Out with the old: Treasured antique mall saying goodbye

Friday, May 17, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 20

The Downtown Antique Mall on Eighth Avenue is ‘worth more as condos than it is as a business.’

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

The “77 Sunset Strip” board game makes me smile, even as I’m immersed in commercial death throes while wandering the sprawling building on Eighth Avenue South where yet another longtime business – one where 73-year-old owner Pat Morris has toiled day and night to create something special – is going to close.

“Progress” has worked its way out of downtown, and The Gulch and is chomping southbound, now devouring the 30-year-old Downtown Antique Mall in the top floor of a weathered brick industrial building almost nudging the railroad tracks.

Pat’s stock-in-trade is “eye-of-the-beholder” treasures, including a huge portrait of Jesus and his pals, vintage (I call it “used”) clothing, furniture, glassware, LPs, a mounted deer head and even a sun-bleached animal skull or two.

Thousands of valuable-to-someone items spill out of booths, rooms and the notorious nooks and crannies. Heck, some spill onto the back porch, feet from where the CSX regularly rattles past. I have my eyes on a fake palm tree out there, but it has seen better days, and I fear the live ones on my deck – Mister Roberts and Ensign Pulver – might be envious.

“We’ve been so busy, we haven’t even had time to put up these signs yet,” Pat tells me as she shuffles through a thick deck of green, going-out-of-business-sale posters.

I’m spending the second of two afternoons in this store, with its end-of-May extinction date, visiting some with Pat and her right-hand man, Rob Hartman, but mostly wandering about, scuffling over the worn, hardwood flooring while touring the soon-to-be-forgotten business. I’m not here to buy collectibles but rather to collect anecdotes, as well as my thoughts.

“There are going to be no more antique stores pretty soon,” says local art dealer Rich Modica, who has dropped by to visit with his friend Rob, a musician and family man who has shepherded this store for the last 3½ years and sold items of his own here.

“I run the place for Pat,” Rob adds, speaking of the owner who for a few years lived in an apartment she personally constructed in one small wing of this place.

“I open and close here. I don’t know if you call me ‘manager’ or not. What would you call me?”

I tell him “manager” seems to fill the bill fine. Rob admits to “mixed feelings” about the demise of this old business. Perhaps a change, taking his own stuff to shows and the like – he used to do that before he “settled down” in this antique relic – might suit him. Heck, he might even sing for his supper.

“I have a lot of inventory here, and I’m a collector of fine art. I like to sculpt and to play music,” he explains. “This has been a fine alternative to playing coffee houses and hootenannies.”

Since I’m in an antique store, I’m pleased by his use of the word “hootenannies,” that I’d not heard in decades. Course, as I’ll readily admit, I am as “mid-century modern” as the inventory of eye-candy for those who relish a good clutter or perhaps an old lamp. I can’t recall, but I might have gone to a hootenanny or two long before my hair lost its brown.

Sure, Rob has stuff – hootenannies and perhaps shindigs – to do after this place shuts down. Probably it is time for a change, he admits, though his words are thick as melancholy syrup as he discusses the end of this chapter.

Sure, it’s been a physical drain, as an antique dealer’s work is never done: Stuff turns old every day. But he appreciates this store, the owner and the company he keeps here.

“I live a mile from here,” he notes, as I wipe at my moist forehead in this non-air-conditioned treasure barn.

“It’s real convenient. It’s been easy for me to make a good living. This place has sustained me and kept my family alive.”

A refugee from the corporate music business – he worked for an iconic name, but I’ll not divulge it per his request – Rob gazes across the rooms from his vantage near the cash register and watches as clusters of customers shuffle through the rows, looking for the 25 percent or 50 percent-off deals.

The crowds have set records in recent days, according to manager Rob and owner Pat.

Rob looks from me out into the store, where many customers – they seem to come in bursts – are trekking toward the cash register. His break time spent talking with the mid-century modern journalist must come to an end.

“I’m spinning from all this chaos,” Rob continues. He’s smiling, though, as I pass a young millennial with her arms filled with good-old-days summer clothing.

