In Character with Nigel Barnes
Southeast Portlands Rejuvenation Inc. started by salvaging and re-selling light fixtures and hardware from old Portland buildings. Today, 95 percent of its business is replicating those items. But its that 5 percent the stuff thats found and re-sold thats the most fun, and that keeps the weirdness coming to manager of salvage and antique lighting Nigel Barnes.
Portland Tribune: Weirdest thing youve salvaged?
Nigel Barnes: Youre familiar with the grizzly bear thats on the California state flag? Thats actually a specific grizzly bear thats stuffed somewhere. We found a 12-foot-long, 6-foot-high bas-relief sculpture of the bear that was originally mounted on the funnel of a steamship called the Golden Bear.
When the ship was decommissioned in the 70s up in Washington, the ship salvage guy liked the bear, stuck it in a warehouse, and said hed never sell it. Finally, he retired and said to the picker, Come get it.
It went from, Its not for sale to, Its a million dollars if you want this thing to, Come and get it right now for a pittance.
Tribune: How did you get it?
Barnes: We were opening our store in L.A. We have a relationship with this picker, and we said we really needed a showcase piece for the store. He said, Oh, Ive got something you might want. We bought it.
Tribune: Can we ask how much?
Barnes: How much we paid for it? I cant tell you. We sold it for $22,000.
Tribune: The pickers you work with, a little odd on occasion?
Barnes: It seems like it attracts a certain kind of person who may not be able to function in a normal job. One guy had a pocket full of meteorites. The coolest thing we couldnt buy, other than a human skull, was an electric tube for a very, very old X-ray machine inside of its original packing case. It was suspended in a burlap sling and it was blown glass with these weird electrodes coming out of it. A total mad scientist thing.
Tribune: Why couldnt you buy it?
Barnes: Because inside this device was a giant pool of mercury, like two cups worth.
Tribune: But as long as its contained. ...
Barnes: That amount of mercury, if that broke the entire building would have to be evacuated, every single person would have to be blood tested and the entire building would have to be closed down.
Tribune: On the other hand, its really cool. Anyway, now that youve got stores in L.A. and Seattle, do you notice any difference in what sells here?
Barnes: Here theres more of a market for traditional stuff. Its a more blue-collar town. People are more sensitive to prices.
Tribune: Were cheap, arent we.
Barnes: No matter what the price is, someone is going to complain about it, regardless of the value, if its a low price or high price. L.A. is more status-driven. Art Deco and Mid-Century are very big there, especially furniture pieces by a famous maker or designer. Also, big over-the-top statement pieces like the bear.
We had a 7-foot-diameter flashing star sign with 350 bulbs. The kind of thing youd see in a casino. That sold to an L.A. customer.
Tribune: How much?
Barnes: Thirty-thousand dollars, and that was actually cheap.
Tribune: What did the picker get? Can I ask that?
Barnes: You can ask it, yes. ...
Tribune: Well, can I ask about a favorite salvage story?
Barnes: A man came in looking for a really unusual hardware piece. I think it was a spring-loaded retractable sash pin from the 1870s, a type of window lock. He said, Do you have this? Ive been looking for this matching piece for 10 years. It was ornate, Victorian style. We had gotten that matching piece in very recently. It was in a bucket under the counter. I pulled it out and said, Here it is.
He said, Oh my God, I cant believe it. Then he asked how much it was, and I said $10.
Tribune: You sold a star-shaped light for $30,000 and this 1870s piece of hard-to-find hardware you pull out of thin air like magic, you sell for 10 bucks?
Barnes: He said, Youve got to be kidding me.
Tribune: You think maybe you underpriced that item?
Barnes: No. He was upset because he thought it was too expensive. Thats Portland.Add a comment