Casual. Traditional. Retro. Funky. Eclectic. However you describe your preference in home furnishings, many people today are happily settling into a style in which perfection is not required--a style in which, in fact, matching is fatally passé, ostentation is obsolete and the impeccable is inferior. Welcome to the much more user-friendly style of flea-market chic and shabby elegance.
For the serious collector and antiques aficionado, the thrill of the hunt at flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores is nothing new. What is new is that more and more people are bringing warmth and style to their homes via the slightly chipped, cracked and worn. The second-hand chic style focuses on old and not-so-old furniture and accessories that have a patina of use, are comfortable and well made and remind us of our roots.
In search of bargains and excitement, I lined up shortly after 9 a.m. with other local devotees of "shabby chic" who meet every Friday on the porch of Decades, a treasure-trove of secondhand goodies on Hillsborough Road in Durham. Never mind that the store doesn't open until 10:30 a.m. Word on the street is that owner Kim Shuffler has been to an estate sale this week and has a new shipment.
Beth Bradford and Cathy Weaver come nearly every week. They collect old toys and dolls. ("Not Barbie, mind you," emphasizes Weaver.) But they also fall easily in love with almost any nostalgic object of faded beauty. An old set of 1940s tea towels would make pretty curtains. That pie safe needs a little work, but it could be a great linen cabinet.
Glenn Kent is another regular. He has already gathered up several salt-and-pepper shakers from the outdoor discount table, which Shuffler stocks before the doors open. When at last she invites everyone on the porch to come inside, Glenn quick-marches from the front of the house to the back, scooping up glassware two or three pieces at a time. Another man pauses at the old books. There are several Walter Farley novels, first editions with original covers, in mint condition. "You never see these," he says, snatching up every one of them.
But these men are collectors. For them, buying old things at a bargain price has more to do with investment, the collectibles market and resale value.
By contrast, flea-market chic often focuses more on whimsy than financial worth. Furnishings may be old, but they should not be overly precious. If you can't put your feet up on it, refinish it, repaint it, take it apart for its more interesting decorative parts or use it for something, it isn't really shabby chic.
By 11:30 a.m., the regulars have packed up their bags of treasure and are being replaced by more desultory stragglers. Before leaving, Beth and Cathy have generously shared advice on several other secondhand shops. "Try Beggars and Choosers in Pittsboro," they say.
y late lunchtime, I arrive at Pittsboro's courthouse square. There are antique shops every 10 paces, but Beggars & Choosers is a wellspring of true shabby elegance. A store in a category by itself, it has three floors and an outbuilding overflowing with vintage clothing, china, glassware, furniture, books and an assortment of knickknacks that defy classification. This is a paradise for those interested in creating new style from old, worn objects.
For instance, the iron bathtub out back would require a small fortune in repairs if one were to try to refurbish it for its original use. But the claw feet would make terrific bookends. The tub itself could be part of a water garden. A broken piano stool has ball-and-claw feet which would be great as finials for a drapery rod. An old ladder could become a funky magazine rack. A battered pine chest has seen better days, but cut a hole in the top, nestle a sink bowl into it, run the plumbing out the back and you have a beautiful vanity for the bath.
Old windows can be taken apart and given new life as mirror frames. In the shabby elegant style, the peeling paint is a feature, not a liability, and it need not be stripped and replaced unless it is lead paint and you are concerned about exposure to the toxic flakes.
Of course, not everyone has the time or creativity to take on these kinds of projects, and sometimes the results may not be worth the work. Buying a crumbling wicker chair with hopes of having it restored may turn out to be more costly than paying for a better piece. What about those of us not willing to spend our leisure time scraping, scrubbing, rewiring, painting and thinking up a new use for, say, old glass doorknobs?
If you're willing to pay a little more, places like C.J. Cook's on Guess Road in Durham specialize in doing the work for you. Owner Connie Cook minds the shop while her hired "pickers" travel the globe, uncovering architectural salvage pieces, used furniture, garden ornaments, decorative accessories and other items. Then, with a little loving elbow grease and a lot of creative flair, Cook transforms the dilapidated into the delightful. Not strictly a secondhand shop, her store carries new items, too. But then, most people's homes are a blend of old and new. The gentle combinations at C.J. Cook's show how the transition between newly hand-crafted furnishings and vintage pieces need not be abrupt.
Whether you decide to seek refurbished vintage items or go searching for the materials to do it yourself, there's no doubt that seeking out flea-market elegance is a very pleasurable form of recycling. There's no pressure, no perfect standard to aspire to. The only rule: Follow your bliss. Happy hunting!