the enormous amount of work it takes to prepare, set-up, sell, and then tear down a display on a pleasant day , it’s nothing compared to the hardship you might endure in the times when the weather decides to rear up and do a number on you.

Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer – part 2

It’s funny how the mind works. I left off last Friday suggesting that this two part story of trouble on the way to the North Hatley, Quebec antique show happened in the same trip.  As I was hitting the “post” button, I realize that the events described actually took place on separate trips, a couple of years apart.  I tend to think out a story and then write quickly.  I had not thought of these events in years, and over that time my mind had blended them into one event.  By the time I realized my mistake, I convinced myself it would make for a better story in any case.  Also, I’ll admit I was anxious to wrap so I could get out in the garden. You know.  Spring fever.  But now as I sit down to write the second part that decision bothers me, not that it matters a great deal;  but I am trying to be roughly accurate in my story telling.  Arguably any good story telling involves a certain level of B.S. and I’ve got nothing against a good tall tale, but there you have it.  Our story continues on the same route, but a couple of years later.

I would avoid an extra night in a motel by arriving in North Hatley around noon on Friday so I would have time to set up for the show opening that evening. I would leave home about 4 a.m. to make the eight hour trip.  The trip had gone well.  Leaving so early there were no traffic slowdowns in Toronto, Kingston, or Montreal, so about eleven a.m. I found myself feeling quite light and happy as I traveled up and down the big hills on Hwy 10  in the Magog area. 

The sun was shining.  Big, fluffy cumulus clouds rolled along the horizon.  Traffic was light, and I could see myself arriving right on time.  I was already unpacking in my mind.  I was heading down a long decline when I saw the transport a few thousand feet ahead of me apply his brakes.  The brake lights came on, and then I noticed a big piece of metal come shooting out from one of his wheels.  A big chunk of his brake had come loose.  I watched it become airborne,  and everything went into slow motion as it bounced once, twice, heading right towards me. In high school I wasn’t any good at algebra, but I generally understood geometry, and so I quickly calculated the distance, trajectory, bounce height, and the velocity, and determined that I was in trouble.  There was a car coming up beside me so there was no switching lanes.  If I tried to brake it might make it worse.  I stayed the course and was relieved when it landed right in front of me, missing the windshield; but making a sickening loud clunk under the truck as it bounced up into the under-carriage.  Looking in the rear view I saw it come out the back and off to the side, and I noticed a wet line on the road coming from the back.  It had hit and punctured the gas tank and I was bleeding gas at a good rate.

The trucker didn’t see it happen, and kept going. I knew I would never be compensated if I didn’t have his license plate number and information, so I floored it and caught up with him, and motioned him over. We both pulled over and he ran back to meet me where I was looking up under the back of the car to determine the damage.  It was a steady flow out of about a 3” gash.  He immediately apologized and said he realized that something had happened to one of his brakes, but didn’t see that it had hit me.  As we stood there watching the gas flow slowly from the tank  he gave me his card and said the company would pay for it, and would I like him to call a tow truck.  I thanked him and looked at the gas coming out and said “ you know it’s only about another twenty minute drive to North Hatley and I’ve got almost a full tank of gas, so I think I will just go for it and see if I can at least get closer, and to a garage and save the tow charge.  With a wave and a good luck we both jumped in our vehicles and got back on the highway.

It only took about ten minutes to realize that yes, I was losing gas at a good rate but the needle wasn’t going down that fast so I just kept going.  I left the big highway driving past a few repair shops because I now had confidence that I would make it, and if I could get to the show and unload, I could call a tow truck from there.   As I came into town I stopped at the gas station which was also the town auto repair.  The owner there could see immediately that I had a problem.  “So how much gas do you have left?”  “I’d say about an eight of a tank.”  “Well here, take this canister of gas, go and unload and if you run out, then dump it in and it will give you enough to get back here. I can fix your gas tank tomorrow so you will have it to go back in on Sunday. “  Heck of a nice guy. Great solution.  So that’s what I did.