During my rambles through the store, I discover the board game featuring my youth’s favorite private eye show: “77 Sunset Strip.” Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (who played Stuart Bailey), Roger Smith (Jeff Spencer) and Edd Byrnes (comb-brandishing “hip daddio” sidekick Gerald Lloyd “Kookie” Kookson III) adorn the game’s box.

For those of you who arrived after the baby boom, “77 Sunset Strip” was a show awash in Hollywood glamor, and the private eye HQ at that address was across the driveway from Dino’s Lodge – the restaurant owned by Dean (“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore”) Martin.

By the early ‘70s, when long-haired wanderings took me to Laurel Canyon, Hollywood and Beverly Hills (with its cement ponds and oil-rich hillbillies and sheikhs), I found that Dino’s – by then some kitschy tourist trap – really was at 8524 Sunset ….

If you are my age and have championed your hair your whole life, you may have adopted Kookie as one of your ducktail heroes and combed it while the finger-snapping theme song played. The Hollywood hipster also inspired and “sang” hit song “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb,” a sort of duet with actress Connie Stevens that featured Dylanesque lyrics as deep as “Isis”: “I just want you to stop combing your hair and kiss me. You’re the maximum utmost.”

I amble past old furniture, walls of circus posters, kitchen knickknacks and more before stopping to look at the board game and chat with Rex Collier, 72, one of the vendors who is cutting prices as the end nears.

“I’ve already got too much stuff at home,” he says. “My wife won’t let me bring any of this home.”

It looks like he’s cleared out a good deal. In fact, the stack of Hollywood-style games he had is down to this one featuring Kookie et al. “I can’t remember them all,” he adds. “I know I had one, a beach game with Annette Funicello,” he says of the “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” dramatic actress who toyed with Boomer boys’ hormones as womanhood blossomed when she was a “Mouseketeer.” Hey there, hi there, ho there, you’re as welcome as can be….

Rex offers to cut the price if I’m interested in buying the game, but my garage already is the kind of place American Pickers Frank and Mike would enjoy visiting, and I don’t need more of what the uneducated would refer to as “junk.”

Someplace in the store, a sign quotes from Instagram that “Junk is the New Black.” The irony of using an Instagram quote in an antique store seems “cool” as Kookie would say. “Dig?”

Rex is a freelance TV soundman, semi-retired, and the networks have kept him busy over the years, as he’s captured breaking news on demand.

“I always thought that when I retired from audio work, I could spend more time down here in the antique mall,” he says, adding when the store first opened, he was a partner, but sold out long ago because of his booming soundman biz.

Rex has kept selling mid-century modern stuff (which I’m told repeatedly is the specialty here) “not necessarily for the income, but because I like doing it.”

He looks across the massive tangle of rooms and antique merchandise and collectibles and other people’s junk and shakes his head.

“It’s sad,” he admits of the mall’s imminent demise. “I’m sorry to see it happen.”

I wander past a Western Flyer bicycle (I was a Schwinn guy), but this red-and-black beauty ought to make someone happy, particularly if the sales take it well down from its $650 price tag. I might be a player at a 10th of that, to use the lingo of TV’s traveling junk collectors, the aforementioned Frank and Mike.

None of these prices will stay, I’m sure, as I wander past an $1,100 AMI/Rove model 120 jukebox, a $45 cow skull and a $99 plastic Santa, just like the one I have in my garden shed. When my kids were young, I’d bring Santa out, stick a lightbulb up his ass and put him on the deck. I did not pay $99 for him, but, well, I now declare him for sale.

I spot no price tag on a Rolling Stones T-shirt from their “1999 No Security Tour” … too bad it wasn’t my size, as I collect rock T-shirts, and the Glimmer Twins are No. 2 behind The Beatles on my personal hit parade.

Pat Morris, left, and  Rob Hartman share space at the counter and display cases at the Downtown Antique Mall.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

Jordan Noel 38, an artist and full-length filmmaker of what he calls “a low-budget, post-apocalyptic drama” is a newcomer to this mall. He’s also a relative newcomer to Nashville, joking that he and his wife “are part of the problem” because they joined the soft parade of 100 people a day moving to Music City, killing traffic flow and forcing the demolition of old neighborhoods so several tall-skinnies and condos can be wedged in what were one-home lots.

