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The Stories Are Priceless

Antique dealer helps seniors get a true evaluation of an heirloom, but it's the tales behind the items she values.

April 29, 2002|SUSAN GREGG GILMORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The folding tables stretch almost the entire length of the room. The only decoration is a nearly perfect bouquet of yellow and red roses. Then, one by one, clutching Mother's silver butter dish or a small, tattered Bible that once belonged to Great-great-grandfather, the members of the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society begin to fill the table with their personal treasures.

There are no television cameras or long lines waiting for an expert's attention at this antiques road show, held at the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center earlier this month. It's no PBS event, but people come anyway. They come hoping to discover that they own some hidden national artifact, but more important, they come to share a piece of their family's history.

Guest speakers Sharon Hindson and Herman Schahuber of Turnabout, an antiques consignment store and tearoom in La Canada Flintridge, field questions about collectibles, from cut glass to kitchen clocks. When Hindson bought the shop in 1996, she also inherited a road show tradition that began about 25 years ago.

The previous owners and originators of the Turnabout antiques shows usually met with small groups in people's homes. Hindson, 47, and her associate, Schahuber, who was easily coaxed out of his third retirement to join the Turnabout staff six years ago, now reach a much larger audience, speaking before church groups and civic organizations, and find themselves forced to decline more invitations than they accept.

At this night's event, as the expert team approaches the last few items on the table to be evaluated, they come to a painted metal windup toy, a black porter carrying a suitcase in each hand. Barbara Harsh, 80, brought the toy she had played with as a child, but now thinks it looks insignificant compared to the Haviland place setting and the portable writing desk sitting nearby. Politically incorrect, yes, but the toy is in mint condition, very collectible, and worth possibly as much as $1,000.

Harsh cannot believe it. She explains how she and her sisters divided their mother's possessions after she was placed in a nursing home years ago, how this toy was left on a closet shelf in her mother's home because no one thought it important, how she took it for sentimental reasons because she couldn't remember a time when it wasn't part of her childhood.

And Hindson listens. She takes the time to listen to every person, giving value to what is said regardless of an item's worth. People need an honest appraisal of their possessions, explains Hindson, but sometimes all they really want is someone to hear their story.

Her appraisals and road shows are free, a service to the community, she says. But she is also quick to admit it's good for business, acknowledging that people often later choose to consign their items with Turnabout. But, for Hindson, it's never long before the defining line between business and friendship begins to blur.

Most of her clients are seniors. Some are alone and many have been forced to make the difficult decision to leave their homes for some type of assisted-living facility. She often meets them for the first time as they are coping with the painful process of letting go--rocking chairs and punch bowls, table linens and porcelain vases, all the material things that hint at one's life journey. And at a time when family members or doctors may be telling them what to do, Hindson continues to listen.

Not surprisingly, as people age, one of their greatest fears is that they will be forced to leave their homes, thus losing touch with their possessions, their environment and their friends. "Our surroundings are our security blanket," says Forrest Hong, director of training and education for LivHOME, an L.A.-based elder-care company. "And as we become older and our health begins to fail, the familiarity of our surroundings becomes even more important," he says. "So when we have to let go of our possessions, it can be very traumatic."

Hindson has seen those attachments many times. She still speaks emotionally of a 92-year-old woman whose eyes teared as she handled a china cup she had painted as a young girl. As the woman prepared to leave her home, she couldn't imagine anyone else finding value in such a simple thing she had loved for so long. Hindson refused to accept the cup, insisting that it was a treasure she needed to keep for herself.

What she does take on consignment Hindson promises to place in good homes, understanding that even some cheap dime-store juice glasses may have significance and need to be passed on to someone who will appreciate them. The knowledge that even an old set of favorite glasses will still be valued, says Hong, can be very helpful for anyone faced with a life-changing transition. One woman mailed Hindson a handwritten recipe for persimmon cookies, asking that she pass it on to the person who now owns her kitchen mixer. Hindson did.

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