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Friday, Feb. 27, 2015

Shops make Oberlin antique-hunter's mecca

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Clockwise from upper left, in downtown Oberlin, Kansas, Marlin Bowen of Cabin Antiques specializes in Red Wing crockery. Eldon Helberg of the Traer Traders antique shop stands beside an antique china hutch from which he stripped three coats of paint and finish. Bernie Vacura stands in front of an antique secretary and holds a "smashed bucket" that the Vacuras sell at their antique shop; while Othelia Vacura touches up the customized paint and finish she did on the mesh panel from an antique child's bed at Old Czech Country: The Warehouse, in Oberlin. At Fort Sappa Creek Antiques, a fireplace mantle from the Denver home of socialite and heiress Evalyn Walsh McLeon provides display space for other antiques.
(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
OBERLIN, Kansas -- They're not "in competition" with each other. Each enhances antique marketing opportunities for the other.

Each of its antique shops helps make Oberlin, Kansas, an antique shoppers' mecca -- a destination place for those who want to own or give as gifts something old, something rare ... something from a time long-gone.

Each of the antique stores in this community of 1,000 offers the opportunity for almost limitless shopping, browsing, reminiscing and "ooh-ing" and "awe-ing" at antiques and collectibles -- in addition to the opportunity to visit the shops and stores located in between and throughout the community.

A multi-faceted shopping experience in Oberlin -- because of old things, unique things and collectible things.

"Old Czech Country: The Warehouse" is the "flagship" on the highway, Highway 36 running east and west through Oberlin.

"Cabin Antiques," "Traer Traders" and "Fort Sappa Creek Antiques" are just a short jaunt around the corner and downhill on Oberlin's Penn Street main street to the downtown shopping area.

No one seems to view another shop as his or her biggest competition. Each shop has its own personal drawing card -- a specialty they're proud of and known for.

And it seems that the more antique shops there are, the more antique shoppers there are. Like Cabin Antiques owner Marlin Bowen says "The more shops we've had, the better we all do."

Each owner tells shoppers about the other antique shops in the community.

Each is open by chance or appointment. Call first.


Bernie and Othelia Vacura specialize in "primitives" (made-in-America, farmhouse, prairie, country) and "smashed buckets" -- those they buy nearly crushed or already smooshed, and, yes, those Bernie smashes himself!

And Othelia adds her own touch to the shop -- her customized, hand-painted folk art wooden signs.

"We're known for our primitives -- our cabinets and cupboards," Bernie said. Some are works in progress -- they have to make repairs and/or rebuild. "We retain as much of the original finish as possible," Othelia said, explaining that she sometimes has to match an old paint color and/or varnish, and finish the side or the back of a cupboard that, in its original location, was left unfinished against the wall.

"We sell our primitives move-into-the-house ready," Othelia said. Because their cupboards and cabinets are not pristine, because they retain their "used" character, Othelia said, "Our customers get the (vintage) look at an 'aged' price."

She smiled at a wainscoting cupboard that Bernie bought last week at an auction, "Oh, if these items could talk, it would be quite a story they could tell," she said.

Smashed buckets -- who'd have thunk it? "Customers love the smashed buckets," Bernie said, pleased, smiling, but shaking his head none-the-less. "The more they're falling apart, the better they seem to like 'em."

Bernie buys buckets and smashes them flat -- Othelia letters them, usually "ANTIQUES" or "PRIMITIVES" across a now-flat surface. "The first one was just a lark," she chuckled. Now, many customers are using them for accent pieces -- dealers are using them for advertising signs. "When dealers come through, they'll buy six, or seven or even eight or more of them," Bernie said.

All of Othelia's painting and stenciling is free-hand -- no paint-by-number kit, no stencils. She paints family signs and new baby signs, lodge signs, kitchen signs, holiday signs, garden signs, tea room signs, old west saloon signs. She paints signs for special occasions. No two are ever exactly alike. "Two signs may be of the same spirit, but they're still not exactly the same," Othelia said.

Many couples getting married have asked Othelia to paint their names and an arrow and directions to the church or to their reception, "and then they come back and have me paint over the arrow and add their wedding date," she said.

The largest sign was 16 feet long; another was a 4x6-foot American flag.

Othelia has sold signs throughout all of the United States and even internationally. She sold a "Best Strawberries in Bundy" sign and shipped it to a customer in Australia.

Othelia's waiting to see the "Tea for Two" sign she painted for Universal Studios in a movie some day. "It's probably in some prop room now," she chuckled.

