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Passage to the Past : In Old Towne Orange, the Streets Are Lined With Memories of Gold

March 04, 1995|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Those who come to Old Towne Orange, where Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street meet in a perfect circle, usually end up taking home a piece of the past.

They lug home old Coke machines, Victorian brass door handles, primitive rocking chairs, Art Deco lamps and other collectibles in the hope that the circle's quaint charm will rub off on their own abodes.

Other cities such as Fullerton and Tustin have their own antique districts, but nowhere in the county or even Southern California is the concentration of antique shops so great as in Old Towne Orange, according to the local antique merchants association.

Old Towne has more than 50 antique shops and 350 antique dealers, many of whom share space in one of the circle's antique malls such as Someplace in Time. Yet it's not only the shops but also the area's ambience that draws people to the circle.

"Everyone comes here to touch the past," says Meg Breeze, owner of the Tea Leaf Cottage antiques boutique, who set up shop in the century-old former mayor's building off the central plaza two years ago. "They want to take a memory home. They want to get back to gentler times."

This is not Disneyland's idealized Main Street but, rather, the real thing.

Century-old buildings, some with brick facade and ornate molding, line Old Towne's spoke streets. Visitors can sit a spell on one of the park benches in the central plaza and watch the fountain or the spinning traffic. They can stop in at Watson Drugs and Soda Fountain--the oldest ongoing business in the county--for an old-fashioned malt. They can browse through the shops, where memories are plentiful.

"Oh, my grandmother had one of these," a fortysomething woman says to her friend while admiring teapots inside Attic Delights, an antiques shop and tearoom. It's the kind of comment shopkeepers hear all day long.

Decorators can find virtually anything for their homes--furniture, fixtures, lawn decorations and knickknacks galore. At Just for Fun Antiques, they can even take home an old gas pump.

Some collectors come to Orange to hunt specific items.

"Got any knives?" asks one man, poking his head inside Tea Leaf Cottage. When Breeze shakes her head, he hurries on his way in pursuit of antique flatware.

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Old Towne Orange has learned to capitalize on its past. In recent years, antique dealers have been busy opening new shops and renovating old ones.

"When I first came here, there were a lot of other types of businesses. Now every time there's an empty building, it turns into an antiques store," says Bonnie Ackerman, a former Los Angeles police officer-turned-antiques dealer. Ackerman and her family have been tending their A & P Collectables, a narrow brick building on Glassell, for 15 years.

"The antiques business has revitalized Orange," Ackerman says. "Twenty years ago, it was like a ghost town. There was just a department store. The town was dying."

Typical of the new additions to Old Towne was the opening in November of Anthony's Fine Antiques. The building on North Glassell was in such bad shape, the roof caved in. Owner Tony Deleo has turned the site into a picturesque shop with an ornate wood and brick front.

"I think this area is on the upswing," Breeze says. "I see higher-quality stores come in. Even though we're 100 years plus, we're evolving into a Pasadena or Santa Monica. We've all improved our shops, so that they're more conducive to the past."

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