Thursday, October 8, 2020

Turning Back Time in Westby

The Big Old Red Shed bills itself as a flea market. The site was formerly a lumber yard. It’s on East State Street in Westby so it is a convenient stop while in the Driftless area. The place is jammed to the rafters. There is a framed photo of Frank Fitz of the reality show “American Pickers” near the entrance. A sign warns that transactions are “cash only”.

There is a visible layer of dust on most surfaces that I find oddly encouraging. This place is a sort of time capsule. In the parlance of American Pickers the offering here is the “history of America, one piece at a time.” More than 40 people sell stuff for the location.

I went with my 20 something daughters who are in a life phase of acquiring items for their homes. I have tried really hard in recent years to adopt the Marie Kondo approach of only acquiring or keeping items that spark joy. I felt happiness as I wandered the stuffed rooms with my girls but only regretted a few items left behind. There were so many memories of forgotten items from childhood and time spent in the kitchen with my grandmothers and mother. I delighted in showing my girls rotary egg beaters, ancient metal flour sifters, potato ricers, cast iron pans and collectibles. It was the decor items that we found most alluring. How could someone have crafted a queen size hand stitched quilt that was now on offer for $35? The Jadeite, Jadite or Jade-ite bowls (yes I saw all three spellings) so lovely with their green milky color particularly appealed to a new generation.

The “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra and desire for quality guides my daughters. They both have lived in big urban areas and repeatedly commented how they could envision many of the items with big prices in Oakland or Boston. Kate scored a cool mid-century brass lamp for $25. The second floor is worth the effort to meander there.

I look to Pyrex colorware as a barometer for store prices. In Westby one could purchase a complete set of four primary color ware nesting bowls for $58. As a comparison, a shop in Walla Walla Washington had the same set on offer for $87.50. There is no wine region adjacent to Westby so I think their prices are affordable. eBay and Etsy prices are often around $150 pre shipping. Pyrex is collectible no doubt because of sentimentality, great design and durability. Baby boomers are apparently shedding their collections so it seems to be in abundant supply.

I had acquired a set years ago from a Madison store that benefitted a charity. I have fond memories of my mother using the largest bowl, the yellow one, to serve her potato salad or rest a loaf of rising bread dough. Mom had received her bowl set as a bride to be in 1957. I shared my excitement in acquiring the set with the shopkeeper who cooly said “we are all just trying to buy our childhoods”. No matter, four glass bowls for less than $60 in better than a big box store.

I learned a little personal history the day we visited. There was a bookcase display of vintage beer cans. Many of the breweries such as Schmidt and Schlitz harken back to a time before micro breweries. I had never heard the detailed story my husband told us that day of his experience as a middle school aged beer can collector. He would scavenge for cans at county fairs and concerts taking home the empty discards left on the grounds. He also would visit his Great Uncle Elmer’s farm and sort through his burn pile in the woods for salvageable cans. Schmidt cans were particularly collectible because the label art would change seasonally. Who knew my husband who has little patience for shopping was a “picker”? Most savvy of all, and an indication of his entrepreneurial prowess, he sold his collection for $300 circa 1977. Today’s prices are often less than $2 a can so he did well back in the day!

The shed has adopted good Covid precautions. Masks are required and physical distancing is encouraged. Check for modified store hours on their website. In the era of home confinement there is now a Hi-Bid auction site and a virtual shed element on their Facebook page.

-- Nancy Zellmer