TO FIND those special holiday gifts for even the most hard-to-please, head for Adamstown, Pennsylvania, to find antiques ranging from scanty '20s satin camisoles to 19th-century pocket watches, oak rolltop desks and even '50s Hop-A-Long Cassidy mugs.
In this self-proclaimed antiques capital of the East in Pennsylvania Dutch country, more than 1,000 antiques dealers, within a two-mile strip along U.S. routes 272 and 222, proffer an almost endless array of trinkets to treasures.
For bargain hunters, attic aficionados and flea market groupies, these shops upon shops of fine antiques, collectibles and unabashed junk -- often at prices 10 to 30 percent lower than the Washington area -- create a heady experience. Beware: the temptation of fine silver, mellow wood, soft country quilts, old crystal, lurks on every shelf and in every corner.
For a good buy, put on your walking shoes, hold onto your budget, follow this strategy, and sally forth for beckoning bygones.
Begin at Ed Stoudt's Black Angus Restaurant and Antiques Mall, where a bargain may be as easy to grab as a bratwurst and beer. Black Angus, as much an area trademark as the Amish slow-gaited horses and black buggies, is easy to spot. Look for the kitschy Disneyworld-pink fantasy of a Bavarian building, whose sign outside proclaims "Real Beer Is Wunderbar."
But inside, despite the wafting aroma of sauerkraut and lager from the adjoining cafeteria, more than 200 dealers in four interconnected buildings offer some of the area's better merchandise in neatly displayed stalls. "The mall is diversified," notes Louise Ford of Cambridge Antiques, timepiece specialists. "You can find clocks, watches, early American furniture, fine china and linens. There's even a jeweler's row."
At Cambridge Antiques, delight your love with a dainty Victorian lady's pocket watch ($300 and up) or gift your gent with a timepiece to make Dr. Watson proud. Along jeweler's row, find teaspoons to match your grandmother's sterling, plus estate pins and cameos. Down the aisle at William Webb's, rose- colored spheres of "Gone With the Wind" lamps transport you to an era of ballgowns and belles.
But Black Angus also serves up big pieces. Turn a corner, and the stark whiteness of circles of pedestal sinks look like plumbers' heaven. In the next booth, a stately grandfather's clock presides in a corner. For a Western icon, come home with a cigar store Indian ($1,500) from Parkville Antiques. Browse the oak hoosier cabinets, pine tables, oak bureaus and high-carved Victorian beds ($535) -- generally, all at good prices if you know what to look for. Then, try a local legend: Sit down on a wooden chair with Gemu tlichkeit stenciled on the back, for a knockwurst and beer.
Fortified, try Renninger's, almost next door, a one-story sprawl of gray cinder blocks packed with 400 booths. Like a less flashy stepsister, this mall's charms take a bit longer to notice, but her virtues abound. Pop through one of many rabbit-hole-like doors, push past the counters of pretzels, chili, lasagna and popcorn, to snake your way through these cluttered aisles filled with surprises of small dealers' preferences. With less finished furniture, and more collectible-junk items, poking through piles will get you the perfect present for your nostalgia buff: dinner plates with Richard Nixon smiling demonically, vintage World War II Life magazines ballyhooing "our boys in khaki" and Edison tulip-shaped gramophones. There are such '50s icons as Howdy Doody dolls and Trigger lunch boxes. Who could resist?
When you see the sun glinting off the metal World War II Quonset hut, pull into the parking lot for Adams Antiques and Collectibles, an array of 150 shops just down the strip. Besides such small dealer staples as '30s music scores and old tins, browse Adams for '50s furniture and a good selection of oak, particularly at McGonigle's Antiques, where reconditioned, simple turn-of-the-century bureaus start at $300.
For fine armoires, allow some time for Barr's. This red barn structure, with more than 30 dealers, stars Friedman and Timmons Antiques, purveyors of 18th- and 19th-century French country and formal armoires and bedroom suites. With good prices, this is the place for that big purchase to make your boudoir a bit more decadent.
