Fond remembrances of participating in L’ Exposition et Vente d’Antiquités d’Eastman

In the late nineties, it was common knowledge that the two finest country antique shows in Quebec were the North Hatley show held in July, and The Eastman show which ran in late September.  The two towns are situated about 30 kms apart in the beautiful Eastern townships region,  and so you would think that many of the same people would attend both shows, but the reality is these shows reflect the “two solitudes” of Quebec, with the North Hatley show being attended mostly by local, English-speaking home and cottage owners, while Eastman is predominantly attended by local Francophones.   In those days at least, not many of the English dealers who participated in North Hatley would consider doing Eastman. They believed that unless you were recognizably French Quebecois with good language skills you would be overlooked.  We heard this over and over for a few years before we decided to test the theory.  I get by fairly well with my high school French, and of course Jeanine being from France, speaks the language beautifully.  The thing is although neither of us were Quebecois,  we determined that we could overcome this by just being welcoming, open, and good natured.  We also liked the town and would go through from time to time to visit a good shop there,  Antiquities Rosalie.  A family place where we often found good folk art and early smalls. 

Antiquities Rosalie

We knew also that the mayor there,  Mr. Pierre Riverin was one of the biggest collectors of Quebec folk art in the country.  He had “made” our show in North Hatley the previous year and suggested that we come to Eastman.   So we contacted the show promoters and were happy when they welcomed us to come, and gave us a space in the main salon which was in the basement of the church at that time.  This original space only held 15 dealers and as this was 1999 it was the first year that the show had been expanded to a second salon in a “Golden Years” club a couple of blocks away, bringing the total to 30 dealers.  Of course people checked out both locations.

Unloading through the back door into the basement we definitely felt like the “new kids’ at school, but everyone was friendly and helpful and it didn’t take long to set up and feel quite at home.   We discovered that Tom Devolpe,  a dealer friend of ours from Montreal was doing the show as well, and we were staying at the same motel so we suggested that after setting up he come to our room for a glass of wine and a snack before going to the dealer welcome night, being held that evening in the restaurant of the same motel.  What a nice idea to have all the dealers get together for dinner before the show.  Dealers love to be fed. 

Tom DeVolpe and me having a glass on another occasion

We stopped in a local depanneur, or convenience store to pick up a bottle of red and some cheese and bread to share with Tom in the room.  This is one of the wonderful things about this region.  Even the smallest local stores have a good selection of wine and cheese, not to mention pates.  We bought a great baguette, and a soft ripened cow cheese from France  called Chaource which we had never encountered but which immediately became one of our favorites.  I remember that it was 40% off because it was quite ripe, but this of course made it even more delicious.  We should have had to pay more because it was perfect.  It could have been that we were just really hungry from setting up and skipping lunch, but that snack of fresh baguette, Chaource, and a few olives  with Tom in the motel room remains one of my favorite all time eating experiences. 

I recall we were a little tipsy walking over to the restaurant for our 7 p.m. seating.  When we arrived we were taken directly upstairs to a private room just large enough to hold the 60 or so people participating in the show. We were all assigned a table and presented with the menu, and a program. A program of all things.  We sat next to our old friend Alan Chauvette who owned a pickers barn near Victoriaville.  It was his first year as well. 

The meal was excellent, and surprisingly we still had a bit of appetite after all that bread and cheese.  The place was soon hopping, and quite noisy with all those ramped up dealers.   Then came desert, and along with it a few friendly greetings and encouragements from the promoters, followed by a sing along.  Yes. I didn’t see that one coming. There in the program were the words and tune to follow for three or four special antique dealers songs.  Everybody now, let’s sing,  “Nous sommes les Antiquaires”  set to the tune  of  “Les Miserable “ or some such thing.  I forget exactly but it was hilarious, and good natured, and friendly, and everybody sang along. 

This was followed by the announcement of who had won the “best booth” award which was a prize of a free ad in a local trade magazine were you could announce your honor I suppose.   Being newbies we had no expectation of winning, and it was no surprise when a local couple won who not only had a beautifully set up booth, but also wore (get this) period costumes.  I looked over to Alan, and said “ah that’s it Alan, next year, –  Costumes!”  We just about fell out of chairs.  The festivities and merriment continued well into the night, but we soon made our good-nights and left to get a good night’s sleep. 

The show was great. People were friendly and interested, and sales were brisk.   Contrary to the fears of our fellow Anglophone dealers we were made to feel most welcome and accepted.  We went back for another four or five years until we changed policy and only did shows close to home.  It’s still going on today but has been moved to a larger facility “La Grillade” where there are 50 dealers in one space.  Well worth a trip to this region, especially in the fall. 

us setting up in Eastman

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.”

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.