The garage was only a few blocks away from the community rink where the show takes place.  When I got there I jumped out of the truck away from the unloading area to tell the people there of my predicament and to make sure that no one was smoking.  Everyone was enormously supportive and helpful. They all came over and helped me unload everything on the parking lot in record time, and twenty minutes later I was back at the garage where they parked my truck out back and put a container under it to catch the remainder of the leaking gas.   We exchanged phone numbers in case he found something else, but otherwise he suggested he would have it ready for me the following afternoon.

I walked back to the show feeling happy not only to be there,  but  anywhere considering the possibility, and at one point seeming probability of a big chunk of metal smashing into my face at high velocity.  It was no problem getting a ride to the motel with another dealer, and I was set up in time and had a great opening night and following show.  My truck was ready the next day as promised, and the trucking company paid for the repair.  I was once again very grateful for the help of others, and for a happy ending.

Learning to Love Auctions

What is it that would cause a teen age boy to attend an estate auction on a sunny Saturday afternoon , when he could be going to the beach with friends?  Thinking back on my sixteen year old self I remember that I found time for both, and that as soon as I discovered them, I enjoyed attending auctions.   Initially I think it was the “game’ aspect of watching two or more determined buyers going at it, trying to outbid each other to win that desirable object.  . Although not inherently materialistic, I find it interesting to observe the dollar value of things on any given day, and compare it to my estimates of it’s worth.  Also,  an auction presents an opportunity  to be among strangers, and observe their interplay.  Something I also love about public markets, both of the food and antique variety. And finally  of course there is the stuff itself.  There, spread out across the yard lie the components that taken together represent the life and  possessions of an individual, or family.

When I turned sixteen my Mom inexplicably and without warning bought me a brand new Vauxhall Viva station wagon.  She and my Aunt Marie were visiting a car dealer friend, and it must have been a heck of a good lunch, or a sweetheart of a deal because they came home with the news that they had both bought a car. One for me, and one for my cousin Ron.  We suspected that alcohol was involved, but naturally we were delighted all the same.  So I had wheels, and occasionally, a local auction advertisement would catch my eye, and I would take some of my hard earned  cash and set off to see what I could score.  Hard earned being the correct term in that I had a summer job on the night shift at the local canning plant.  I worked in the cooking area.  About 100 degrees, steamy, and loud for eight hours.  Minimum wage.  I learned to get by on about four hours sleep so I could have some fun before going back into the abyss.

I didn’t need anything of course.  I wasn’t setting up house or starting a shop.  I would just find myself interested in certain things.  A naive painting.  A primitive, handmade table, a chrome ashtray stand with an airplane on top.  An old plastic radio. The ephemera of interesting small things dumped from a keepsake drawer into a box lot. I loved to sort through it all and find the unexpected. I realize now that as I was looking over all that stuff I was developing my aesthetic.  I didn’t give a hoot for all the fussy glass and china and Victorian furniture , but I started to love the look of old paint, and hand wrought things.  I decided what of the paintings, if any were of interest.  I grew an appreciation for rusty old farm tools.

I didn’t even bid all that often, and when I did I would fall out early as I didn’t have a lot to spend. But I would usually come home with something.   A little gem unnoticed in a box-lot, or something so off base and goofy to most people that no one else wanted it.  I seemed to score a lot of funky, handmade furniture.  Nobody wanted that stuff.

After a few auctions you begin to notice who the dealers are.  The ones who stuck out from the crowd by how often they bid and won,  seemingly without matter of the cost.  In our area there was Madge Wilson, of Grannie’s Boot who incidentally is still  in the business today, and Don Palmer, legendary picker form the Aylmer area.   On anything of great antique value these two would very quickly leave everyone else in the dust and battle it out between them.  They both had great knowledge and taste so I learned a lot by just observing them.  On something I really liked  I would try to outbid them, but I would rarely win.  I don’t think they liked the idea of encouraging a young upstart, although they would very occasionally throw me a bone.  Still, I would most often leave with something, or a few things in the back.

