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Friday, April 10, 2009

'Antiquing' in Montreal

by Daniel Drolet in the Montreal Gazette

What did you do? I went antiquing in Montreal.

What's so special about that? Well, um, most of the antiques I was looking at weren't very old. They're from the 1960s and 1970s, in large part. If you grew up in a house with avocado-coloured kitchen appliances, burnt orange shag rugs and teak furniture, you'll know what I'm talking about.

And there's a place where you can find this kind of stuff? A whole district actually, in one section of Amherst Street, several blocks long, where a series of shops sell such items as chrome lamps, vintage beanbag chairs, eye-popping fabrics from the psychedelic era and "electronics," mostly a lot of old phones, hi-fi sets and televisions that look like astronauts' helmets. Things that people used to think looked futuristic.

And people buy this stuff? Of course. It's very trendy. "People come from all over," says Andre Demondo, co-owner of Cite Deco, at 1761 Amherst. "This kind of stuff is very cool right now. Scandinavian style furniture, with its simple lines, is a good fit for a lot of lofts." Jean-Guy Cyr of Jack's, at 1860 Amherst, says it started off with collectors, but the look now attracts a lot of young people just starting out. He says it also attracts people into the environment because after all, antiques are recycled material!

Where is Amherst Street, exactly? It's a north-south street that cuts Ste-Catherine, the city's main shopping artery, a few blocks east of St-Denis in Montreal's gay village near the Beaudry Metro stop.

And where are the shops? For the most part they are up and down Amherst between Ste-Catherine and Ontario.

I thought Montreal's antique district was elsewhere. Montreal actually has several antiquing districts. Perhaps the best known is Notre-Dame Street down near the Atwater Market. That's where you find a lot of the much older stuff. The Amherst area is fairly new. It's where you find things like Salton bun warmers.

Excuse me, but what's a Salton bun warmer? It was a hostess's must-have electrical gadget in the late '60s and early '70s -- back when rolls were called buns and before people worried about cutting carbohydrates. It's basically a rectangular box with a cloth cover. You put buns in it, plug it in, and it keeps the buns warm through your buffet dinner party.

And these were popular? Apparently. Check them out on eBay if you don't believe me.

Are all the stores on Amherst Street stuck in the psychedelic '70s? No. Cite Deco has stuff going back to the 1930s. Karactere, at 1701 Amherst, is a gift shop with new or retro looking items with no antiques at all. Le 1863 at 1863 Amherst specializes in old toys as well as items from the 1950s through to the 1970s. And Jack's is starting to have retro stuff from the 1980s. So it's an interesting mix. It's basically a good street for offbeat home decor items, new or old, both furniture and accessories.

Has this area been a centre for antiques for a long time? Andre Demondo of Cite Deco says he was one of the first: He set up shop here about 15 years ago. But he says that in the past five years, the area has really come into its own as an area for "newer" antiques. Jean-Guy Cyr, who started up Jack's about 10 years ago, says stores do come and go, but overall there's a critical mass in the area. Yann Bris of Karactere says even though he sells no antiques, he chose to establish himself on Amherst because it is drawing people seeking trendy retro stuff and interesting design. He says the city of Montreal has recognized the street's potential and plans to give Amherst a facelift later this year with wider sidewalks to make it more attractive.

What if I don't want antiques or even newer ones? Actually, it's fun just to walk through the stores and delight in the visual experience. You feel like you are in a time warp. And with good reason: Jack's, which restores a lot of furniture, does a booming business renting out vintage furniture to people making movies, TV shows or commercials set in the 1960s and '70s.

So, what did you end up buying on your antiquing expedition? Nothing, actually.

What! Not even a Salton bun warmer? Um, I have one already, actually.

You do? Well, uh, I grew up in a house with teak furniture and avocado-coloured appliances and purple shag carpets and a wood-panelled rec room.

And a Salton bun warmer? Yes, and a Salton bun warmer. My mom didn't want it anymore and she gave it to me. I spent my time on Amherst Street checking out the prices of bun warmers in the various antique shops. I wanted to see whether mine was worth a lot of money, you know, like an Antiques Roadshow find.

And is it? Nope. I think an awful lot of people must have bought Salton bun warmers in the 1970s. The darn things aren't rare at all.

So you're stuck with it? I guess so.

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