“I’m curious, how long do I have to live here before I can complain about all these new people moving here?” asks this reformed Atlantan.

I tell him he must wait until he’s been here at least three years. I had not read that in a Chamber booklet or anything. It is just my considered opinion.

Jordan says that’s a good timeframe and adds he and his wife live in an aged East Nashville house – “I like old things” – and he therefore loves to go antique shopping.

“It’s like a museum where you can buy stuff,” he continues, admitting he’s looking at everything and nothing in particular with which to fill his old home.

“(The closing) makes me real sad,” he says, adding that this antique mall and the stuff it holds will disappear and be forgotten.

“It’s worth more as condos than it is as a business,” he notes, good-natured sneer in his voice.

Condos are a good guess as to what might come to this spot. But then so are hotels and designer food-and-drink emporiums for bachelorettes and the lust-filled hearts of unrepentant frat boys and millennial rednecks. Maybe a country star can open a bar here. The late Slim Whitman (one of my dead friends) hasn’t got his name on one yet. Oh yeah… maybe it’s a great spot for a boot store.

I am a bit curious about the “Men at Work” sign, wondering if it is an old street sign or something fixed up to celebrate the “Who Can It Be Now?’’ MTV-age band from the land “Down Under.”

I don’t check the price on a crude wooden “Imported Hungarian Hay Fork,” mainly because, well, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, as the bard from Hibbing might say.

I did help my late Uncle Moose Mainquist cut hay long ago in Red Oak, Iowa, but he used a tractor rather than a long, wooden fork and, yes, the sun was shining. Moose is dead and his delightful sister Linda is a follower of the Maharishi.

The huge framed signs from movies “Sinbad the Sailor” and “House of Green Gables” at $250 each may be a good deal once the mark-downs are in full effect. If you’ve got one of those media rooms or you like old movies of questionable merit, this stuff’s for you.

The 4-by-7-foot oil painting titled “The Ascension of Jesus” already has been marked down from $2,600 to $975. Couldn’t find the painter’s name but I’m reasonably sure that, even as faded and ancient as it appears, it’s neither a self-portrait nor something sketched by a disciple.

Michael Ewing, 61, used to sell stuff here. He’s known as “The Hat Guy” for his stock in trade. “I’m still in the vintage business, but now I do it online,” he says, adding that vintage luggage is also part of his niche.

He’s here not just to say goodbye but also to shop around. He says his time spent peddling his wares here “had been a great run. I enjoyed the people, the venue, the lady (Pat).”

“The atmosphere was very laid back. I fit in with the nostalgia of the place,” he says, adding the mall is dying “because of the transition” of the city he chose as his home nine years ago.

“I moved here from Houston at the end of 2010. I liked the peaceful nature of Nashville,” he adds. “I thought Nashville would be a good place to relocate. I said there wouldn’t be a lot of development.

“Now it’s a different place. Because of the transition, Nashville people are being forced to relocate. Leases have become so outrageous that little guys can’t afford to do a thing like this.

A Western Flyer bicycle and an old cash register are among the eye-catchers offered up in one booth at Downtown Antique Mall.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

“Antiques aren’t a goldmine…. It’s a real challenge.”

The “Hat Guy” scans the cluttered horizon. “It was so nice to come to a small, quaint place,” he says, not just of the store but of the city that seduced him. “Now look at all the traffic. That was one of the reasons I left Houston.”

Gina Canonico, who admits a “big birthday” looms, is a vendor in the mall. On this day she’s checking out the sales of other vendors before returning to her mid-century cookware.

“I just love it,” she says of her little niche.

What she doesn’t love is what she sees happening not just here but all over Nashville. “It’s a common story every day around here,” she adds of the imminent loss of a nice little business.

“One more gem going away in this town. This is such a treasure,” she points out. “Little businesses are priced out.”

I reach into a box holding LPs to see if there’s anything worth rescuing. Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” doesn’t qualify. And I don’t need new copies of Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” (someone long-ago told me it is the ultimate LSD album) or Traffic’s “John Barleycorn Must Die.”

