When it rains in Bellingham, antique shops beckon

The best mirror is an old friend.
– George Herbert, Welsh-born English poet, orator, and Anglican priest

Kathy and me, Village Book Café, Bellingham, Wash., April 2013.

Kathy and me, Village Book Café, Bellingham, Wash., April 2013.

The last time I saw one of my best friends from high school, Kathy, was five years ago, when my kids were seven and five years old and we spent their spring break visiting with Kathy’s family in Mount Vernon, Washington. My kids are on their spring break now, but while they are back home with David, I am on a much-needed girlfriend trip to uplift my ragged spirits. It’s been five years, but really good friends pick up the conversation as if no time or distance has separated them at all. Such is the case with Kathy and me.

The heart of Old Fairhaven in Bellingham.

The heart of Old Fairhaven in Bellingham.

We have always shared a love for books and reading, writing poetry and fiction, art, the lost art of letter writing by hand, and thoughtful conversation. That has certainly not changed. But through the years, we – Kathy earlier than I – have developed a love for vintage and antique objects. She shared with me a beautiful Art Nouveau cast-iron inkwell, which was an earthy green color, with women with flowing long hair on either side of the inkwell, and the trademark sensuous curves and lines. There were other treasures, too, including pieces of a chatelaine for housekeepers, which date back to the 1700s – a miniature notebook with an Art Nouveau stamped silver cover on a chain and a silver needle holder that both attach to a brooch or belt – and vintage books.

Fairhaven Antique Mall in Old Fairhaven, Bellingham, Washington.

Fairhaven Antique Mall in Old Fairhaven, Bellingham, Washington.

We drove to Bellingham to have a nice meal with her youngest, Patrick, who is a freshman at Western Washington University and who was in eighth grade when I last saw him. We had planned a nice long scenic walk along the waterfront, but during our meal at the Village Books café the light drizzle turned to rain and then a downpour. That determined the remains of the day – seeking shelter in some of the historic buildings whose shops showcase local artists. And then Kathy took me to the Fairhaven Antique Mall (1201 11th Street, Bellingham, WA 98225, 360.922.7165), which is run by owner and buyer Lisa Distler and features more than 20 dealers. A lot of antique malls can be overwhelming, but Fairhaven Antique Mall was fairly well curated. (You can check out its Facebook page here.)

Art Nouveau hand-tooled handbag.

Art Nouveau hand-tooled handbag.

Distler has been in the antique business for more than 15 years and knows her stuff, having researched brands the old-fashioned way through books. I love hanging out in an antique store when the people who work there talk knowledgeably and lovingly about the treasures you fall in love with – because they love them, too. And in true antique spirit, Distler said her family hasn’t had a TV in the house since the 1980s, doesn’t have a computer, and writes out receipts on one of those thick and heavy steel boxes with a window and a slot to pull the receipt out of. For one fantastical moment, I considered this four-foot-plus trophy with a golden woman standing atop an open sphere with a base of long, blade-like mirrors and also a pink alarm clock with double-bells on top made in West Germany.

The etched cover of an antiqued compact purse.

The etched cover of an antique compact purse.

If you recall the hand-tooled purse from Feathers in Austin, you will understand my immediate attraction to a similar purse, which Distler explained was from the Edwardian era (1901-1910), though the Feathers purse was supposedly from the 1930s or 1940s. You can definitely see the Art Nouveau decorations on the front. It is missing its matching mirror, which the Feathers purse has, but this beauty was in excellent condition, from lining to latch to whipstitch. There were other beautiful purses, as well, a 1940s beaded purse with a hard frame and floral needlepoint, a flapper-era beaded purse shaped like a drawstring bag, although the opening was a metal cap that when lifted allowed the steel accordion frame to fan out and allow you to access the contents, and a sweet, small, beaded ivory purse with a kiss-lock metal frame that sported a ring, which women wore while whirling around on the dance floor. Another beauty was an antique compact purse, with slots for nickels and dimes, powder, and calling cards, and a mirror. I began imagining removing the chain and replacing it with another chain.

The inside of the antique compact purse.

The inside of the antique compact purse.

Whiting and Davis gold mesh purse.

Whiting and Davis gold mesh purse.

It was raining even harder when we left. We returned to Mount Vernon by way of the Red Door Antique Mall (111 Freeway Drive, 360.419.0811), where Kathy got her inkwell. There were a lot of interesting and beautiful items in this mall, including an old-fashioned percolator that I imagined could have a second life as the base of a lamp, a 1950s mint-condition Samsonite luggage, a pleather (though now it would be described as vegan) very shiny bright burnt yellow rain coat with wide lapels from the 1970s for only $19. I tried this coat on a few times but eventually put it back, unsure if I could pull off cool rather than kitsch. Buyer beware, as in one dealer’s display cabinet one silver metal trinket box had a Ross-like store tag on the bottom that listed it as $6.99, but this was priced at $42. Hmmm. But you can always trust well-known markings, such as this gold Whiting and Davis mesh purse and a brand that I now know – Crown Lewis purses, which were made in the 1930s and 1940s.

Crown Lewis fabric handbag.

Crown Lewis fabric handbag.

Vintage glass perfume bottle.

Vintage glass perfume bottle.

The antique malls in the area have incredibly reasonable prices for both vintage and antique. Kathy knows, having gone through antique shops in Los Angeles, and I know having compared prices from antique and vintage goods from the Bay Area with those in the Central Valley. While you’ll find a lot of similar and therefore uninspiring items no matter where you are in the country, it’s especially sweet to stumble upon really unusual pieces such as the antique compact purse. At the end of the evening, Kathy and I looked at one another, smiling and content: Today was a really fun day poking around in antique shops with not only a dear friend, but a partner in crime. The trip thus far is definitely uplifting my spirits. And yes, I’m still thinking about that super bad rain slicker – so bad that it’s rad.

1970s, wide-lapelled, gold-buttoned, shiny rain slicker: So bad it's cool. Or not?

1970s, wide-lapelled, gold-buttoned, shiny rain slicker: So bad it’s cool. Or not? Cast your vote!

  • How great that you had down time with a dear friend. And how cool to go antiquing with her! However do you keep from buying all the beautiful things you see?

    • Rule number 1: Always go antiquing with a good friend who is objective and therefore unemotional about the item, honest, and has been asked beforehand to be the voice of reason!

  • Charlie Chaplin Jarosław

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