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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Antique shopping

I think New Year’s resolutions are cheesy and insincere, but I sometimes make them halfway through the year. Two years ago, I made a resolution to write more and share my writing more. Needless to say, that’s a paradox I’m still working out. 

At the moment, it looks a little something like this: sentences scrawled on scraps of paper given to friends, sealed letters that sit on my desk awaiting some sudden burst of courage and journals bursting at the seams. 

Those who write for The Observer or any similar platform know the tension I’m describing. It is really quite something — relinquishing control of your words. But then again, what good can they do locked up in the dusty exhibits of your own brain?

I don’t have many answers. But occasionally, I have a compulsion to let them go, brazenly unafraid of the consequences. Here’s my latest attempt, inspired by a visit to an antique store with my childhood best friend. 

We arrived at the whimsical warehouse of forgotten stories around 4 p.m. The antique store smelled like mothballs and wet drafts, but anything can be romanticized.

There’s something substantial about a pair of jeans from the 80s, the way they’ve held up far better than my ratty jeggings from 2016. It’s real — the denim. It couldn’t last so well if it wasn’t. After weathering so much, I won’t worry if they can withstand the tailgate lots. Besides that, there’s the pride of discovery. I privately hope someone compliments the new pair, so I can chirp back: “I found them at an antique store.” That all makes $35 seem like a real bargain. 

Eager for a fresh set of displays, Britton and I wander upstairs. She finds a picture window that lights her up like the break of day. She points out antique roll-down maps and school supplies. 

“No, but why is this literally from our aging second grade classroom in St. Mark?” Britton asks with a chuckle.

The school closed in 2015, so it really would make sense. Liquidation sale.

I think we could learn a lot if we took one item and tracked its life. Sometimes I wish the old grandfather clock could talk. Or that roll-down map. It sure would know a lot about us, if it really is the same one.

In the next warehouse over, Britton sets her eye on a bowl of dainty rings, her very own diamond in the rough. As to how she found them, my reason ponders: stumped.

Britton patiently listens to me fawn over this and that, making delusional statements about how I want something in my future house despite the fact that I can’t afford a studio apartment. 

We share a sympathy for vintage dresses, agreeing that many of the cuts are far more flattering than today’s. In gowns, I gravitate toward the 40s. Britton prefers 80s or 90s. Either way, there’s a mutual respect.

Eventually we wander over a split to the south side of the building. Still more labyrinthine caverns await, and we haven’t even been upstairs.

“It would be so easy to get lost in here,” Britton remarks. “I bet they take a while to close and clear out all the corridors.”

While she speaks observantly, I too am lost in thought, pretending to be Tom Sawyer rascal-ing around dim caves. Britton and I read that book together for class — twice, because of the school closure.

I grow distracted by a box of old postcards. I like to search for places I know — and for handwritten notes. Deciphering the cursive is a spy puzzle in itself, but I’m single-focused. I can’t bear the thought of a story going to waste. 

Frantically, I try to breathe life into each, reviving the twists and turns in my own imagination. I found one letter from 1908 sent to Rockford, Michigan from New York. A simple message from a man to a woman, thanking her for agreeing to exchange letters. I wonder how they’d feel knowing I’d be a future third pen pal. I add it to my armful of loot, hoping it can be a subtle reminder of what might be out there beyond snapchats asking for nudes. 

I’ve lost Britton, but we somehow quickly reunite. The maze is thick, but our ties thicker. Settling on another colorful three-walled room, Britton begins executing a vision of prints for her wall. I stand there nearly squealing out of shared excitement. I’ve grown a bit louder now that the shop has fewer patrons.

“Tape stuff to the wall! Tape stuff to the wall!” I chant, thinking of my own collection back in South Bend.

Once she’s finished the task, I drift over to skim titles on a bookshelf. I pause to look around the now eerily empty shop. I’ve just now realized there’s not a window in sight, there hasn’t been the whole time.

Gasping with surprise, I gravitate toward a cloth-bound hardcover “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the title gilded with shimmery foil and running down its spine.

“I call myself a Hemingway fan, and I’ve never even read this.” I say, grabbing it to my chest.

Britton is the first to notice that a light has gone dark in our shadows.

“I think it’s 6 p.m.,” she says.

Closing time.

I glance backward. Where we stood 20 minutes ago is now pitch black. Neither one of us has to say a word. We’re speed walking to the checkout, but first, we must pass an LED-lit closet housing dozens of old china dolls. Their beady eyes laser through my skull, evoking an involuntary groan of fear and disgust. I stifle it as if they might hear it.

For someone with an (irrational?) fear of hauntings and curses, I sure do forget that in antique stores. I want everything to have profound significance, but only the good kind. All memories and meaning with none of the omens.

We taste a bit of relief upon rounding the corner to find the cash register, a kind of island floating in the moat between the store’s halves. Only the counter is deserted and the front door deadbolted. 

Abandoning my collection, I urgently unlock the door, holding it firmly open with one arm — our escape route. 

Putting on a brave face, one foot still out the door, I call out: “Hello?”

Four more times with extra calls from Britton. Our shouts are greeted only by a slow creak sounding from upstairs. Even the antique service bell yields no results. I’m not superstitious, but in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have risked summoning something. 

Even though we both long to buy our discoveries — Britton her curated collage and me my century-old postcard, we quickly change our minds. The store is dark now but for one light hanging above the register. The slate-colored skies pour cold sleet out on the street outside, but the night has never seemed so comforting.

We don’t think for a second about stealing our collections, easy as it would be. We drop them on the counter and fully fling open the heavy door. 

“Actually,” I stubbornly say, “I want that tiny key.”

Remembering the price tag, I reach into my pocket for two quarters and drop them on the desk with a clip clop.

I don’t need the things; I just want the stories. 

And some people say life is nothing like a novel.

Contact Maggie Eastland at

The views expressed in this Inside column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.