The couple's customized birdhouses are also popular with customers and dealers alike. "We started with one-hole bird houses," Othelia said. "We've expanded over time to include three-hole bird houses." Some are short, some are tall. Some are painted; some are unfinished. No two are ever alike.

Othelia and Bernie are also known for their sewing machine cabinet drawers (decorated with Othelia's lettering of "Buttons," "Jacks," "Dominoes," "Checkers"); window boxes (actual old window frames attached to boxes decorated with flowers and vines); and "chair shelves" (the seat, sometimes shortened, of an old chair for the shelf and the back of the chair to be hung on the wall). "We were doing chair shelves long before they started importing them from China," Bernie said, chuckling.

The Vacuras moved their shop from downtown Oberlin to the highway location (about a block east of the Cenex convenience store and Subway at the Highway 83 and 36 junction, on the north side of the highway) throughout the summer. "We were moving stuff out of the back of the old store and into the front of the new at the same time," Othelia laughed.

The new location offers about three times more main floor floor space, basement display space and a "backyard workshop" for big projects. And, Othelia said, because they can spread out a little more, "We're better organized here."

Bernie wants to build a "front porch" on the main building's south side, to display their window boxes, potting benches, picket fences and garden gates, seasonal decorated ladders.

Bernie loves the highway exposure, and the store's easy access for customers and dealers -- especially dealers. "We love dealers," Bernie said, with a chuckle and twinkle in his eyes. "They buy whole trailer-loads."

While the primitives and signs are the most popular and probably the most numerous items at Bernie's and Othelia's, they fill their shelves and showcases with any number and type of other antique and collectible.

"You really never know what people are going to want when they walk through that door," Bernie said. Othelia says, "You just don't know what strikes people's fancy."

Old Czech Country is located at 301 W. Frontier Pkwy, on Highway 36. The phone number is (785) 475-3009 (call for open hours); or go to www.oldczechcountry.com

Marlin Bowen and his wife opened "Cabin Antiques" in a shop on the east side of Penn Avenue in downtown Oberlin in 2003, having moved from the Denver area where they sold in antique malls and flea markets. Their first store was in the mid-1990's, in a half-building shared with an artists' gallery. They expanded into the gallery area and invited nine other dealers to display their wares.

From there, the Bowens moved to a three-story shop on Colfax Avenue, and then into "retirement" in Oberlin. "We brought out first load here in July 2003," Marlin remembers, "en route to a Red Wing (crockery) convention in Red Wing, Minnesota."

The couple moved to the west side of Penn Avenue in 2005.

Marlin's speciality is Red Wing crocks. "I've got, at last count, 260 pieces of Red Wing stoneware," he said recently.

Marlin fills his ground floor, loft and basement floor space with antiques and collectibles that he purchases at auctions, garage sales and rummage sales. "People bring things in," he said, "or I purchase from their houses." He chuckled, "I love to buy from people's houses because I can find a lot that they didn't know was for sale."

The population of Oberlin has declined from the 22-hundred when the Bowens arrived, and the market for antiques has waned slightly because it's sometimes hard to justify spending money on antiques and collectibles when the economy's tight.

But one thing that Marlin has noticed, "The more shops we've had, the better we all do," he said, as "Black Friday" shoppers wandered through his store.

"In 2003, there was just us and Traer Traders," Marlin said. That number grew, he said, and "at one time, there were six of us. That was actually when business was really good."

The shop owners formed the "Decatur County Antiques Guild" and pooled their money to advertise collectively on radio and in newspapers.

City and Chamber of Commerce signs on Highways 36 and 83 point antique hunters in the direction of the downtown shopping area. Advertising "tents" let locals and visitors know about the numerous shops and special events.

Marlin said that over time, the antiques guild went by the wayside, but the shop owners still encourage their antique hunters to visit the other shops.

Marlin said he never knows what someone's looking for when they come through his front doors. "I can have something so long it's old enough to vote, and the very next day, it's gone," he chuckled. "You just never know. No one's even looking at something, and tomorrow, I'll sell it."

Marlin's greatest surprise lately was the console television, radio and record player whose electronics had been removed and the wooden case had been repurposed into a very nice storage cabinet with its original sliding doors hiding new shelves. "It was solid walnut ... heavy as can be," Marlin said.

It wasn't in the shop but a few days when a couple came in and looked it over. "They came back the next day and bought it," Marlin chuckled. "It was a nice-, nice-looking piece of furniture."

Marlin greets all his shoppers with a friendly hello, encouragement to wander around and a "Please, let me know if I can help you find anything." To many, he says, "We can get you a trailer ... it's just a phone call away."

"The trailer? Well, it's just a thought," he muses, a thought that just might give shoppers a little bit of a nudge -- "permission" ... "a solution" -- to buy an item bigger than what will fit in their cars. "We have a U-Haul dealer in town," Marlin said. "It would be good for both of us."

Marlin doesn't see the other antique shops as direct competition. "We don't compete against each other, because each of us has such different merchandise," he said, and each has a speciality.

Cabin Antiques is located at 141 S. Penn Avenue. Marlin tries to keep store hours from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, but he adds, "If I'm home, I'm open." Call the shop number, (785) 475-2311, or Marlin's home number, (785) 475-2615.

Eldon Helberg, the owner with Bill DeKnight of The Traer Traders Antique Shop, likes the feeling of community in downtown Oberlin.

He doesn't see a problem with four antique shops within very close proximity. "We get along just fine," he said. "People know there's quite a selection."

Eldon said his shop's specialty is architectural salvage -- columns, doors, windows, fireplace mantles, hardware. He chuckled, "We pack it in as high and as deep as we can." His philosophy about his wide and varied selection: "You can't sell it if you don't have it."

And, if what a shopper would like isn't in the Oberlin shop, Eldon says that chances are VERY good that it's in the 10,000-square-foot former Traer schoolhouse that he and Bill use as a workshop and warehouse. "That's where I fix things and refinish them -- in my spare time," he said, smiling. "If I live to be 200, I'll put a dent in it. That's the plan."

Eldon said that Bill buys and sells some items on e-bay, but not as much as he did in the past. "We used to be able to sell anything on early e-bay," Eldon said. "And it's hard to find the rare things at a good price anymore."

Eldon said he and Bill also stock the store shelves with items that Bill buys at auctions and sales. "And people bring us things," Eldon said. "Or they sell us the whole house and its contents."

Eldon continued, "I treat people right -- they give me the first chance." He added, chuckling, "And they know I can't say 'no'. It's fun."

Eldon is drawn to furniture that is rare and "better than usual." "I have a pretty good eye. If it's unusual, shoppers will snatch it up," he said.

While Eldon's shop specializes in salvage and offers the rare piece of furniture, it does have "something else" that the other Oberlin antique shops don't have -- black Lab door greeters named "Cash" and "Carry."

Traer Traders is located at 119 South Penn Avenue, on the west side of Penn. Call (785) 475-3038 or (785) 475-3323.

Fort Sappa Creek Antiques has undoubtedly the most eclectic assortment of antiques of the four Oberlin antique stores. Much of Ralph Clapper's inventory is his personal collection of 40-50 years, so his specialties are also his personal favorites -- and they're very rare, and extremely uncommon on America's high plains.

Ralph's main floor display space is studded with floor model and counter top stereoptic viewers, and cameras, one of which is a stereoptic camera with double lens to make the stereoptic view cards.

Ralph has also collected, and sells, delicate floor-model French music boxes.

Items uncommon in Kansas and Nebraska are the almost-black, massive, imported and heavily-carved Japanese chairs and hutches. They, and several bronze statues and a floor-to-ceiling gilded mirror, graced the family's home in Denver, Ralph said, before he and his wife, Lynn, relocated and "retired" to Oberlin. Lynn finally told him, "Get yourself a building and put your stuff in it," and Ralph opened Fort Sappa Creek Antiques in downtown Oberlin about four years ago.

Does it hurt to see his collections go? "No, it's time," Ralph said, explaining that his health limits his activities now. "I've collected everything ... I've collected too much. You can't imagine how much ... " he said, grinning.

Among the items on Ralph's display floors are Civil War saddles and uniforms, a bronze cannon (barnacles removed), oak roll-top desks, oak barrister's bookcases, a home-made peddle airplane, Maxfield Parrish prints, art glass vases, blue-and-white salt-glazed crocks saddles.

The fireplace mantle was removed from the Denver home of Evalyn Walsh McLeon, the last private owner of the 45-carat Hope Diamond.

The glass-disk chandeliers came out of an old movie house in Denver.

Many of Ralph's customers are dealers, "those from Texas and California are good, good customers." Ralph tells of filling trailer-loads for a dealer from California who told him that he planned to sell his booty on the internet. "They fly in for it," Ralph said the dealer told him.

Ralph encourages his antique hunters, even the dealers, to stop at the other antique shops in Oberlin.

Fort Sappa Creek Antiques is located on the east side of Penn Avenue, at 166 South Penn. Because he's retiring, Ralph doesn't go into his shop every day. Call him (785) 475-2310, for information about his inventory.

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