Everyone who knows me knows that I love antiques and collectibles. It’s in my blood. From the time I could understand what it meant, my Grandpa, Dad, and uncle were “Junk Pickers”. I didn’t know anyone else like them, and it was something I took pride in a very long time ago. I am not an expert by any means, but ask me how much your <Braves memorabilia, vintage Las Vegas ashtray, Iris and Herringbone glass set, Black Heritage postcard, Mickey Mouse freeze-e-pop set, Shirley Temple memorabilia> is worth, and I can give you a pretty good idea.
My Grandpa opened American Estates Antiques and Collectibles on KK Avenue in Bay View, WI 50 years ago. I have had the pleasure of experiencing 26 of them. The storefront is the room most people see, but there are many other places to explore. The basement looks like something straight out of a horror film. The attic is crumbling and there are many hallways and rooms to check out. The back room is piled floor to ceiling with 50 years of accumulated treasures. It is a building rich with history, and is very near and dear to my heart.
When my parents met, my Dad left his job at an insurance company to join my Grandpa on this adventure. Listening to Grandpa tell stories of the early days of his business is fascinating. Mansions in downtown Milwaukee were his playground. He would secure rights to enter some of the biggest and oldest homes around, purchasing brass hardware, terra cotta, glassware, and other pieces of the homes (He has such an abundance of brass that to this day, I sell the same brass doorknobs and backplates on Etsy and Ebay for up to $80 a set).
He also tells stories of all the interesting individuals who used to frequent his shop.. including Al McGuire! I remember when I was about 8 or so being quite curious about the eccentric people I would meet on a weekly basis. It doesn’t matter what decade we are in, there are no people on planet Earth quite as crazy as those involved in the antique world!
There was a man (whose name escapes me) that used to come into the shop monthly and would purchase the entire storefront inventory. I remember coming in on a Saturday and seeing empty shelves and display cases, and my Grandpa would stock it all full again with merchandise from the back room. There was also Greg Filardo, who appeared on an episode of “American Pickers” recently, who owned a mansion in downtown Milwaukee and had millions… but ate McDonalds for lunch every day. There was “Arno”, who smoked more cigarettes in a single day then some people did in a month. He had wild fro-like hair, and he was missing front teeth. He died of cancer a couple years ago.
The most insane story my Grandpa has ever told would be the time he received a call from a woman responding to his newspaper ad back in the 70’s. She had read that he would “clean out” her home, and he agreed, thinking she meant clean it out of merchandise and purchase from her. When he arrived at her home, she was hysterical, and when he asked what was going on, she explained that she had called him to clean up a suicide scene. Her son had shot himself in the head in his room upstairs. He looked at her wide-eyed and explained that he was an antique dealer, he cleaned homes out when someone passed or had accumulated too much stuff. She begged him to help her. My Grandpa says that he called a few of his friends, they went out and got completely wasted, and then proceeded to go back to the woman’s house, and clean up her son’s room and body, brains and all. He said they were putting chunks of brain into plastic bags and wiping blood off the walls. He said he almost got sick. This story bothered me for a long time, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of all that my Grandpa has seen and done!
Growing up at the store with my sisters and cousins is a life highlight for me. We spent every weekend there, exploring, creating, and breaking things. Looking back at pictures now is surreal to me, because it feels so incredibly long ago. I didn’t cherish who we were and what my family did for a living as much as I do now. As a young girl, I was far more interested in the antique dollhouse, dress-up clothes, and Uncle Jonesy’s famous snack tray: The Smorgasbord.
To this day, my Dad and Grandpa make house calls when someone asks that they stop by to check out their trash or treasures. As a child, a car ride with my Dad could mean that at any moment he could slam on the brakes and make a u-turn to check out a pile of junk abandoned in front of someones house or on the curb. They also still scope out estate sales in the area and ensure that they are first in line. I remember them leaving home at 3 in the morning to get the first ticket to the house, and then sleep in their trucks until the sale opened at 7. The things they could find in people’s homes would blow your mind. Things purchased for a quarter would sell for hundreds of dollars. One year my Dad found a Green Hornet pen in the original package that sold on Ebay for almost a thousand dollars. There was one estate sale in particular that had me and my sisters and cousins laughing for weeks and weeks because the whole house smelled like cat pee… and that would make sense considering the lady had 15 cats!
A more recent story that never fails to amaze me is the story of “the stolen carnival glass”. My Grandpa received a call from a man (lets call him Bob), who is interested in selling his entire inventory of carnival glass. Carnival glass is a molded glass with an iridescent surface shimmer. Intrigued, Grandpa headed over to the man’s home and was shocked by the amount of glass he had in his basement. Knowing what would ultimately be profited from the sales of all that glass, Grandpa offered him thousands of dollars for the whole lot, and Bob accepted. My entire family helped to transport the glass from Bob’s basement to the store, and it took almost a whole week. We got started on listing it all on Ebay right away, as there were many rare and valuable pieces. We sold quite a bit in the coming weeks, and hadn’t even scratched the surface. I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to legal matters, but through a series of events, it turned out that the man who actually owned all the glass was in PRISON and knew full well its value. Bob had no right to sell it, and therefore police showed up to the store and confiscated every last piece. I have never seen my Grandpa more frustrated or angry than he was by the whole ordeal. It still hasn’t been completely sorted out. What a mess that was!
I could go on and on about all of our adventures at American Estates but I do have a point. Recently, Grandpa’s store was sold, and the woman who now owns it plans to turn it into an apartment complex. My heart aches when I think of how much I will miss the store, and how it will never belong to us again. I can’t imagine it not being in our family. It is inevitable that there are changes in life, but this one really, REALLY sucks. I feel like when the doors close for the last time, a chapter in my life closes, and I no longer get to “claim” the antique world as my own. It is part of my heritage, and it is very hard for me to see my second home turn from something rich with history and stories, to a modern living space. I am afraid that the antique world will no longer be a part of me anymore, and it is a shame that I didn’t realize sooner how much I love it and am passionate about it. It is a dream of mine to open an antique store of my own. I am not at a point in my life where this is a possibility, but if ever the time comes, I have an entire life’s worth of experience and family to guide me! For now, I will be content with my own small inventory of treasures, and my listings on Ebay and Etsy.
Thank you Grandpa, for teaching me the value of hard work, dedication, and passion! Thank you for the best hangout a kid could ask for! Thank you for every bit of knowledge you have given me. Thank you for teaching me honesty. Every piece in your shop has a story to tell, and one man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure!