Other People’s Treasure

April 2016
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel

The world of antique and vintage shops along the Grand Strand


There is a common theory, one learns, as to why the Grand Strand has such a proliferation of antique stores, vintage stores, treasure barns, consignment shops, flea markets, pawn shops and other places whose names end in “& Such” or “& Things” all selling knickknacks, curios, tchotchkes, furniture, memorabilia—Stuff.

Let’s call it The Great Migration Theory.  

Heather Villanueva, who runs Vintiques Antique and Variety Mall in Myrtle Beach, explains it this way: “This area is good for business. There’s a large retirement community wanting to downsize from their collections, maybe from up north, and the style is shabby down here, beach colors instead of solid wood, so they see if they can sell it.”

And then there is the theory as to why reselling—and the world of antiques (100 years old), mid-century vintage (50–99 years old) and variety (any other recent oddity or memento)—has become so popular nationwide. We might call this The Television Imitation Theory.

Fred Falconbury of Southern Pickers Antiques in Conway says, “Whatever they play on Wednesday afternoon on television, people are looking for on Thursday morning.” He lists the Stuff-themed shows: American Pickers, Storage Wars, Pawn Stars, American Restoration, Operation Repo, Hoarders, Antiques Roadshow.

And he has a theory about why those television shows are so trendy in the first place: “I think a lot of it has to do with the economy tanking a few years ago. Instead of spending money at big furniture stores, people learned to go to consignment and resale. They learned to stretch that dollar.”

And of course there is the Get Rich Quick Theory, in which people are always looking for that one misappraisal which ends up being worth big bucks.

But the great thing about these kinds of stores is that they don’t deal in theories. They very much deal in things. Lots of things. All dangling with a handwritten price tag and arranged in eclectic fashion. These are the kinds of stores where you’re likely to find a vintage croquet set next to a bin of walking canes next to a rollaway desk next to a set of old champagne glasses. But unlike thrift stores, the items here have been curated and appraised.

Still, the first thing any sensible person might ask is: Where does all this Stuff come from?

“We go from New York to Florida to get it,” Heather Villanueva says as she shows off a barber pole recovered from an old church in New York. “But a lot of it walks in the front door.”

At Vintiques, an antique mall like Inlet Queens in Murrells Inlet, vendors can also rent spaces from Villanueva, decorate them with their wares and pay a monthly lease, plus a percentage (usually 10 percent) of the sale. There’s a do-it-yourself element to this way that, for some people, is more satisfying than pawning or consigning it, more profitable than donating it to a thrift store, more ongoing than a yard sale, more personable than eBay.

These are the kinds of places a shopper could spend a whole day getting lost. Or just stand in one spot and look—really look, like some sort of detective searching for a clue.
“You can’t keep it too clean,” says Gene Hardwick, who co-owns Southern Pickers Antiques with Falconbury. “People are here searching for treasure on a treasure hunt.”

If ever there is a store for a treasure hunt, this is it. Southern Pickers Antiques has been in business for five years, strategically placed on Highway 501, but the building itself is 51 years old and has been primarily used as an antiques store since the beginning. It is the kind of place so cram-full of Stuff that you may feel overwhelmed, should you not be a collector on a mission.

Indeed, the world of vintage and antique shopping, like the world itself, can easily be divided between two types of people—the Searchers and the Browsers. That is, between those who go targeting something specific and those who delight upon the thing they find. Certainly there is something admirable in being a Browser—an almost Zen-like quality of acceptance, not to mention the luxury of being able to peruse alone (“Looking for anything in particular?” “Nope. Just browsing.”).

Of Browsing, Heather Villanueva says, “Ours is a different style mall to step into. Not like Coastal Grand with your shoe store, your clothing store. You get good ideas here. For a better price.”

Yes, the Browsers are usually the ones with the imaginations—the Pinterest types, the ones who are into the ever-popular “repurposing.” As Villanueva points out, they are the ones who might take an old spool cabinet and convert it into a piece for wine bottle storage.

But Browsers and Searchers often have one thing in common—they are driven by the past.

“All of this,” says Falconbury, looking around his store, “is good at conjuring up memories of what people grew up with. Everybody gravitates to what they like and remember.”

Recently, I stepped into a number of these Grand Strand stores as a Searcher. What I’ve wanted for years—nay, what I’ve needed for years—is a good writing desk. I’ve been working for too long on a bulky table my mother gave me, and though it’s not a bad piece of furniture (were it a small dining table in a bachelor’s apartment), it is definitely not a desk.

Sure, Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner wrote on a small table given to him by his mother, but I was interested in something more traditional. Elegant but simple, aesthetic but functional, locally sourced—the same qualities I wanted in my writing, I now wanted in the thing upon which I wrote.

When I stepped into Southern Pickers Antiques, Gene Hardwick had just stockpiled even more Stuff from an old house built in 1902 on the Waccamaw River in Conway. The house had, amazingly, been shuttered for more than 45 years—the last page turned on the calendar they found was May 1960.

And from this house he had pulled a desk. Falconbury, with his good eye and vast knowledge from a career at Bassett Furniture, took a quick look and noted that the desk was likely from the 1950s, in a French style, with Cabriole legs. I’m not sure I liked it at first. It certainly wasn’t the kind of $1,200, rolltop, late 19th-century desk that I’d seen both at Vintiques and at Southern Pickers, but which of course was out of my price range, haggle or no haggle.

So I kept browsing. I found a book stand and an old brass scale—two things I had always wanted, which I happened to find simply by rummaging around upstairs. But I began to think about the desk more. It was the kind of desk I could repurpose, which is to say, make part of my own story. I began to like the idea of this desk—unmoved and unwritten upon in a dark house for more than 60 years—suddenly finding new life.

And so I give you my own theory. Let’s call it The State the Obvious Theory.

People are so enamored with antique and vintage stores because in them they can revive something discarded, used, forgotten, lost. In a life always in flux, the item remains and can be restored.

Falconbury agrees. “Things go out of fashion,” he says. “But maybe one day they will come back.”