In this stratified world, there are two kinds of antique shoppers. Purists receive catalogs from C.G. Sloan & Co. and patronize purveyors of period pieces. Others can't tell a Hepplewhite from a Chippendale but happily spend hours combing used-furniture stores and junk shops for a good find - a golden oak dresser (manufactured at the turn of the century, golden oak pieces are not considered bona fide antiques, but why quibble?) or even a blue Ball jar.
Luckily for us in the latter category, the regions just beyond the Beltway abound with country roads studded with antique shops that are untrammelled by in-town pretensions and prices.
One especially rewarding jaunt is a 15-mile stretch of Route 29/211 between I-66 and Warrenton. About an hour from the city, it offers pastoral scenery, local color and shop after shop of pack-rat nirvana.
The beginning is Gainesville. Almost as soon as I-66 ends and your front wheels touch 29/211, you'll see the first sign. The word ANTIQUES is painted in sky-high letters on the roof of a two-storey gold house on your right after the first traffic light. This is the Christmas Gallery and Antiques Shop, where every day is Christmas and weekends are flea markets. Proprietors Jim Kirby and Tony Suarez have just finished renovating the house so that front shop can be devoted to handmade Christmas ornaments and gifts. Antiques will fill the house's other seven rooms, with kitchen antiques in th kitchen and bedroom antiques in the bedrooms (the better to inspire you, my dear). A one-room adjunct to the shop, arranged as a charming oak-and-calico prototype, holds some good buys like cast-iron ware for under $5, copper untensils under $30 and a handsome oak hutch for $260.However, it's not good karma to buy at the first shop (you can always come back), so onward.
A few yards on the left is the Barter Post and Sower's Produce. Every inch of the Barter Post's 119- by 80-foot cinder-block warehouse is crammed with furniture and collectables. You may hear tinkly ragtime music coming from one of several antique organs and pianos as you peruse the seemingly endless rows of tables, desks and dressers. Above, more than 600 chairs suspended from the ceiling represent every style and type of wood multiplied to the nth power. One wall holds enough old farm tools to stock a sizable farm. But don't let the sheer volume fool you. Owner Emory Wood, who bought the business fromhis dad ("There's no inheriting in our family"), knows exactly what he has and what it's worth. Prices are reasonable but not cheap. Pieces that look like they've spent the past several decades in a leaky barn are priced from about $50 to $90. Wood explains that he can refinish a piece himself and sell it for double the money - and he often does. It's not called the Barter Post for nothing, though, and marked prices are more of a challenge than a definitive statement.
"They're $6 apiece," one customer was told about several oak sewing-machine drawers, "but you can have them all for $12." So don't be afraid to dicker. It's an intrinsic part of the antique-buying ritual.
Before piling back into the car, take a run over to Sower's Produce. The sun-warmed succulent fruit is enough to make you swear off the supermarket hothouse variety forever. Mary Sower thoughtfully provides a hose and paper towels for those who want to eat their purchases on the spot.
The next few miles are devoid of shops but pleasantly dotted with small churches, general stores and grazing cows.On your right you'll note a magnificent fieldstone building. Built in 1797 as Buckland Tavern, it was recently restored as a private home. You are in the old hamlet of Buckland, now part of Gainesville. "We're still incorporated, but just too lazy to do anything about it," one resident explained.
Just beyond the tavern building is the Bird in Hand Antiques. If she likes you, proprietor Marion E. Turner may let you go inside the gaily painted gypsy wagon that sits in front of her house/shop. Gypsy wagons are a hobby of Mrs. Turner and so is her shop. Like a grandmother's living room, it's filled with things she's found and loves: Victorian shell art, Depression glass, tea sets, quilts, beaded bags and parasols. Prices are generally excellent - tall oak dressers with beveled mirrors for $110, a massive oak table with three leaves for $145 and a pie safe for $175. There are also unusual items like a Chinese gong, a child's tin bathtub, a Pennsylvania Dutch dough box, a pine commode and gleaming trunks from a 1920s Packard and Cadillac. It took a great deal of discipline to pass up a beautifully carved large French desk that was a steal at $225 (When is a bargain not a bargain? When it's over $100 and you don't need it.), but sublimation came in the form of an old (you can tell by the air bubbles) half-gallon fruit jar that was a dollar and didn't require a second thought - if it costs under $5 and you like it, buy it.
A true antique scrounge shifys into high gear upon entering a place like Thorp's the next stop on the road.There are treasures to be had for a pittance amid the plastic drek and used refrigerators, if you only have the patience to look - and look hard. Be systematic and scan one aisle at a time.
Thorp's has buildings on both sides of the road, and patience was rewarded in the building on the south side. Furniture here was the cheapest anywhere, with a mission oak sofa in need of new cushions for $65, a perfectly stripped oak buffet with its own shelf and beveled mirror for $95 and a large cedar chest for $55. A little French-style secretary that someone had started sanding badly was still a good buy at $20. One carton was full of odd pieces of linen, lace and embroided bureau scarves for 75 cents and $1 apiece. A shelf held tin cookie cutters and wood-handled kitchen utensils at 50 cents. Establishments of this sort are also great for utility items like a Craftsman bow saw for $5 and an ironing board for $4.
Sitting next to a trailer on the same lot as one of Thorp's buildings, the tiny Antique Hut is easily overlooked. But stop in; you won't be sorry. Owner Pat Vann says "I'd rather sell more for cheaper than hold out for a better price. I think I make out better that way." You do, too. Mrs. Vann also supplements her stock wit well-made inexpensive reproductions. Solid round oak pedestal tables from Tenessee sell for $140 to $175. To go wit them there are Oklahoma-made ladderback rush-bottom chairs for $25.
Every now and then one stumbles across a true find, and the pulse quickens ad blood surges to the temples. There it was - an American primitive table for $35! It was rought-planned and had a patina the color of dark honey. Dealers can always detect this euphoric reaction, no matter how well you try to contain it. "I've had several offers for that table," Mrs. Vann said (a dealer ploy that usually works). "I'll have to think about it? (a buyer's ploy that seldom works).
Continuing on 29/211, you enter New Baltimore. On your left in a lovely white stucco house is Buckelen Hills Gifts and Crafts shop where Helen Schwarz sells delicate hand-painted china (mugs, $7.50) and jewelry, potpourri, potholders, afghans, other consignment items.
Less than a mile away is the Colonial Shoppe of Fauquier. The giant picture window filled with antique glass bottles, porcelain pitchers and jars is just an indicator of what awaits within. Be forewarned. What the Barter Post is to furniture, the Colonial Shoppe is to bric-a-brac. Whole cabinets are full of carnival glass, pocket watches, jewelry and crystal. A 1780 cherry-and-pine corner hutch ($900) overflows with old pewter and silver. This is also a place to find unusual old wind-up toys. And if your heart ever desires turn-of-the-century Welsh mining rescue equipment, this is the place to get it.
About here, after long hours of heavy-duty antiquing, you tend to reach a point where steamer trunks and rocking chairs swim before your eyes, and if you see one more framed print of Robert E. Lee you'll scream. You are antiqued out. Although the Georgian revival architecture and quaint shops of Warrenton beckoned ahead like Emerald City, it was time to head home.But not without a stop back at the Antique Hut to pick up that American primitive table.