Antiques shop revives era when belongings were few but functional
Keiran Best makes one pine for the Midwest.
The Des Moines native spotlights farmhouse furnishings of the Dust Bowl days at Porch Light, her antiques store on North Mississippi Avenue.
There is a beauty in the utility of these much-used Hoosier cabinets, wooden kitchen tables and the patched pie safes. They give testament to a simpler time - before packaged foods - when flour was stored in a drawer and fresh-baked pies were protected behind doors covered in mesh screen.
'People didn't have so many things,' Best says of those times, 'but the things that they had were of much more value to them - especially if they were functional and beautiful.
'Country people in the Midwest at that time didn't have a lot of fancy or extra things. If they had anything that was special, it was something that was passed down from generation to generation,' she says.
This sentiment is evidenced today in people who want less cluttered interiors, Beaverton interior designer Diane Keaton says.
'People now … want things cleaner. They're nesting, and all that stuff clutters your mind a little bit. We all have cell phones and iPods, there's so much to deal with. If you have fewer things at home, you can deal with everything else. People still want the old antiques and things from the past, but they are more selective. If you can come home and enjoy what you have without worrying about it, it's more relaxing.'
With parents who were antiques dealers, Best grew up in a home filled with primitive and farmhouse pieces.
When she went to New York University to study photography, she eschewed the old and furnished her apartment with the new and very modern.
'I tried that for a while,' she says. 'I never felt like I was at home. I slowly started to gather (farmhouse) pieces of my own and realized that this actually is something that I love. It's very homey, and it means family to me.'
After moving to Oakland, Calif., with her husband, Aaron, she had the notion of opening a combination jewelry studio and art gallery. But the space she found, an old general store in a transitional neighborhood, was way too big for what she had in mind.
With the encouragement of her mother and sister, she changed her plans, and seven years ago opened her first antiques store there, calling it Porch Light.
In time the couple grew weary of the difficulty of life in the Bay Area. They had friends in Portland and, seeking a change of scenery, were attracted to the pace of life here.
'Portland feels very much like Iowa to me,' Best, 36, says. 'It's smaller in size than the Bay Area, but still metropolitan. Everything is more easily accessible. It's not as hectic. People are really friendly and open.'
She searched for almost a year after moving here before finding the space on Mississippi Avenue, which, with its brick walls, wooden floors and tin ceilings, seemed an ideal showcase for her wares. Last July she closed the Oakland store and by September had opened Porch Light here.
'My inspiration is pretty much the Midwest farmhouse of the '30s and '40s,' Best says. 'I do mix in some pieces that are earlier than that, and I have a few pieces that are later.'
That era's lack of pretentiousness appeals to her, as do the faded colors of cream, red and green. She loves how items are both functional and well-designed.
'Even the utilitarian things back in the '30s, '40s and '50s have more emphasis on design,' she says. 'For example, Swanky Swigs are glasses that you'd buy in the grocery store and they would have a Kraft cheese product in them. When you finish your cheese product, you have a beautiful glass that you can drink out of.
'A lot of the pottery that I have, when you would order flowers from a florist that's what you would get with your flowers instead of a plain cylinder. So you had something beautiful and useful after you were finished with its original purpose.
'I know at that time in history people had a lot of problems, but I feel connected to them,' she says.
'I won't throw something out until it's absolutely useless. I like to make things out of old things and reuse them. That was a big part of the Dust Bowl in the '30s. People really had to use all of their resources. I would have been one of the people who persevered during that hard time because that's like a challenge for me - using things in new ways.'
If they've lasted this long …
Among the best-selling items in the store are the vintage and reproduction linens with designs from the '30s,'40s and '50s.
'I sell tons of linens,' Best says. 'When I'm looking for the vintage ones I try to find them in good condition, and I always have a really good stock. For the most part you can just throw them in the washer and dryer. They've already been laundered, by this time, thousands of times.
'Everything that I sell is American. It's not an American pride type of thing. … I'm just more drawn to it. I try to keep the shop true to the theme. It's what I look for.'
A sentimental person, Best has a fondness for the memories and stories suggested by the pieces she collects and sells. She collects old toy carts and trucks, which are not for sale, and can rhapsodize about a cupboard with a hole in the side that someone, long ago, patched with the top of a tin can.
Such stories are part of such items' appeal, Keaton says.
'People who like this kind of look want to live in happy times,' she says. 'They have memories of being on a farm or going to visit their grandparents. It makes them feel warm and safe.'
PBS, eBay tighten the market
Best returns to the Midwest several times a year, traveling by truck with her sister (who owns a Porch Light store in Des Moines) to flea markets, estate sales and other antiques stores, searching for stock.
The territory is familiar and the iconic farmhouse items are more plentiful in that region than in some other parts of the country. But it's getting harder to find those warm, friendly pieces, even in the Midwest.
'Farmers who live 20 miles away from the nearest town have discovered eBay,' she says. 'When eBay first started you could find lots of great things. Now I couldn't even buy things for myself on there, let alone (afford to) buy things to resell them.'
Shelter magazines and programs like 'Antiques Roadshow' have both educated the public and driven up prices of things that once were the province only of collectors.
'Like myself,' Best says, 'I've been collecting pottery forever. My mom started me with a little collection when I was a kid. You rarely can go to a garage sale and find a piece of American pottery for 50 cents anymore. Or even $10. People know. If they read the newspaper or look at magazines or watch TV, they know that what they have is something.
'They may not think it's worth something to them, but they know that it is to other people.'
Where: 3972 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-288-8773
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday