Treasure Hunting Along the Old Canal

New York Times, 2011



Stamford, Conn.

I GREW up in Stamford, Conn., where we used to make fun of the city motto, “Moving Forward for People.” (Do some places move against people, or forward for other reasons?) Then the motto became rather joyless: “Stamford, the City That Works.”

But there was some relief from the commuter-suburb boredom I endured as a child, and it was hunting antiques.

My mother, Renée Kahn, is an art and architecture historian, and we went to estate sales every Saturday morning to find things that told or hinted at life stories. In palatial houses next to horse farms and along Long Island Sound, I felt an adrenaline rush when I opened musty closets and trunks. Sometimes an adult would try to elbow me out of the way as I pondered the mysteries of what was inside.

Cursive-lettered calling cards would turn up in an Art Deco alligator purse. Had some grande dame tucked them there and then never used the purse again? In a tangle of shoeboxes and 1920s lingerie abandoned in a garage I once dug out a Victorian gold pendant with a red stone. How did it get there, and is that ruby real?

These days the antiquing is easier in Stamford because so many pickers and dealers sweep through the estate sales and bring the better old stuff to one hub, on and around Canal Street. An oasis of unpredictability has arisen in the past decade a few blocks southeast of I-95 and the corporate towers at the Metro-North station. Dealer consortiums have taken over half a dozen former warehouse sites along a sleepy canal where Victorian manufacturers used to fill barges with door hardware and embossed linseed wallpaper.

Just about the only functioning factory left is Rubino Brothers, a scrap-metal recycler. Its open-air machinery grinds rusted debris into powder right next to buildings full of thriftily salvaged, less rusty antiques.

At the converted warehouses dealers rent booths but do not stand around. They stop by occasionally to restock. Central reception desks handle transactions, arrange deliveries and serve espresso. No one pressures or disdains you as you wander the aisles.

The buildings have slightly different moods. Hamptons Antique Galleries and Greenwich Living Antiques & Design Center skew formal, John Street Antiques Center is kitschier, and 33Now carries midcentury modern.

The individual booths are mostly eclectic, although a few specialize in, say, Victorian bedroom furniture or 1950s windup toys.

A few weeks ago I set out ostensibly to find a replacement for our unwieldy iron coffee table. That goal focused and propelled me somewhat, but I never did find one with just the right narrative, and the other wares all around sent me drifting into reveries that took up much of the day.

At Hamptons I saw coffee tables, none terribly old, in cowhide ($2,950) and ebonized teak ($1,325) and an awkward pointy model made from a wooden fireplace bellows ($1,900). But then I was distracted, wondering about those initials “S A” enlaced on iron filigree posts now turned into lamps ($1,495 for a pair). Weathered garden benches labeled “from Bedford, N.Y., estate” (about $1,400 each) looked Victorian, but the word “Surat” molded on their curvy metal bases suggests that they were cast not long ago in India.

At Hiden Galleries I was briefly drawn to a 1970s spherical eight-track tape player in harvest gold ($175), a “Fish Sign from Bait Shop in Great Lakes Region” ($6,800) and an enormous pair of wooden lions ($22,500) “exhibited at the Montreal World’s Fair.”

Meanwhile I kept circling back to a set of tiny lead cows, dogs and shoes ($40), nestled in a thumb-size cardboard box labeled “Prize Winners.” A skinny stain along one edge of the box showed where someone eons ago had tried to tape a rip, determined to keep the trinkets together. What contest were the prizes for?

I took them to the cashier and fumblingly tried to explain my impulse purchase and how this souvenir with a whiff of a poignant story might fit into my apartment without my husband noticing. (He will not have noticed them, I suspect, until he reads this article.)

“It’s not our business why people buy things,” the cashier said, not unkindly. She reminded me that no exchanges or returns were allowed.

At 33Now a coffee table with knobby knees ($3,800) bore the signature of a woodworker named F. Camp, a 2002 date and the original client’s name. But why had she already unloaded her custom carving?

At the Antique & Artisan Center 1960s Peruvian folk art dolls ($275 each) were dressed in fragments of geometric 12th-century weavings. What had those fabrics witnessed in their journey from the Andes to Fairfield County?

At the Connecticut Antiques Center a 100-year-old tin slide projector called a magic lantern was lurking on a bottom shelf with dusty cardboard boxes of about 50 glass slides. My hands were soon filthy from leafing through hand-colored scenes of Central Park, Yosemite, Norwegian fjords, German churches and a woman in an ostrich feather hat on a rainy street under the headline “Don’t Forget Your Umbrella or Other Parcels.”

There was no price marked. The cashier told me that the slides and projector came from the estate of a society pages editor in Greenwich, Conn. The whole set, he said, would run me $495.

“My husband and I have a $200 rule,” I told him truthfully. (This was not manipulative bargaining.) “We need to check in with the other before either of us spends more than $200 on anything. I’ll have to try to reach him and stop back in later.”

I turned to leave. The cashier said he would save me the trouble. He dropped the price to $200. I handed him my credit card. His bubbly colleague at the desk told me that she had struggled to resist buying the set herself. “I’m glad it’s gone, because it tortured me,” she said.

I have tried out the machine at home. Its wooden slide tray still moves like butter, and its vintage bulb still works, the curly filament blazing with heat. I keep imagining icebergs, geysers and medieval churches flickering on the walls of a society editor’s Greenwich parlor. The price was fair, I’ve learned. The projector and bulb would bring at least $120 on eBay, and slides mostly start at $10 each. The rainy street scene, which a movie theater would have flashed on screen between shows as an audience reminder, is “quite collectible and probably would fetch $25 or more,” Kentwood Wells, a magic-lantern historian, told me.

My advice for an ideal day in postindustrial Stamford: Grab a meal at the 1950s-style Curley’s Diner, a few blocks north of the train station, or the Fairway on Canal Street. Bring a device with Internet access so you can check to see whether the price is right. Make offers. Prepare to take home what you never needed but can’t wait to tell someone about.


Read full story here