In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/. This week’s column is by Nancy Price Graff, a freelance writer and editor from Montpelier.
Robert Somaini made thousands of meatballs for this year’s annual Super Bowl sale at the East Barre Antique Mall, but most customers came to satisfy their appetite for times gone by.
Some feasted on childhood memories: floppy Raggedy Ann dolls with wild eyes and lopsided grins; wood blocks impressed with images of elephants and zebras, numbered and lettered in faded paint, the soft colors of a baby’s room; game boards made in an era when two people actually sat down and played games together.
Other customers relished finding a cut glass candy dish just like the one their mothers filled with peppermint drops at Christmas; or a boxy Arts and Crafts rocking chair like the one their uncle favored, still rock solid after 90 years; or a baseball glove, as round and squat as a polished chestnut, like the one their grandfather wore when he played for Barre’s Spaulding High School team in 1902.
They found hundreds of dainty teacups with matching saucers in scores of patterns, enough to remind every great-grandmother in Vermont of the days when guests came calling on Sunday afternoons and hostesses brought out their best china to impress them. Customers wandered past dining, end, side and card tables; chamber pots and cast iron skillets; history books, cookbooks, and one copy of former Gov. Farnham’s 1880 inaugural address to the Legislature.
Scattered throughout the store and massed in a rear room were at least 172 back issues of Vermont Life, 95 percent of them worth no more than two bucks. In short, the three stories of the former Whitcomb Furniture Store are chock-a-block full with something for everyone who knows that time is not just another dimension but an endless conveyor belt featuring changing styles and fads.
“What are you looking for?” Somaini greets a customer who is standing near the door looking skeptical, as if the wealth of objects before him is too much to comprehend.
“Everything and nothing,” the man admits.
“We’ve got a lot of everything and some of nothing,” Somaini announces, sweeping his arm through the air in a generous invitation to browse.
Everyone who enters the store gets personal attention. New customers get that inviting smile and a welcome. Regulars get a hug, and the ones who have kept him in business over the years get a kiss.
Ann Mills is one of the latter. She met Somaini for the first time close to 30 years ago, when he was co-owner of an area furniture store.
“I used his help to decorate the house we built. He knows what he’s talking about. He knows antiques,” she says to explain her loyalty. Over the years, she has manifested that loyalty by taking out her checkbook time and again, purchasing blanket chests, beds, sofas, and rugs.
“And a lot of chairs,” she adds with a laugh.
Finding new homes for vintage objects for customers like Ann Mills was Somaini’s business plan for the mall long before it became popular.
“Recycle: Buy Antiques, the Ultimate Green Experience” reads a hand-lettered sign inside the front door.
“What’s better than reusing things? Especially if they’re not nearly worn out,” says Somaini. “Plus they have stories.”
Somaini is a keeper of stories. He has something to say about almost every item in the store. A tall, gentle man with a head full of soft, gray curls, and arms as flighty as wings, he spins stories in the voice of a preacher.
First is the history of East Barre, a village that sprung up on the outskirts of Barre in the mid 1800s when the area’s first granite quarry opened nearby. Next came the railroad to transport the granite. Houses grand and not so grand went up for the workers. The people in the houses needed cloth, paint and lard. In 1894 the behemoth that today houses the mall was built.
Even then the mall was too big for any one enterprise; instead, it contained an assortment of stores selling everything from tea to nails. Later the building housed an opera house and later still, a movie theater.
In 1935, the year the Civilian Conservation Corps finished the East Barre Flood Control dam to prevent a repeat of the devastation of the Flood of 1927, the railroad went out of business. Attrition became the village’s future. Whitcombs Furniture Store took over the building in the 1930s.
Today, downtown East Barre is anchored by the mall, a church, a post office and a public library.
“I don’t have any background,” Somaini says, launching into the story of his own life. It’s an answer in keeping with his modesty, and it is untrue. Born and reared by Italian parents in North Barre, he still uses his mother’s meatball recipe to lure customers to the mall’s big Super Bowl sale.
“I just never left. I don’t have a traveling bone in my body,” he insists.
Instead he went to work at Chellis Collins, a respected former area furniture store, and co-owned it for 23 years while he learned the hallmarks of well-made furniture and the elements of interior design. At the time, he and his wife also operated a bed and breakfast out of their 16-room home in Barre. When the furniture partnership eventually dissolved, he was offered a job selling carpet.
“I hate carpet,” he says with a sigh.
To avoid a future in carpet sales, he acquired two partners and opened the East Barre Antique Mall. They invited vendors who didn’t have enough inventory for their own stores to rent booths. Over the years he bought out his partners, but he still cultivates the vendors, who provide the cash flow that keeps the mall open. He also carries items on consignment for about 300 people. He does not buy antiques to sell himself because he believes it would be unfair to compete with his vendors.
But he occasionally still buys things for himself — a habit he started when he was 10, when he bought himself a hot water pitcher for $5. He still has it.
Later he started picking up bottles along the railroad track and turning them in for cash. Combining that money with his allowance, he would go down to Gagne’s Swap Shop in Barre and buy china and cast iron pots and carry them home. For his 12th birthday, he asked his parents for a set of used “Flow Blue” china.
“This business is fueled by the three D’s: divorce, death, and downsizing,” Somaini says. Given human nature, a steady supply of new inventory for the mall seems guaranteed.
And he seems determined to continue rescuing the past and sharing the wealth.
He feels strongly about treating all his customers the way he did the woman who once brought him a daguerreotype taken in the 1840s and asked him if he would buy it for $50. He took the photograph to a specialty dealer who paid him $2,500 for it.
He gave her all the money. “When it’s all said and done, what do you have?“ he asks. “Your reputation.”