My Disappointing Antiquing Road Trip through Western Kansas

One of my planned stops was at The Old Hardware Store—the oldest hardware store in Kansas—but it was closed . . . on a Tuesday morning! (photo courtesy of The Old Hardware Store)

I recently went on a two-week trip to south-central Colorado. The reason for the trip was two-fold; 1) to visit my youngest daughter; and 2) to visit as many antique shops as I could and try to gauge how the shops are faring and what the owners have in inventory. This was my first trip to this particular area of Colorado and I was venturing in to new antique territory in Kansas, as well. I was up for the adventure.

The rubber hit the highway early on a Tuesday morning. I figured I could get a few hours on the road before my first antique shop stop. I was taking two-lane county roads out of my home city of Kansas City, Kan., so that I would be traveling through small towns, thinking it should increase the probability of finding some antique shops.

My tried and true shops in Emporia, Kan., were all closed! I’m not sure what the deal is on that, as I got to Emporia around 11 a.m., and it was on a Tuesday. So on down the road I went. I really wanted to visit the The Old Hardware Store—the oldest hardware store in Kansas—in Halstead. The last few times I have been to Halstead, the hardware/antique shop has been closed and—of course—it would be no different on this trip. I was once again relegated to peering through the windows, admiring the few items I could see.

It was time to start heading west on Highway 150/50. I have previously traveled only a short distance down this stretch of road and it is absolutely beautiful, driving through the Flint Hills with sprawling ranches on either side of the road. One can’t help but think what went through the minds of pioneers as they crested some of these hills that seem to roll on forever.

Finally I enter a small town—the name of which escapes me now, as I passed through so many—but this one looked promising. Sitting almost side-by-side are the cutest old homes that had been converted to antique shops. I entered the smaller of the two buildings and began my browsing.

After you have been doing this for a few decades, it is easy to do a quick scan and have certain items just pop out at you. There wasn’t much popping going on in the first shop. I have a thing for chairs and small bookcases and the few I saw were pretty beat-up with big prices on them. There were also some nice crocks but no prices, and I could not find anyone to ask for prices. I did the polite, “excuse me, hello,” thing, and not receiving a response, went to the louder, “hey is there anyone here” loud voice.

If I had been able to get into the Hardware Store, this is what I would have seen. (photo courtesy of The Old Hardware Store)

So I be-bop on over to the second shop, still with great hope in my little shopping heart, and what did my eyes fall upon but sloppily painted furniture . . . antique furniture with white paint all over it, brush marks and drips plainly visible. I don’t mind tearing down a nice piece of antique furniture to refinish it but I am not going to pay $350 for a sweet bookcase that is semi-slathered in white latex paint!

I must have made some type of audible gasp as the young woman working the shop said, “It is called shabby chic.” I know the definition of shabby chic, and this is one of two things: 1) the bookcase was in poor condition and the seller has no clue how to refinish furniture; or 2) there is a huge misconception that slathering a piece of antique furniture in white paint makes it “shabby chic.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Shabby chic” is a form of interior design where furniture and furnishings are either chosen for their age and signs of wear and tear, or new items are distressed to achieve the appearance of an antique. At the same time, a soft, minimalistic and feminine feel is emphasized to differentiate it from regular vintage decor; hence the “chic” in the name. Items are often heavily painted through the years, with many layers showing through obviously time-worn areas. The style is imitated in faux painting using glaze or by painting and then rubbing and sanding away the top coat to show the wood or base coats. (Thank you, Wikipedia!)

The shabby was there but chic is not the word I used when I saw this wonderful bookcase and the price that went with it. I continued to browse, but I think I was shell-shocked at this point and despite seeing a few items I had some interest in; I could not get the vision of the beautiful Art Deco-style bookcase in white out of my mind.

I am sad to say that the majority of my shopping stops followed in the same vein. There was more than their share of white furniture, extremely high prices or no prices, and new items and reproductions. I did see vintage wares, retro items and a few antiques but nothing I could not live without. The stores I visited in Colorado did fare somewhat better, but I was really hoping to find items that I cannot find at home. I did see a substantial amount of new western-motif items, and I love vintage western, especially dinnerware and fabric with cowboys and Indians on it. Give me Red Wing Rancho or Wallace China Chuck Wagon any day.

With great hope in my little shopping heart, eyes fell upon a sloppily painted bookcase, doused in white paint with brush marks and drips plainly visible.

The really sad thing about my shopping experience in Western Kansas, after getting over the painted furniture, is that these little towns are dying due to people and businesses moving elsewhere. Here are these folks who have been able to keep the doors to their antique shops open, but due to the quality of their wares, the way they run their businesses and the prices, no one is buying. No money spent in small businesses equals no tax money for the town. The situation is so desperate that these towns will give you land on which to build a home so that you are shopping local, paying taxes and generating income for the towns. I drove through one ghost town that looked like when closing time came one day, everyone loaded up their cars and moved along.

By no means did I hit every single antique shop in every city and town. I did stop as often as possible—I passed a lot of stores with “Closed” signs visible. On my return trip, I drove on I-70 and got off the freeway several times to visit small town and shops after spotting their billboards on the side of the road. I returned home having purchased nothing in an antique shop during the entire trip . . . and in my world, that is virtually unheard of. It certainly shocked my hubby.

I already have plans to further explore Western Kansas, so please hide all the white-painted furniture, dust a little, price your inventory competitively and hire people who seem semi-interested in making a sale. I hope to make several purchases, but I’ll need some help from you.

Michelle Staley, who insists that collectors are the happiest people, is an antique collector and dealer. Her shop, My Granny’s Attic Antiques, Collectibles and Memorabilia, is in Lenexa, Kansas.

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