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Secondhand, With Ghosts

More Than Mere Objects, Antiques Bridge Years and Lives

By Kathy Lally
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page F05

Wandering in and out of a collection of antique and secondhand stores in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood not long ago, I stopped to admire four small silver-plated serving dishes with covers that looked vaguely like Mongol helmets.

The store owner's father had bought them at an auction, where he was told the little round dishes were a wedding gift from a Turkish diplomat to the daughter of a Maryland railroad tycoon early in the 20th century.

Once I heard the story, I had to have them.

I do use them. They keep rice and other food amazingly hot. And when not in use, they make a striking centerpiece on the dining room table. I admire their look, but I truly love their story.

Acquiring something with a past gives me pleasure far beyond the use I make of the object. When I look at those dishes, I imagine a world far beyond my day-to-day life. I think of exotic Constantinople, old Maryland society, Washington of a century ago and the pleasant afternoon I spent in the antiques store, chatting with the owner, hearing about her father's adventures on the auction trail.

Marian Calabro, a New Jersey-based writer and president of CorporateHistory.net, says there is something very compelling about buying other people's stuff. Just think of all those shoppers browsing through eBay.

"Shopping gives us communion," she says, "communion with the human community. There's a sense that you really connect to the past when you shop among old things."

These connections were reinforced for me last weekend when Robyn, a journalist friend of mine, was watching the BBC news during a trip to Zimbabwe and saw a report that the Izmailovo market in Moscow had caught fire. Vendors at the outdoor market, which operates on weekends, sell junk (good place for rusty nails or corroded padlocks), Soviet kitsch (the submarine clock with hammer and sickle is irresistible), carpets from Dagestan and Afghanistan and every gorgeous carved and painted Russian craft imaginable.

At a time when shopping was drab and difficult in Russia, Izmailovo was full of color and possibility. No wonder Robyn was horrified by news of the fire and e-mailed our friend Martha in Paris, who called me, inspiring me to e-mail Dave and Janelle in Baltimore, Brian in Iraq and Drusie in London, who sent her own alarmed e-mails to Sharon in South Africa and back to Robyn, in Zimbabwe.

We all have our favorite stories and cherished finds, and we remember sharing the exhilaration of discovery with one another. These weren't just acquisitions of objects; we were looking at and feeling people's lives.

Martha developed a collection of painted peasant doors, a folk art that Russians were tossing away or letting rot. She gave the rest of us the benefit of her sharp eye, and we each have a door or a painted fireplace decoration or a wooden trunk, physical memory of a Russian village life that is fast disappearing.

Izmailovo is where I began my collection of Soviet tree ornaments, which includes glass blimps with CCCP written on the side. Here was a country of official atheists, eagerly decorating the New Year tree with cosmonauts and red stars -- and when the system fell apart they threw that stuff away and started buying angels and little churches.

The Associated Press reported that when the fire broke out -- in a group of wood structures recently built to evoke old Russia -- buyers and sellers alike were slow to pack up and leave. That's the country I came to know, where people are so accustomed to watching misfortune bear down on them, they hardly bother to get out of the way. That fatalism is accompanied by a lively sociability, and these energetic vendors love to thrust their wares upon their customers and regale them with the history of, say, a 1950s porcelain figurine.

Commerce opened the world to us human beings, taking us from confinement on small plots of land where we grew what we ate and made what we wore to a sophisticated society in which we traded and sold and bought and eventually created cities. Washington. New York. London. Paris. (And, for my shopping pleasure, Baltimore and Moscow.)

Buying and selling weave us together. Rachel Weingarten, president of GTK Marketing Group in Brooklyn, says shopping is as important to us socially as it is economically. "It's a bonding ritual," she says, "and a tradition."

One of her favorite possessions is an antique sewing machine. She doesn't sew, but a friend of hers collected the machines, and Weingarten often shared in the pursuit. When the friend broke up her collection, she gave one laden with memories to Weingarten.

"We fill our life with things," she says. "We should give them meaning."

Last week, I watched a riveting performance of "I Am My Own Wife" at the National Theatre. The play, set in Berlin, describes the very unusual life of Lothar Berfelde, a k a Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who managed to survive Nazi Germany and communist East Germany and who happened to collect gramophones, clocks and furniture, which she eventually turned into a museum.

At one point, she speaks of the people who once sat around a 100-year-old table, wishing she could run a phonograph needle along it and hear their voices.

This is one of those plays that leave the actor's face and words running across the stage of my mind again and again. I think of Charlotte and her furniture collection. I hear her voice. I feel the human connection.

"It is a record," she says of the objects that surround her, "of living, of lives."


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