Coming in on a wing and a prayer- part one

In the eighties and nineties, in spite of spending a lot of time on the road going back and forth to Quebec and doing weekend antique shows all the time, I  never had auto club coverage. It’s not that I’m against auto clubs.  I’m sure they give many peace of mind, and before the days of google map they would plan a nice trip for you.  But I inherently have faith, I guess you can call it, that things will generally go well, and should trouble arise I can handle it.  This may stem from being influenced as a young person when I watched a t.v. interview with Orson Bean, who was a political commentator and popular comedian at the time.  He argued that he doesn’t believe in the value of insurance.  He proposed  that if you saved all the money that you spend trying to insure yourself against every eventuality, you would have plenty of money to cover yourself should anything actually occur.  Of course this was before the days of multi-million dollar liability settlements.  But I took his point, and have avoided buying any insurance other than car and house which I consider essential, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

Here’s how I deal with a breakdown.  The first thing is to get the vehicle out of harm’s way.   Then relax, take a deep breath, and realize that the plan has changed.  When I become comfortable with this fact I then go about finding and contacting the nearest garage.  If possible I seek out local input.  Because I am not afraid to make contact with strangers, if someone is around and looks reasonably normal my first move is to explain my situation to that person, and ask if they might direct me.  Gratefully, breakdowns have been rare, and touch wood, my luck has held.  Here’s an example.

It was the mid-nineties and I was heading solo to North Hatley, Quebec to participate in the mid-summer show there.  The truck was tightly packed and I remember there was an almost full size folk art moose tied to the front rack.  At a passing glance, it looked like I was hunting and got lucky.  So, I was bombing along happily, East-bound on the 401 near Gananoque‎, Ontario when the engine started to sputter and choke.  There was an exit right ahead so I took it, hoping I could make it to a garage or at least a parking lot.  I just made it up the ramp and it started to die out, so all I could do was to pull over as far as I could on the shoulder and it shut down. I was distressed in that it was late in the day and although I had planned to stop soon for the night, I was counting on getting up early and driving straight to North Hatley so that I would have time to set up before the seven o’clock opening.  If it took all morning or longer to repair the truck I would not make it in time.

At first I just sat there, and took stock. It was a beautiful late afternoon. That time of day when you get the wonderful clear horizontal light as the sun slowly sets.  Around me were green fields and a couple of small houses nearby. As the motor stopped I could hear the sound of a lawn mower. Excellent, there’s my first move. I hopped out, crossed the road and waited until the man on the riding lawn mower turned the corner and was headed back towards me.  Putting on my best non-threatening smile and waving, he saw me and waved back.  He drove right up to me and killed the engine.  “Beautiful evening.  I don’t mean to trouble you, but that’s my truck over there.  I’ve just broken down and I need to phone a garage. Could you suggest anyone?”.  We exchanged names.  “Well, I work for the Canadian Tire in town so we could fix it tomorrow sometime, but I’ve got a buddie who’s got a country shop just down the road and he may be able to get you going faster. He’s cheaper and better too”  I appreciated his honesty. “Sounds great. Can we give him a call?” “ Sure can.  He’ll probably still be working at the shop” .   A half hour later the truck was hooked up to his tow truck and we were headed the few kilometers to his shop.  He was a great guy.  Right away he offered to stay and work that evening to get me going first thing in the morning.  He figured correctly that it was the fuel pump and he had a rebuilt replacement on hand. When I asked him about a place nearby that I might spend the night, he suggested that his sister had a bed and breakfast, and he could take me there and pick me up in the morning.  How Ideal is that?

His sister and her husband also turned out to be really nice people, and offered me a beer and some sandwiches when they realized I had not had dinner.  After a good night’s sleep, and seven o’clock breakfast I was ready to be picked up at eight.  The truck was repaired, the bill was reasonable, and I was on right on schedule to arrive in North Hatley for set up.  Thank you kind people, and here’s to serendipity.

But as fate would have it, this was not the only “test” I would experience on this particular trip.  I will continue the story in next Friday’s blog.  Stay tuned, as they used to say.

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.

“That’s funny. Someone’s burning wood on this hot summer day.”

In the late eighties Bill Dobson decided to hold a one day antique show in a small town just south of Montreal.  I’ve been on Google map, and for the life of me can’t figure out what town it was.  It may have been Napierville but I wouldn’t lay money on it.  In any case, it struck us as a good prospect and fit our agenda so we signed up.  First time shows are a toss of the dice, but Bill kept the rent reasonable so even if it was a wash you were not out much.  We also liked the fact that after the show we could make the two hour drive to Victoriaville to check out if anything great had arrived recently at the picker’s barns there.  Cassandra was out of school so she came along and so we also made it a bit of a working vacation. Which is about the only kind of vacation we were taking in those days.

It was already a glorious day when we pulled in to the quaint small town fair grounds at 7 a.m. on that Saturday morning.  There was about forty dealers arranged in two back to back aisles along the race track between the community hall and the bandstand.  We spotted many of the usual suspects, especially among the Eastern Ontario and Quebec dealers who did Bill’s other shows, but there were also a lot of dealers we had never seen before.  We did some good picking after setting up in those first couple of hours before the show opened.

When we pulled into our spot I noticed that a Quebec dealer I had never met was set up behind us and he had some wonderful things.  We made our acquaintance and did a little business.  Ah, that wonderful feeling of optimism that sets in just before starting an outdoor show on a beautiful day when bad weather is not a worry. I noticed that there was a very old lady sitting in the shade behind his truck already starting to cane chairs, while chain smoking.  She was the dealer’s mother and was well into her eighties.  He said she loved caning chairs and it was a good part of his business.  I enjoyed meeting her in spite of the fact that she barely spoke and continued to smoke one hand-rolled cigarette after another. I noticed she threw her butts on the ground and there was already a little circle of them around her, but didn’t think much of it.

The day preceded to be fun and profitable.  Many Montrealer’s made the drive and we also recognized lots of eastern Ontario collectors.  At  5 o’clock shows end we were happy with our day both from a buying and selling perspective.   It didn’t take long for us to pack up, and the last thing I loaded was a stack of packing blankets that had been sitting by the back door of the truck, and were no longer needed as the pieces they were protecting had been sold and were gone. I picked up the whole bunch and stuffed them in a space in the left, back corner just at the base of a wonderful old one piece cupboard in original red paint that in spite of it’s attributes had failed to attract a buyer.  We hopped in, turned east and started the two hour drive to the Motel Marie-Dan in St. Eulalie where we had a reservation.  This motel was clean and friendly and inexpensive and situated near the pickers barns so it was were many dealers stayed.  It has a nice little pool too which  Cassandra liked.  We arrived without incident, got our key which was to an upstairs room, and unloaded our luggage.  We switched on the air conditioning because it was and continued to be a stifling hot day; had ourselves a cool beverage, and proceeded to relax and count the loot we had taken in.  At the end of a good day of selling this is the best part.  Cassandra who was about 8 at the time watched a few  late afternoon cartoons and just as I was starting to nod off in my chair, looked over and said “ how about a swim ,Dad?” To be honest a quick nap in a cool room after such a long day of unloading, selling, and loading again was more appealing, but Cassandra had been such a trouper, helping out with packing and keeping herself occupied over the long hours in the hot sun, that I was not about to deny her this simple pleasure.  Plus, I knew that a little dip would do wonders to restore my energy.  So I put on my bathing suit and ten minutes later we were happily floating, and jumping and otherwise enjoying the little pool which had grown almost warm in the summer sun.  It was quite idyllic.  The sun starting to lower behind the forest which ran behind the motel bringing that beautiful evening light  which softens the contrast and pushes the red end of the colour spectrum that film makers call the “golden hour”.  I remember floating peacefully while hanging off the edge of the pool by my ankles, which is a favourite trick of mine. I loved watching Cassandra jump in over and over and otherwise enjoying herself.  We were the only ones there. As I lay there thinking how fortunate, content and grateful I felt, I was at one with the world.  And it was about then that I faintly detected the beautiful smell of burning wood.  I remember thinking, “That’s funny. Someone is burning wood on this hot summer day.” Almost as quickly I thought “ well it must be someone burning up old surplus wood to get rid of it.” And that’s when I looked over towards the parking lot and noticed smoke billowing from the back door of my truck.

You’ve never seen someone exit a pool, and cross a parking lot as fast as I did that day.  I ran to the back door of the truck which was hot, but of course it was locked and I quickly realized the keys were upstairs.  I raced upstairs, pounded frantically on the door until Jeanine who was coming out of the shower answered with a ‘hold your horses,  I’m coming, where’s the fire.”  “In the truck” I fairly shouted, “the truck’s on fire.  Quick get me the keys.” It seemed like an hour but it was probably just a few minutes before I was again at the back door of the truck. As soon as I unlocked and opened it, of course the rush of air hit the flames and the blankets were truly ablaze.  I grabbed them out and dumped them on the parking lot, and could see that the fire had also connected to the bottom of that big red cupboard which was laying on it’s side in front of the blankets.  I looked around wildly assessing my next move.  My first instinct at seeing open flame was to run, but I recovered my senses and noticed a long hose hooked up to a faucet by the garden so I raced over and was relieved to find that water came out when I cranked it and also that the hose was long enough to reach my truck.  It only took a couple of minutes to put the small fire out on the bottom of the cupboard,  and extinguish the large pile of burning blankets by now safely away from the other vehicles parked in the lot.  Cassandra was there beside me all along but there was little for her to do but watch and shout encouragement.  When it had cooled, we dug through the blankets and sure enough there was the smoldering butt of a hand rolled cigarette.

Thanks to Cassandra’s insistence on a swim, I had discovered the fire in time,  that surely would have otherwise escalated within that truck filed with 100 year old pine to the point  where I imagined the headline would read “Truck explodes on motel parking lot causing massive damage”.  The bottom board of the cupboard had to be replaced due to the smoky smell that would always inhabit it, but otherwise we just lost a pile of old blankets.  A close call.