It had rained lightly and threatened to do so again. The gray day felt like the early dusk of evening though it was only mid day. As I drove into the small coastal town, traveling north on Hwy 101 I saw, in my peripheral vision, a jumble, a collage of stuff, guy stuff. I drove on, thinking, looking for a place to turn around actually. I was well into town by the time I found a likely right turn and flicking the signal control I swung into the narrow street that went up a grade carrying us away from the ocean.
“You're going back to that antique store aren’t you?” my wife said from the shotgun seat.
“I have to," I intoned.
“That’s what I thought; I saw your head turn as we went past,” she said.
That's what thirty seven years of marriage will get you. I pulled onto the apron-like space in front of the former garage and filling station and got out. It was a drab gray building; the roll-up bay doors were open and the space within and without was festooned with parts of this and parts of that. Every so often one could see an entire item nestled amongst the seeming debris. In a metal box at my feet were two mismatched brass boat propellers, one laying at an angle atop the other. There were more boxes on the ground outside, filled and partly filled. Long items leaned against the building. I don't know what they were. Other than the impression that I had entered a realm of metal and wood, paint, grease and dirt, I was no longer seeing as I normally see. I was scanning, looking for hints of the objects of my quest. I had come in hopes of finding old plumbing wares, fixtures and parts of fixtures that were new when my father was a boy; this was fertile ground.
The loaded countertops with shelves above and floor-bound boxes below forced me to look and crane my neck so that my bifocals came into play. Despite a few distractions, like the old white Evinrude laying on its back and making a perfect forty five degree angle in the corner, I soon found a bit of old plumbing. It was an old heavy brass lavatory drain assembly, and though it was an off brand it was priced at forty five dollars. This did not bode well but I kept looking, leaving the drain behind. In an old bread loaf pan I spied some bits of plumbing brass and taking one up I went to find the proprietor.
He was seated in a little office that was only closed on three sides. He sat at an oak desk so covered that one could barely see that it had a linoleum top. He was old, and turned his shoulders a little when he turned his head because of the stiffness that comes from a long life of heavy work. When he rose from his armed oak swivel chair he stood more erect than I had though he could and when he addressed me he gave the impression that he was glad to be of assistance. I, though, was on task and wanted to test the waters after seeing the high price of the item that I had no regard for.
“Do you know what this is?” I said as I held the two inch piece of brass so that he could see it.
“Do you know what it is?” He asked back.
“It's an upper fuller ball stem. How much do you want for it?” I asked in my turn.
“Fifty cents,” was his answer.
“I'll need to look around some more.” I said, satisfied that here was a man that I could do business with.
“You'll find some plumbing down there,” he said pointing, “and there are some handles and such up front.”
I let up front go for the moment as I bent to follow the lead of his finger. There I found a three hole bridge faucet embossed with the words “Standard” and RE-NU. The string tag said,
6 Inch center
works and fits
most sinks $35-
Loaded with this gem and the balance of what had been in the old bread loaf pan I went to the front. He stood behind the original service station counter that had once been where folks would leave their keys and return to hear the bad news, or good news one always hopes. Looking where the old man pointed again I saw a collection of about eight or ten porcelain cross handles on a faceless glass showcase. They were marked $5 each and were mostly commons but my hand stood still when I saw the distinctive double tip that meant L Wolff Mfg. Co. The old rare handle was still attached to the stem that had once served as the hot water control for a fine standing waste tub valve. This item and another marked H&B I placed carefully amongst the other things that I had selected.
“There are more pieces out around the side in the back of the box truck.” I was told and I faithfully went out to find my way. I rooted through a large box of lav taps till I found two pairs that suited me and returned to see if there would be haggling. A well dressed elderly woman was there with him. She was observant but said nothing.
“Seventy eight dollars is your total.” He said.
“Will you take my business credit card?” I asked as I checked and confirmed that I only had about half that much.
“No,” was the answer.
Going to where my wife was still looking at this and that I said, “I'll need that hundred you mentioned. I'll get it back for you out of petty cash later.”
As I paid my invoice the proprietor said, “I gave you a discounted rate,” indicating that he had extended me a professional courtesy.
“I know you did, thanks, I'll be back through,” I answered.
“I'm going to close this place up and get out of it,” he said. I nodded and looked around and then at him again. Back on the road I was amazed at having found a Wolff handle in such a place. My wife was just as happy, having found a forties Warner Bros. promotional Looney Tunes scarf. I thought about what the old man had said about quitting and getting out but I don't believe it. If he's like me and most of the people I’ve met who glean and peddle the old stuff, he'll dry up and blow away before he leaves that old place.