Another man’s treasure aisles
As you wander the aisles of an antique market, you may find yourself inexplicably lost. However, in the antique malls of St. Louis, “lost” takes on a whole new definition. Each antique display visually narrates someone else’s story. So while you wander through these spaces, you might be lost in time or you might become lost in the histories of strangers.
The phrase “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” must have been coined with antique malls in mind. The narrow hallways of St. Louis’s Treasure Aisles Antique Mall are intimidating, mounted high with yellowed wooden furniture and old gum ball machines. Emanating an eclectic vibe, some tables are littered with age-old comics and vintage radios while others house undressed Barbies and assortments of Looney Tunes shot glasses. Some walls are mounted high with yellowing books while others hold an assortment of unidentifiable objects. Yet, no matter how obscure the item, at some point you know that there had to be someone looking for these specific pieces.
The Treasure Aisles Antique Mall has been aging on a corner of Big Bend Blvd. for 16 years now. It sits across from another antique mall, yet the owner doesn’t seem to describe its presence with any tone of rivalry. People come to rent spaces in the mall, what they call “booths” or “showcases,” and the mall receives 10 percent of the profits, creating a generally laid-back and welcoming business.
“Showcases” are indeed an appropriate word to describe the rented spaces that are filled with proud trinkets. The most appealing spaces are those that have been ordered with care, depicting a perfect living room surrounded by walls hung with paintings and shelves filled with tiny tchotchkes. Yet there are some spaces whose lack of care is almost intriguing, inspiring an excitement to dig through a large pile of cushions and see what you might uncover. And therein lies the appeal of flea markets: digging through the dust to find the perfect piece that you know no one else will have.
The “showcase” setup has the tendency to make you feel like you are walking through different vignettes of time, an ordered chaos of sorts. The booths are set up like tiny rooms—one looked like an antique living room with fabric covered chairs, a patterned area rug and an old red leather purse that may or may not have been used by Mary Poppins. Another display was designed with a Mediterranean style in mind, with a bright turquoise-painted desk and wooden accents supporting decorative, color-coded books. The strangest scene was patriotic-themed, with a table draped in an American flag and stacked with books on American presidents. It also held a jewelry box topped with a granite American eagle and candles spangled with stars and stripes.
To keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed, follow the path that the owners have set, winding up and down the aisles, pausing before the showcased vignettes that catch your eye. If you stray from this order, you might find yourself a little dazed and confused, as if you took a wrong turn at your grandmother’s house and have found yourself in that room that feels as if she has hoarded everything from diplomas to used tissues since the day she was born.
I initially began my search looking for flea markets in the area. However, all of my research yielded the same results. St. Louis’s treasures are hidden in the slightly sketchy buildings of antique malls, scattered across the city with a few conveniently located near Wash. U. USA Today even rated St. Louis as one of the 10 greatest places for antique shopping. Treasure Aisles is located about five minutes from campus down Big Bend and boasts friendly owners and friendlier prices. Clark Graves Antiques holds the proud title of “oldest antiques gallery in Saint Louis.” Specializing in 18th- and 19th-century English furniture and accessories, it’s not too far away in downtown Clayton. For a broader antique genre, Tin Roof Antiques houses anything from pre-50s oil paintings to art deco furniture and is nearby in Brentwood on McCausland Avenue.
The key to antiquing is a lack of expectations. Antique malls are not grocery stores where you can pick items off ordered and categorized aisles. Don’t be overwhelmed by the lack of labels, simply wander through the vignettes of time and discover a new concept of treasure.