Serendipity of the search

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Pat Guariglia, owner of Saugerties Antiques Gallery, shakes my hand, and asks me to step into his office.

Flanking my shoulder, hanging out on the couch with me, is a tortoise – an eerily realistic, possibly stuffed tortoise. Later on, moving to grab my notebook, I bump the tortoise with my elbow and I feel like apologizing. Hanging calm and friendly around the office are several stuffed animals – an owl, a hawk — and manitous gifted to Guariglia by the Lakota tribe. The room is a deep maroon, and filled with wicked anachronisms. Old seafaring instruments. A painting of a sinister-looking beggar type, crouched over a scribe, glaring deviously out of the canvas. Decades-old pictures of people he doesn’t know. Dozens, hundreds maybe, of books on the low shelves. Price guides, books of antiquity, texts on antiquing.

Guariglia tells me to pick up a dagger that’s dangling from a kind of devious umbrella rack next to my sofa, if only because it’s hanging next to a nasty-looking sword. “See that loop?” he says of the metal circle on the hilt of the dagger. “Soldiers would put a stick in the ground and put the dagger through the loop and they would stick enemies’ horses.”

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Frankly… I feel like I’m in Clue. Or a Sherlock Holmes story.

Guariglia entered the business when he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam – his honorable discharge hangs on the wall of his office. He moved here from the city when his post-traumatic stress disorder became too much for him to handle and he needed a quieter place. He didn’t arrive with antiquing in mind – he didn’t arrive with anything in mind, really. “When I was a marine sergeant, I would’ve told you that if God had come down, given me one thousand choices for jobs and antiquing was one of them, I’d pick anything but antiquing.” But, he says, his vocation was unavoidable “I had an affinity. God threw me a look, and I’ve been doing this for 32 years.”

Guariglia’s a gambler, and he’s able to parlay that skill (or is it luck?) into the business. To him, the most attractive aspects of antiquing are “gambling, and the search for knowledge, and winning – not against anyone, but knowing ‘I bid on this item, and I won.’” He explains the kind of gambles he makes on a regular basis. He tells the story of a Tucker ash tray that he picked up at auction relatively cheap. Tucker is a defunct truck company, with authentic pieces fetching obscene prices from collectors, and Guariglia was able to flip the ash tray for a humongous gain.

Pat was lucky to enter the business when he did. “In my twenties, I could get in [the business of antiquing] on a shoestring.” Now it’s much more difficult, with the biggest difference being the influence of eBay, which pushes prices down. Antiquing, for buyers, has always been about traveling to new towns, looking for specific or serendipitous items. When they found something they liked, they paid what the proprietor wanted. But because the Internet allows those with very specific tastes to find what’s out there from the comfort of their own home, suddenly the desire to jump in the car and go exploring isn’t as high. If you know what you want, you’re more likely to find it on the Web than in a random antique store.  As such, the overhead required for a brick-and-mortar shop is more than many hopefuls can afford, causing would-be store owners to open employee-less online stores.

Price points have changed. Trends are cycling with great frequency. Items that were previously heirlooms have become tschockis, and tshochkis have become heirlooms at the whims of the collector elite, as interpreted by Antiques Roadshow. It’s hard for small businesses to keep up with the constant flux of the culture; prices on certain pieces hang high and tight for a few months. As Harold of Central Hotel Antiques says, “The prices hang around longer than clothes stay in. The business is regulated by decorators and antiquers.”

He says that the antique industry is similar to the fashion industry in that items fall in and out of favor as time goes by. The industry can experience fluctuations based on set pieces in movies or pieces featured in popular décor magazines.

Going digital

Both proprietors are moving items on eBay, and both recognize the enormous effect that the Internet giant has had on the industry. Harold is blunt about it – “I could not remain solvent without eBay,” he says. Pat’s response to the turning touch of eBay is slightly gung ho – and strikingly Marine. “Adapt or die.”

The two shops are two very different businesses. Pat’s store is clean – powerfully clean, to the point of antiseptic. I don’t tell him, but the smell reminds me of my old pediatrician’s office. And, in the name of all that’s good, be careful in Pat’s store if you’re clumsy. Everything is beautiful, and everything is fragile. Old statuettes abound, and an interminable quiet creates a vortex of study. It’s a house of glass and porcelain and wood, gorgeous and delicate in every way. I’m reminded of why he came up here in the first place, to find a calmer, more orderly place than New York City. He certainly has created a such a place on Partition Street.

Harold’s, not so much. His antiques aren’t the timeless sculptures and portraits of Pat’s. His antiques are bureaus and pedestals, old hearty pieces that won’t explode if you sneeze near them. An old beer sign dangles from the wall near the entrance. On a coffee table sits a pile of Superman, Spider-Man, and Star Trek-themed 48s. And this place is deep – a cavern of old furniture and knickknacks. The difference is obvious. Pat’s place is the Met, Harold’s is the Smithsonian – maybe more the folk museum.

For these two men, antiquing isn’t just a business. It’s a way of life and a dedication. In a way, an addiction and a craving – as Guariglia says, “A thirst for knowledge.”

They couldn’t imagine doing anything else; Harold because “I knew I could never work for somebody,” and Pat because he’s given his life to antiquing, and antiquing has given back to him.

For him, the most appealing aspect of being in antiques is, “denying things that are nasty, handling things that are beautiful.” In his chosen profession, Guariglia gets to play the role of the gatekeeper of time, the judge of what should be remembered and what should be forgotten.

So although eBay has decreased prices, and antiquers can be a fickle lot, there will always be a place for the serendipity of the small-town antique shop, where you never know what you’ll find.

 

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