Angie Gore – “just say I’m in my 40s” – is a semi-refugee from the world of music publicity (she still owns Kaleidoscope Media but has broadened her horizons), an entrepreneur and a connoisseur of picking through antique shops.

“I frequent lots of antique malls in town,” says Angie, who gives me permission – once I ask nicely in an attempt at political correctness – to refer to her as “an attractive woman.”

“I hadn’t come by here in a while, but I had to once I found out it was closing,” she explains, holding two colorful textile wall-hangings she’d fished out of a bin or off some wall.

“I got these because I got two in India last year that were similar,” she says, noting that now she feels free to share nearly matching textiles with her boyfriend. “We have separate residences.”

She says she plans on returning in the coming days to scout for more sale treasures for her home. “I like to spend time with my memories,” Angie points out.

“I get progress,” says this attractive woman (remember, I asked….), who has lived in New York and L.A., and appreciates the diversity of cultures and food and opportunity that is overtaking her hometown.

She just wonders aloud if it is always worth the cost. “This is an example of Nashville growing, and one of the hidden gems we’re losing.”

While she steps up to pay manager Rob for the textile wall hangings, I catch up a bit with Pat, the owner, who says she has no idea what the landlord plans to do with this property.

Before sinking her energies into this mall 30 years ago, she owned a beauty salon downtown for a couple of decades, she recalls, adding that tears flowed when she closed that business.

She watches customers who are picking up bargains during this busy afternoon. Some she knows by name.

“I have people who go back to the beginning almost,” she says, softly.

Unless you are very fearful of clowns, this collection of circus posters is a highlight of the antique mall.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

When I ask for her thoughts about losing her lease and moving out, she grows momentarily silent.

“How many thoughts could I have for 30 years?” she says as an answer. Too many to name, obviously.

“Saying goodbye to anything is difficult, but I have a 46-year-old son (Kenny) who is suffering from severe complications of childhood onset diabetes,” she says, adding that the young man – who has had legs amputated – has had three heart attacks, four bypasses and takes dialysis since his kidneys don’t function.

Caring for him has kept her out of the shop much of the last three years, she admits, noting the loyalty of Rob, who has kept things running smoothly.

“This will give me more time to take care of my son,” she says, stoically.

“Seven days a week is seven days a week,” she adds of her workload before stepping back some to care for Kenny. “That’s what I’ve been battling.

“But I’m giving up something I truly enjoy doing. Used to travel to New York and Chicago (shopping for merchandise) when I first started. That ended when my husband died.”

Murray Morris died 20 years ago of cardiac arrest when he was 67.

“I’ve never gotten over his death. We have to move on. It’s like a door slams in your face. Never ever is life the same again.

“There’s a lot to our lives,” she says.

“(Kenny) has just lost his second leg. He’s lost three dogs. It’s like everything goes away. Nothing lasts forever.”

She stops the conversation long enough to show a silver and a wooden cigarette case to a shopper.

“It’s been phenomenal sales wise,” she adds of the recent flood of folks – including flocks of reckless tourists who walk here from their downtown, New York-priced hotels.

“I just don’t have enough time in the day. I have so much to worry about to get it done,” she says, noting that after she locks up the business at month’s end, her vendors will have 10 days to clear out their wares. The rest of June will find Pat and Rob clearing out the folk-art and arts and crafts stuff she relishes – “I always look for something different” – and cleaning out the nooks and crannies of her memories.

“I’m not in love with this place, but it’s a way to make a living.”

While she sounds resigned and tries to find good things about closing, especially the opportunity to spend more time helping Kenny, she knows her business is just another victim of the “It City” blanching of Nashville.

“It’s killed this business,” she says. “The property values. The need for people to make money with money. It’s sad, but it’s just gonna happen. It’s evolution.”

Her tired eyes grow darker. “Everything has to go away. It’ll be a relief and a heartache too.”

Now the Nashville skyline she used to relish when stepping outside of her business has disintegrated into a high-rise pastiche. “There isn’t a skyline now. It’s just a glob.”

There’s a lot of work to be done in her final weeks inside her mercantile home of three decades. She dreads it but knows it has to be done. She’s never been afraid to tackle the hardest tasks when it comes to her business, and that won’t change during this final countdown.

“I worked my ass off here.”