This archived article was prepared and written in 2002. While several of the shops have closed and others have opened, the essential experience described by the author remains relevant.
It’s no surprise that many shoppers in the market for antiques gravitate to Cape May, a city which is itself a Victorian masterpiece. A walk through some of the city’s antiques shops brings shoppers in close touch with the spirits of other ages, including but by no means limited to Victorian times.
Some 18 antiques shops — most of them within walking distance of one another–are scattered throughout Cape May. At almost any one of them, visitors can pick up a concise visual guide — an easy-to read map, complete with the location and phone number of each antiques shop.
The gentleman who prints this handy map is Bob Anderson, owner of Finishing Touches on Washington Avenue. Anderson is one of those antiques dealers who specializes in one type of merchandise. His expertise is decorating services — antique lighting, wall coverings, window shades — and his shop is filled with antique lamps–many of them a century old — including etched-glass chandeliers, lamps made of satin-cased amber glass, and patterned glass oil lamps. He sees the atmosphere of Cape May as a definite benefit to antiques sales.
“I think it’s very nice that [we] are in an area where people come because it’s an old town. You have that audience drawn here,” he says.
Anderson knows a lot about how lighting worked in the Victorian age, and his merchandise and decorating services come with stories of the past. He knows, for example, how to convert an old gas light into a modern electrical appliance, and what kinds of patterns were popular on Victorian walls.
Such tales add life to material things. Suddenly, Victorians are all around, carrying gas lamps down dark hallways. Much of the charm lies in the history.
Some of the charm, of course, also has to do with quality and attention to detail. “Old wood is different than new wood,” Anderson notes. Likewise, old glass has a clarity not found in newer versions. And if trends matter, Anderson sees a heartening one: “Quality is selling like crazy. People are buying the real good stuff.”
Just a few steps down the street from Anderson, Dottie Mitro has more stories to tell at A Rose is a Rose Antiques. Mitro also specializes in Cape May’s favorite old folk, those flashy Victorians, and she knows what she’s talking about. Point to any item in her store, and she’ll relate a bit of cultural history to back it up.
A simple napkin ring, for example, reminds her that such a small item was an individual possession for Victorian diners. Each person had his or her own napkin ring. That’s why, Mitro notes, you won’t find matching sets of them.
Glassware is a particularly bright addition to her shop. “During Victorian times, they had a piece of glass for everything,” she explains, pointing to a lovely glass celery-stick holder. “When they set a table, it was completely full. More was better.”
And more is what antique-seekers find in her shop.
The goods here are high-quality, from intricate French lace to an Eastlake mahogany butler’s desk to the lovely, odd hair wreaths and jewelry that were a distinct Victorian art form.
Pictures cannot capture the beauty of the Victorian hair pieces. These piece are exquisite and must be seen in person to fully appreciate the craftsman ship of each one. A Rose is A Rose Antiques carries one of the largest collection of Victorian hair jewelry in the area.
A Rose is a Rose also features, within its cozy quarters, a male-themed section. This corner of the shop, the work of Dottie’s husband, George, is neatly outfitted with antique bamboo fishing poles, old fishing lures, and other decidedly “male” items. Certain repeat customers, George notes, return just to see what kinds of fishing poles he has in stock.
In a charming building that resembles a dollhouse itself, Jeannie Herman, owner of Out of the Past, follows an eclectic theme, with a decidedly strong emphasis on domestic and literary wares. Here you’ll find kitchen appliances from the early to mid-1900s, vintage clothing reminiscent of “I Love Lucy,” and old photos in elaborate frames. Herman’s eye for interesting detail is sharp, and curious bibliophiles will delight in such bits of nostalgia as a Royal Cookbook from 1940 or an 1873 English and German Bible.
“People just tend to buy things that evoke memories,” she says. And here, memories abound.
On nearby Jefferson Street, owners Roger and Heidi Crawford and manager Judy Penza have filled the spacious Cape Island Antiques with the accoutrements of 19th and 20th century American life. Here the emphasis is on Victorian and Rococo Revival furniture, along with antique and collectible accessories. A stroll through their shop awakens an imaginative curiosity.
Whose treasure was that carved ivory needle case? … at what sort of gathering was coffee poured from this silver pot? … whose house was lit by that 120 year-old porcelain and glass lamp?
Antique dolls, hand-painted dessert plates, celluloid dresser sets and a wealth of other items are arranged on intricately carved furniture throughout the shop, all evoking nostalgic questions and memories.
“You have so many people trying to buy back their childhood,” says Penza, noting that even items from the not-so-distant past, like Barbie dolls from the 50s, have acquired a monetary as well as nostalgic value. And the Cape May location, she notes, serves double duty. “People come down here looking not only for the shore, but for everything else Cape May has to offer. It’s like getting a glimpse of a more relaxed and Victorian way of life.”
Cape May’s Victorian theme does not, of course, limit its antiques sellers to that time period. Many purveyors of the past dwell in other eras.
At the Tabby House in West Cape May, Cindy and Ken Sweitzer take us through 18th and 19th century America, with a store filled with American primitives and high country furnishings of that era. Their spacious shop is reminiscent of households of old, furnished with period mantles, benches, grandfather clocks, and accessories like brass chambersticks, pepper jars, bakery cupboards, and spinning wheels. The antiques here are unfinished and authentic, and include lovely examples of furniture decorated with grain painting, a popular style of the early to mid-1800s.
And for some shop owners, “eclectic” is the watchword.
A little to the west, on Broadway, Tracey Oliver and Pam Cohen run Hobbie Horse Antiques, another warm shop overflowing with diverse items, both antique and collectible. Amid arrangements of Depression glass, Limoges, and vintage jewelry, shoppers will find curious surprises like a pair of vintage satin nightgown slippers. The shop also boasts a nice collection of well-kept graniteware from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A couple of porcelain top tables remain but Tracey warns they are in demand these days. The shop is currently building a new used book section with lots of old hard and soft bound titles.
So how big can a place called the Antique Doorknob be? One would think small, right? But one would be mistaken. Yes, there’s a massive showcase of polished brass hardware — doorknobs and keys and more — some dating back more than a century. But the most obvious items at the Doorknob are the mantels, scores of them along the walls, some mirrored, some ornate, almost all made of carved hardwood.
If you want one, proprietor Bill Causey will be happy to deliver it and have it installed for you. The cost? Mantels themselves range between $350 and $15,000. Installation prices vary.
And there’s more “big stuff” in the shop on the corner of Park Boulevard and Myrtle Street in West Cape May. How about stained glass windows? There’s one hanging by the front door that might need a room built around it to accommodate its size and curvature. And if the light from that window isn’t enough, pick from a vast array of glass and brass antique lighting fixtures.
Each piece in the shop is an original. No elegant copies here, and no stories left untold. In fact, before you let the door close on your view of this shop, ask Bill about the piano — the Spencer piano with the connection to Lady Diana. That in itself is worth a visit..
Other Cape May shops specialize in distinctive goods — from antique millinery (Ellen Christine) to marine-themed treasures (Bogwater Jim). Such shops are all brimming, not just with memories made visible, but with evidence that as we push forward into the unforeseeable future, the past is always with us.