In about 2011, I became interested in using antiques for group discussions in my history classrooms. I was living in central Illinois at the time, and since I didn’t have much else to do, I began to make long antique-hunting trips across the plains. I began to devise strategies to find the perfect antique store, a place with the maximum number of interesting items at the lowest cost possible.
The ideal antique store, I figured, had to be far from any highway, since highways bring the traffic of collectors who would run a local well dry. Additionally, I figured, the ideal antique store had to be located in a town dating to the earliest wave of mid-nineteenth century settlement. It also had to be a town that had remained relatively stable in size over the past century. This is because the growth and decline of urban spaces inevitably leads to the destruction of material culture. The best antique store, I thought, had to be isolated, but active, established but not picked over, operating, but not too popular.
I found something close to this ideal in Petersburg, Illinois. The village of Petersburg was born on the Sangamon River in the 1830s, it peaked in wealth, size, and activity around 1900, and remains today a stable but aging community twenty miles north of Springfield, Illinois. An antique store in Petersburg inhabits a building that began its life a century ago as a village pharmacy and dry goods store.
To this day the interior space maintains that elongated, rectangular form common to the era, when frontage on Main Street was at a premium and merchants settled for riparian property lines. Now the space is filled with clutter, or junk, or what some people might term antiques, when they find objects of value. There are worn-out Singer sewing machines and sewing machine tables, porcelain plates, colored glassware, and boxes of postcards from places like Florida and Arizona, wishing a Merry Christmas for 1947 and 1961.
I have it on good authority that the complete cast-iron stove, with its price-tag of $2,300, has sat in the display window for over a decade. A center hallway divides the store and leads you to the back, where you can find apple-butter stirrers, rusty tools, and a collection of canes. Booths have bookshelves with paperback novels by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. Lost in the diversity of material culture, with an eye towards finding a bargain, we can overlook the social value and purpose of the antique store.
I continue to hone my antique hunting skills, and I hope to develop a better theory about how to find the perfect antique store.
In an article a few years ago, I developed a theory about the function and social purpose of the antique store. I invite you to read my article: Sorting the Past: the Social Function of Antique Stores as Centers for the Production of Local History, (International Journal of Regional and Local History 10:2 (2015).