Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hoarders of History

Before I moved to Philadelphia in late 2003, I didn't know a lot about the City of Brotherly Love. What I did know, intrigued me. As a young child and in high school, I remember family trips to Phoenixville, which often led to a day of sightseeing in the city.

Anyone in their 30s and 40s knows that family vacations weren't what they are now. Christmas in Paris wasn't in store for the upper-middle class who could find deals on Orbitz, it meant you were loaded. For most of us, traveling meant packing up the Family Truckster and checking out a nearby city, or looking for the Worlds Largest Ball of Twine.

I applaud my parents for instilling in me the love of the road trip. To this day, if the destination is within driving distance I stick to the open road, knowing very well that half the excitement is in the journey. And like the fact that a vacation doesn't have to solely rely on its destination, the destination itself doesn't have to solely rely on its attractions.

Trips to New York weren't reserved for a two hour line to the top of the Statue of Liberty, but aimless meanderings through the East Village. And although I'm sure I took more than a few tours of Independence Hall in my childhood, what I remember most about Philadelphia were the street performers, its charming (and sometimes less than charming) side streets, and its never ending supply of antique stores.

In a place as old as this, our shops are more than just boutiques, they're museums in themselves. Before deciding to move here, I remember visiting the outdoor flea markets and South Street's junk shops. A lot of urban newbies might scoff at shops packed with musty furnishings and boxes of unmarked photographs, but these places are time machines. Real history extends beyond Antique Row and the Liberty Bell, and you might have to dig to find it, but the treasures of the past are in the apothecary bottles and bizarre contraptions buried in the boxes and display cases that once lined the streets of Philadelphia.

The Renaissance of urban living, particularly from the upper-middle class, has been both good and bad. Since families fled our cities for the suburbs, they've consistently remained a place for urban pioneers and eccentrics. Perhaps its these eccentrics, and those with an eye for the masked grit that opened the market for our hoarders of history. But with slowed suburbanization and reversed flight, the families that helped clean our streets and make our homes safer, have also led to increased rent and an abundance of suburban creature comforts that have eliminated that market for the strange.

South Street's junk shops are gone. Antique Row found new life with high priced history for those who can afford a "Philadelphia style" with little regard for where their merchandise actually originated. We've fared better than other places. New York and Chicago have been stripped of their hidden historys' soul. Perhaps its our marginally successful Renaissance that has enabled us to retain a bit of grit.

Summer still hosts monthly flea markets, and if you only go occasionally you won't notice that it's always the same stuff. Old City, while it is arguably our most gentrified section of Center City, is still home to a few warehouses filled with architectural relics, both affordable and not. South Street still has one amazing shop fit for a Stephen King novel. Filled with lamps, clocks, and chandeliers, when you walk through the store, no matter which way you look, you always feel alone. A converted Synagogue just below South Street has found a market amongst the hipsters looking for vintage duds and furnishings.

The best surviving store of Philadelphia's lost era of junk might be Anastacia's Antiques on Bainbridge Street. Filled with antique marionettes, animal skulls and hides, and antique religious iconography, the place rivals the Mutter Museum in the macabre. Anastacia's Antiques will not just transport you to the historic eras of its merchandise, but also to a time when these places packed our cities. While it's hard to imagine how these types of shops stay in business, the digital age has allowed a handful to stick around through online auctions and internet sales.


  1. Come up to Germantown at Germantown Ave and Queen Ln. There are good store in that area for the stuff you are looking for. Check out Tyler's and Karl Karr's.

  2. Ah, the miracle of the internet! Places like this can stay open because their storefront is like a big advertisement. They most likely have a website where collectors from Prague & Beijing are looking for "the perfect clock" for their mantelpiece or addition to their icon collection.