In Dresden, where I was raised we had a Two car garage.  My mother rightfully insisted in keeping her car indoors, but didn’t mind having things stored temporarily on the other side.  When we sold the newspaper business, I decided to keep a few things.  I noticed one day that the bottom of the trays used to store type were made from very old hand carved wooden plates for making  circus posters.  These approx. 2’x3’ works of art showed wild animals, acrobats etc. with a place blocked out to include the local time and place.  They had remnants of the old ink soaked into the wood.  They were very old, and they were fabulous.  I also had a circa 1840 hand feed rotary printing press.  Quite small, but weighing about half a ton.  Then there was a lot of old hand carved type, etc.  So it did not take long for my space to fill up.  That’s when I met my new, old friend Dan.

Dan was always at the auctions.  He was the friendly looking, disheveled  old dude who would give the auctioneer a $2 bid when he need one, and would go home with twenty or so boxes of old tools, hardware etc. and the occasional piece of unwanted furniture.  I got to talking to Dan over coffee as we were checking out the preview.  He was a nice guy and generous by nature.  Since his wife’s death some years earlier Dan had lived on his own on a small hobby farm at the edge of town.   Just a few blocks from my house along the river road.   One day Dan asked me to come by for coffee and he would show me his barn.   I got myself right over there.

After coffee and a chat in his kitchen we went to the barn, and when he threw open the doors I was truly amazed with what lay before me.  There arranged on rows of tables and in cupboards lay thousands of sorted everyday items.  A box of cork screws here, next to kitchen devices, beside hand tools.  You get the picture.  Then over there are stacks of furniture, old bicycles, and a couple of cars including a big, black 1957 Cadillac limousine.  Wow. “Where did you get the limo, Dan”.  Turns out it was the governor of Alabama’s, and he had bought it cheap because the engine was seized. Knowing that I was running out of space he offered me a 10’x20’ space in exchange for helping him once a week to move and organize things.  I liked Dan and had no trouble agreeing to the terms.

Within a couple of years this space was also quite full, but my high school years were drawing to a close and soon I would be leaving town to pursue higher education.  My mother was wanting the other side of the garage back for storing her picnic table in the winter, etc. and I didn’t want to leave my old friend Dan with a problem.  By this point he was finished with going to auctions and wasn’t leaving the house much.

Realizing the game was almost  up, and not wanting to leave a burden on his kids, Dan phoned a local junk collector he knew and sold it all for one money on the understanding the guy would clean out the barn.  I was just about to leave home for London, Ontario so I told him to go ahead and sell my stuff as well.  There was some cool things in there, but there was also a lot of junk.  I think I got $800 for it all which was probably about what I had spent, and which came in handy to buy books, etc.  The stuff in my mother’s garage lasted about another year until a professor from a Chicago University with a printing studies program  found out about my old press and came racing over to sweet talk my mother into donating it to the library there.  Oh, and he’ll take those old Circus printing plates as well.  They had a deal when he agreed to take everything.  I couldn’t really be upset as I had left the problem unresolved for so long, but I still think about those Circus plates from time to time.

How did this whole thing get started?

The other day as a friend was about to leave,  I spotted a couple of small finger jointed pine shelves leaning against the back porch wall where they had been standing for the last six months or so.  They were part of a cheap wooden shoe rack I had bought a few years back at Canadian tire for about $16 on sale.  The finger joints had begun to come unglued and one of the upright supports had snapped, so rather than repair it we bought ourselves a better one .  Although I had no use for shelves, I found it difficult to throw them away.  “Hey, could you use these shelves.  They need a little gluing but they would make a great little rack for drying herbs or something.”  My friend looked at me and said, “I have no use for them as a shelf, but if you want to get rid of them I will use them for kindling for my wood stove.”  I stood there for a moment assessing whether this was acceptable,  and then reason clicked in and I said “Sure, go ahead and burn them up.” I thought they may have served a nobler purpose, but hey, a man’s got to light a fire.  This incident got me thinking about why I have a tendency to save things that I either find interesting as an object, or which I think I might find useful  later on.

