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Rare Old Time

At English Market, the shelves are stocked. Andrew Nelson

During exam season, I don’t see much of the world except my computer screen.  But one Saturday afternoon I shut my laptop, break out of my room, and go shopping.  And not just any shopping—antique shopping.

The blustery New Haven wind blows me down Chapel Street along the edge of the Green, past Dunkin Donuts, past the other Starbucks, past Citibank, and past Evolution Tattoo Studio to the doorstep of one of the best locations for antiquing that New Haven has to offer: English Market. A colorful sidewalk display of dresses just outside the door presages the still more colorful wares that greet the antique shop’s customers inside. When I cross its threshold, I admire dining tables set with beautiful antique china plates and wonder how many Thanksgiving dinners they’ve served. I browse tie clips and imagine them at the senior proms of yesteryear. Suddenly, from within my purse, my phone beeps, and standing in that mysterious, musty shop motivates me to do the unthinkable: for the first time all semester, I turn off my phone—and from within the normally businesslike, email-answering Abigail Droge, my longtime doppelganger emerges. ‘Auntie Abby,’ as my close friends call her, is the part of me who’s always secretly loved arts-and-crafts. Now, among shelves of fabrics, quilts, ribbons, handkerchiefs, and tablecloths—all of which would be perfect for the next project up her sleeve—Auntie Abby feels as if she has died and gone to heaven.

Store owner Carol Orr is sorting through her most recent purchases and gearing up for the Christmas season.  Arranging bright red vintage ornaments peeping out from tissue paper, she tells Auntie Abby the story of the building that houses English Market, which Orr purchased with her husband in 2004. Unable to find a tenant, Orr decided to use the space to throw a tag sale with a friend in order to clear out her basement. Six years later, the tag sale’s still on.

English Market has since flourished and now brims with antiques of every shape and size.  Orr, who also maintains a second career as a landscape architect, explains that running an antique store allows her the perfect opportunity to indulge a life-long passion for shopping without having to keep what she buys.  “I love stuff,” Orr says, recalling fond childhood memories of going junk shopping with her mother.  Orr buys much of the store’s merchandise on her weekly visits to estate sales and also receives antiques that people bring in to consign.  As we talk, a woman unloads consignment items from her car.  “We like repurposing things,” Orr says, smiling.  The Auntie Abby in me watches, impressed, as formerly unidentifiable, sprawling metal objects are immediately designated as perfect candidates for towel racks in a new display.

The brilliantly designed displays in the shop showcase Orr’s enthusiasm for décor-recycling. Padding from one section of the store to the next, Auntie Abby is thrilled to encounter numerous examples of such turnarounds. A set of orange sports lockers have been converted into cabinets for glassware and crockery, a bed frame stands on end with skeins of beautifully colored yarn peeping out from each mattress spring, a couch flaunts cushions made from old newspapers stapled together, an old-fashioned wooden television set has been hollowed out to become a display case, and a set of library card catalog drawers now holds cutlery and other kitchen-wares.

Auntie Abby, for her part, imagines uses for vintage aprons, antique typewriters, and a beautiful old-fashioned Singer sewing machine.  Running her fingers through silk scarves and admiring a pair of saddle shoes, she tries to picture the last sock hop they attended and wonders whether they’d fit her feet.  By the light of old lamps, Auntie Abby peers at maps, concert posters, and artwork, including a painting of an old-fashioned dance with gowned ladies and tuxedoed men, complete with little holes for electric Christmas lights to poke through above the dancers’ heads.

In the clothing section of the store, she’s at home among antique wedding dresses, feathered hats galore, and sports jackets from the times of plaid and tweed. Mr. Plaid certainly never carried an iPhone in his pocket—in fact, he probably called up his girlfriend using a rotary instead of a speed dial.  Maybe he sat at that antique desk in the corner to write a research paper by hand.  Maybe he wore one of English Market’s skinny ties and slicked back his hair in front of one of the many mirrors now reflecting shoppers’ faces. Auntie Abby’s heart flutters in her chest at the thought. That dapper guy, once dressed to impress, has generously offered his jacket to allow its next owner to live out new stories.

Though filled with stuff, the store seems much larger inside than it appears from the street. It’s crammed with interesting gadgets and beautifully preserved antiques, all of which suggest new potential as well as long and varied histories.  Auntie Abby could spend weeks poring over these treasures, but it’s getting late.

So I turn on my cell phone to check the time, wave good-bye to Carol Orr, take one last look at this wonderland of antiques, and leave Auntie Abby behind.  As I exit the shop, I glance at the front window, which reads “English Market: Timeless Treasures for Today’s Lifestyle.” In this quickly moving world, for Auntie Abby, a little timelessness is always welcome.

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