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Education in antiques

Former school is a bonanza for students of collecting

From the outside, Lafayette Schoolhouse looks like a small-town-America county courthouse. Its cream-colored wooden walls tower sunnily over Oregon Highway 99W, and the double-door entrance looks grand enough for a political news conference.

But inside, the patter of tiny feet has been replaced by the measured shuffle of collectors around 90 antique stalls. It's unlikely that any of the classrooms ever saw the kind of concentration that's expended there today.

The schoolhouse's eight classrooms are packed full of collectibles Ñ Depression glass, Fiesta dinnerware, English china, pottery, toys, games, books, paintings, knives, lamps, advertisements, salt shakers, jewelry, clocks and apple box posters.

On a recent day, a browser could buy a World War II army uniform for $75, a book of Dwight Eisenhower's favorite poems for $5, a 1930 poster promoting 'All Girls Wrestling and Boxing' in Portland for $95, a sign warning of typhus fever for $20, two resin-composite Indian statues for $125 apiece, numerous cartoon character telephones priced between $100 and $200 and an ice dispenser shaped like W.C. Fields' head for $49.95.

Lafayette Schoolhouse was built between 1910 and 1913 for $13,000, a considerable sum in those days. Twenty years later, a large wooden gymnasium was built on the east side in the style of a rural grange hall; these days it's crammed with antique furniture of oak, maple and pine.

The last year for high school in the building was 1948; the last grade-schoolers left in 1970. The school sat empty for 17 years before John Regan of Centralia, Wash.-based Shopping Destinations Inc. bought it. Remodeling involved painting, rewiring, re-roofing and carpeting the three-story building.

Regan owns four antique malls around the Northwest. His first, 150-dealer space opened in Snohomish, Wash., in 1982; an 80-dealer mall opened in Centralia in 1986. Lafayette Schoolhouse followed in 1988 and Seaside mall in 1991.

Regan advertises widely, and tourists come from as far as the East Coast and Japan. The four malls also have a Web site with 16,000 items listed at www.myantiquemall.com.

Mall manager Cricket Propp came to the school six years ago 'from an ordinary job.' She still pinches herself daily because her job is fun.

'People who collect are happy campers,' she says.

There is, however, a constant exposure to the temptation of buying. Propp collects creamers and garden gnomes. 'We all just turn over our paychecks,' she says with a laugh.

Vendor Debbi Coe was one of the first antique dealers to rent a space Ñ even before the remodeling was finished.

'I drew it in the dust,' she says.

Coe and her husband, Randy, specialize in American glassware and china. Collecting tastes have changed over the years, she says, with Liberty china now very popular.

'It's blue-and-white dinnerware that was made in England and was given away by Ben Franklin Bank, a savings and loan that went bankrupt in the late 1970s. After that it was released to grocery stores.'

As part of a U.S. bicentennial promotion, the bank ordered the china, which has bold revolutionary scenes in the middle of the plates. These days, prices range from $10 to $12 for a dinner plate to $450 to $500 for a soup tureen, Coe says.

'We handled the stuff for years, and people kept asking why there wasn't a book on it,' she says. 'Well, I knew a bunch of collectors who had enough pieces for photos, so we wrote one.'