I’ve never lived through a period of want.  Never not had enough to eat.  Never even longed for a new pair of pants.  I’ve been a pretty lucky little monkey when it comes to living in a time and place where I have not wanted for much.  So why do I save broken shelves?   And being someone who saves things, why have I not become a collector per say?  Or for that matter, a hoarder.

Over my 35 years in the trade I have encountered and come to know several collectors, and indeed we do have a pretty large collection of Canadian folk art, but this is largely due to my vocation, and the tendencies of my wife Jeanine who does have a true collector’s instinct.  In collecting terms I relate most closely to the crow.  Not in that I am necessarily attracted to shiny things, but in that I tend to pick up and carry away that which I find interesting or pleasing enough that I think I may want to look at it again and again.  Knowing that one day, I may find that I have enjoyed the object enough, and if it no longer holds a special relationship to me,  I am quite happy to find it a new home.  I recognize this makes me more a dealer, than collector.

It is the process I am interested in. Not so much the act of possession. I like handling the stuff and taking it somewhere else where it will be safe. I like to feel I am saving it from the fire.  Also, I like to be surrounded with things that resonate with me. Things that make me feel something when I look at them. Things I find beautiful.

Does  my becoming a dealer come from me not wanting to throw out possibly useful things as much as it does from an appreciation of beautiful things?  Probably so, at least in the first place. As I grow alder I save a lot less for eventualities.

And why with this tendency have I not become a hoarder? The simple answer is  I guess it never appealed to me.   I have always lived in environments that are essentially orderly, and although far from being minimalist, have never been overly crowded or chaotic.  That being said, from a very early age I have always had a room, or a space in a barn , or someplace where I could pile things that were of interest, but not necessary for my day to day life.  My hidey-hole.  My Raven’s nest. I have included as evidence a tricky triple exposure photo I made of myself in a room I had for my “extra” things in London when I was in my early twenties .

As a kid I wasn’t particularly prone to dragging things home, although as soon as I had my own space in the form of a tree house, I started to put things in there. That was when I was most crow-like.  An interesting rock.  A discarded cowboy beIt buckle. You name it. Then when I was about 16 my Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie decided to sell the farm and move to a house in town, so that was when I attended my first auction.

I remember that lovely late spring day, arriving to see everything from this familiar place being dragged out of the house and barn and spread across the yard.  My initial response was sorrow. My next response was interest.   I was there with my parents and my Aunt Marie and cousin Ron.  Ron was eleven days older than me, but already a lot cooler.  He had started to grow his hair longer, and had taken to wearing torn blue jeans and moccasins without socks.  We were close, so when he excitedly told me that he was going to bid on and buy the Bakelite portable record player, I was excited for him, and decided then and there that I would also bid to buy something to remind me of these folks and their place.

Ron’s record player came up first, and he was up against considerable competition. About half way through the bidding he had to ask Aunt Marie if she would cover him if he went over his savings.  She agreed, and he won it for about thirty bucks as I remember.  A lot of money in those days.  It was worth it though.  It was a great sounding unit and loud, and we had countless hours of enjoyment playing large stacks of hit 45’s in his bedroom as we discussed everything under the sun, and ate mandarin oranges from a tin.

The auction wore on and I tried for a couple of things unsuccessfully before winning an old pine drop leaf table which had never been painted  for $5.  It washed up beautifully, and I began to sit at it to do my homework feeling an indescribable closeness to it.  The table is still with me; and although it’s nothing special, I continue to love it for the association.

Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie’s table today

Anyway, it was on that day when I bid and won a useful table for $5 that something clicked in me. And the switch is still stuck in the “on” position.  Within a year I had made an arrangement to rent some space in a barn from a 70 year old man I had befriended, who lived by himself on an unworked farm at the edge of town.  And the rest as they say is history.

Bob MacDonald and the fantasy cities

I can’t remember how we met Bob MacDonald.  It’s most likely that he found us.  Bob was a full time antique picker who would pull in unexpectedly from time to time in whatever old wreck of a car he happened to be driving.  I don’t think he ever paid over $100 for a car, and he spent all his time in them, so they didn’t last long.  Bob was the type of character that kept me interested in this antique business, come lifestyle.