Jan Timmons, who buys from Paris hotels, French estates, Belgian pickers and country homes, said, "Our average armoire sells for about $3,000, about $1,500 under retail. We sell many to decorators who resell them to clients for $4,500 to $5,000."
Besides keeping your cashmere sorted, these solid cherry, walnut or oak beauties with original finishes, curved legs, carvings, crests, inlaid work or bevelled mirrored doors voguishly hide stereos and television sets.
Before leaving Adamstown, make a quick trip to Weaver's Antique Mall in Sinking Springs, about a mile north of Adamstown. This yellow brick building, with large plate glass reminiscent of a car dealership's, houses 120 dealers, few salespeople and no bargaining. But patient hunting through rows of small booths may get you a good buy like a four-piece, real Victorian wicker settee, table and sidechairs for $1,200 or a camelback trunk for $69. Downstairs, at Scattered Treasures, one of the area's largest selections of vintage clothing, rows of pristine white Victorian tea dresses daintily float above racks of high-button shoes. Pick your fantasy here from a wide selection of Amish bonnets to boa wraps.
Adamstown, the East Coast antiques mecca, mesmerizes. Pat Fair, who furnished her Vandiver Inn in Havre de Grace, Maryland with assorted Adamstown finds, said, "We've been here many times and the prices are 25 percent less on good quality furniture that's ready to put in your house. I've bought three or four walnut carved Victorian beds, armoires, paintings and lamps. It's definitely worth the trip." GETTING THERE
Take I-95 north to Baltimore Beltway I-695 west, to I-83 north toward Harrisburg to Pennsylvania Turnpike east to exit 21. About 170 miles, or 3 1/2 hours. WHERE TO GO
ED STOUDT'S BLACK ANGUS RESTAURANT AND ANTIQUES MALL -- on U.S. 272, one mile north of Pennsylvania Turnpike exit 21. Sundays 8 to 5. 215/484-4385. Christkindlesmart, each Sunday Nov. 22 to Dec. 20: in addition to the antiques dealers, 50 craftspeople sell Christmas crafts.
RENNINGER'S -- U.S. 272, 1/2-mile north of Pennsylvania Turnpike exit 21. Sundays 7:30 to 5. 215/267-2177.
ADAMS ANTIQUES AND COLLECTIBLES -- U.S. 272, almost 1/2-mile north of Pennsylvania Turnpike exit 21. Sundays 8 to 6. 215/267-8444.
BARR'S AUCTION AND EXCHANGE -- U.S. 272, just north of Pennsylvania Turnpike exit 21, between the Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson's. Saturdays 10 to 5; Sundays 8 to 5. 215/267-2861.
WEAVER'S ANTIQUE MALL -- in Sinking Springs, on U.S. 222, four miles north of Pennsylvania Turnpike exit 21. (From Barr's, take U.S. 272 north about one mile past Black Angus to where 272 north joins 222. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 10 to 5, Sunday 9 to 5. 215/777-8535. WHERE TO STAY HISTORIC SMITHTON INN -- Built in 1763 for bed and board travelers, the Smithton Inn continues that tradition by offering guests modern comforts in an ambiance of Amish good spirit. Colorful Pennyslvania Dutch quilts, blanket chests and plants brighten the rooms, all of which feature beds hand-crafted by co-owner Allen Smith, as well as goose down pillows and flannel nightshirts. 900 West Main Street, Ephrata, PA 17522. 717/733-6094. Rates: doubles $45-$110, suites $125-$140. Includes full breakfast.
JOYCE STEVENSON of Bed and Breakfast of Southeast Pennsylvania can find you a cozy room in a charming bed and breakfast like Springwoods of Reinholds, Pennsylvania, a 19th-century farmhouse filled with antiques and collectibles, and surrounded by fir trees and mountain springs. Breakfast specialties include popovers with homemade raspberry jam. Rates: $55 double, shared bath. Call Stevenson at 215/845-3526, or write P.O. Box 278, RD 1, Barto, PA 19504.