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Dusty, Musty Treasure Hunt : The Thrill of Finding a 'Gem'

October 11, 1990|ELAINE DAVIS

Shopping for antiques has no set rules, gender, age, or pocketbook; its practitioners combine the skills of detective, scavenger, historian, investor and decorator.

It is not uncommon for antique shoppers to spend hours, days, weekends, or even complete vacations trekking through shops that carry used merchandise, hoping to find the ultimate treasure.

To one person, that treasure may be a 17th-Century Victorian armoire; to another, it is a Depression glass dish mass-produced between the 1920s and late '40s; to another, a Beatles album from the 1960s.

There are about 100 businesses in North County that in some way classify themselves as antique shops. While some are small cottage-style operations, there are also huge 10,000-square-foot warehouses, called malls, in which 25 to 100 mini-shops are housed.

The greatest concentrations of antique shops in North County are in Temecula and Fallbrook. However, the coastal region between Solana Beach and Carlsbad has enough shops to keep anyone busy.

Fred Caldwell's family has operated Caldwell Antiques in Leucadia for 27 years. He takes it upon himself to publish an annual "Treasure Map" that routes customers to 25 North County shop locations.

"I don't make any money off the map, but customers say they like it, and it seems to help the businesses," Caldwell said. For the same reasons, a few other proprietors also produce trail maps, and they are displayed in most antique shops.

Like many retail establishments, specialty shops exist within the antique business. These are places known for their handmade quilts, vintage jewelry, American oak furniture, authentically restored clocks, or advertising memorabilia.

Antique businesses usually spring up because their owners have amassed more antiques than their home and family can accommodate or tolerate. Kitty Gibbs calls it a "disease." After 17 years as owner of Miss Kitty's antique shop in Poway, she says her three-car garage at home has standing-room only.

"There's never been a car in there," she said, explaining how she uses the garage to stockpile her inventory under the protection of a security system.

Karen Walters, manager of the Antique Warehouse in Solana Beach, says malls have a little of everything under one roof, which is a convenience for the antique shopper. For a couple of dollars a square foot, individuals can lease space in an antique warehouse, and mall employees will sell their wares. Generally, 10% of the sale goes to the mall owner.

"It's a good deal for me," one dealer said, "because I work full time at another job."

If there is a drawback, Walters said, it is that mall employees generally don't get to know customers the same way owners do in the small shops.

Gibbs says the personal contact is important to her. "I have regular customers who have been coming in here for years," she said. "I do this because I enjoy antiques and my customers." She points to a sizable card file and explains that each card represents something that she is trying to find for one of her customers.

"There really isn't any competition between shops," Gibbs said. "What you find here, you probably won't find somewhere else."

"We have customers from all over who call us looking for clocks," said Maurice Trokey of The Loft. Trokey and his partner, Dick Bowser, have a shop in Temecula, stocked with beautiful antique clocks--such as a Hersche that stands 6 feet tall, has three different chimes and is encased in a rich mahogany cabinet.

Encinitas Coin & Jewelry owner Michael Bass said he has a huge inventory of discontinued and hard-to-find flatware patterns stored in his giant safe. "If it's been produced, we probably have it or can get it," says Bass, pointing to jeweler's trays laden with silver utensils.

The word antique sometimes intimidates people not familiar with the inner workings of the business. They equate the word with very old and expensive coins, fine art or signed porcelain. In the antique business, this type of merchandise is considered "high end" and is usually sold in shops in high-rent districts.

Those high-end shops are not listed on the average antique trail map. But savvy antique shoppers say valuable Southeby-type treasures can still be found in the so-called junk shops--a familiar term used by seasoned antique shoppers.

Poway resident Rick Wilson says his neighbor recently found in a shop a battered old lamp that was "so ugly his wife wouldn't let him bring it into the house." Because of its markings, the man suspected the lamp was valuable and had no trouble finding a buyer who willingly paid $1,300 for the piece.

Satisfaction gained through his hefty profit quickly disappeared when he later found that the lamp was a rare Art Deco piece made by an artist whose work sells for $60,000 in the high-end marketplace.

Learning how to spot antiques is a trick in itself. The casual shopper generally relies on the dealer; therefore, dealers like Carnell Kirkeeng say it is best to patronize shops with knowledgeable, honest dealers.

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