Bob was charming, intelligent, well read, and knowledgeable in the arts, and literature; but he also liked the bottle, and survived on almost nothing, occasionally being reduced to living in his car.  When he came by, we would make sure he got some food in him, along with his beloved black coffee.

Bob spent all of his time following up leads, and beating the bushes for valuable artwork and rare books.  He was good at it and would occasionally score big time. Then eventually the money would be gone and he may have to suffer through a fallow period.  Those where the ropes. When he found something in folk art, like a Maud Lewis painting or the like he would come to see us.  Sometimes to convince us to put some money up front, so he could actually purchase the object he had found.  We trusted Bob, and he always delivered. 

I was working in the garden on a fine summer day in the late eighties when Bob came roaring up the driveway, a big smile on his face, and a car full of what appeared to be aquariums. On closer inspection I could see that they were hand-made display boxes with plexiglass on the top and front.   There was a half dozen on the back seat and two beside him on the passenger seat. He popped the trunk and there were another four large ones in there.  “You’ll never guess what I’m bring you today”.  He could hardly contain himself.  “ I was up in Goderich and stopped in to the Chinese restaurant there for some lunch.  I got talking to the owners and came around to telling them I was looking for art and books, and the young woman there said “Well, I don’t know if you will consider them art, but my father when he wasn’t busy cooking would get out a key-hole saw, and spend hours making these fantasy city landscapes.  Would you like to see them?”  Of course he was delighted to look.  There in the back storage room were dozens of these boxes of various size and configuration. Every one similar with many layers of carefully cut out and painted balsa wood walls, towers, balconies; and courtyards adorned with little plastic trees and flowers. Most of them had a boarder of mini Christmas lights around the front, and occasionally there would be a plastic figure of a ballerina, or chicken, or duck perched atop a column making it appear to be  a giant statue in the courtyard.  The overall effect was mesmerizing.  I know Bob would play it cool, but I bet his eyes were popping out.  She explained that for a time her father would display them in the front window and occasionally someone would buy one, but eventually he became discouraged.  The family had all kept their favorites, and so when Bob expressed interest, they sold the rest of them to him for a song.  Really just wanting to find them a good home and free up the storage space I suppose.  Bob drove directly to us.

What can I tell you.  Jeanine and I both really liked them and felt they were strong examples of original folk art from a vivid imagination. Perhaps one looking nostalgically back on a childhood spent in China, although a China of the “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” variety.  We felt and would continue to argue that they contained magic .   We weren’t sure if anyone would feel the same and we now had a dozen of them.  It’s the question you ask yourself when you invest your hard earned money in something that most people would find clearly crazy.  If you see it, and can recognize it, I think you are under some obligation to act.  Otherwise, why are you a folk art dealer, and not working at the bank. Or something else that rewards you with a pension, benefits and a regular “Johnny Paycheck”. 

We took them to a few Ontario shows where they were pretty much ignored, or met with a polite curiosity, or in some cases they produced downright hostility.   What is it about some folk art which actually makes people angry? I think it’s a combination of seeing something you revile with a big price tag.  It makes one question the value of money, which can lead to questioning one’s values in general, which can lead to all sorts of problems.  In any case, it soon looked like we would be owning them for a long while to come.  We didn’t have a lot of money wrapped up in them as Bob had passed them on to us very reasonably so we were happy enough to set them all up in  the showroom and plug them all in.  Then turn out the lights and enjoy  the feeling of being transported.  An exciting Friday evening out on the ranch.

Fortunately, the next January we found ourselves doing a show in New York city, and within ten moments of opening a man came rushing up to us needing to know everything about them.  He listened to the story and we soon settled on a price for all of them with the understanding that if any more were to become available he had first dibs.  Also, we were to find out anything more that we could about the artist.  Bob died not too long after, and we didn’t get a chance to ask him to go back.  Our lifestyle was such that I couldn’t take the time to drive to Goderich to see what I could find out, but it’s something I still think about from time to time. The trails pretty cold at this point.