Local antique dealers refurbish items and refine their craft
Whoever says antiques are boring hasn’t met Brian Hawkins. The junk enthusiast has, on more than one occasion, nearly risked his life for an interesting find.
While trying to cut down an old sign with some friends, Brian had an accident on a ladder. The sign fell, knocking the ladder out from under him while he was holding a grinding wheel in one hand.
“I wrapped my elbow around the pole and I basically gave myself a cesarean section,” Hawkins said.
His friend who was with him later had an accident while cutting down another sign, and a few days later, Brian got injured again with the same tool.
“I went to the same E.R. went to the same doctor, and he said, ‘Ya’ll gotta stop.’”
But he hasn’t stopped yet. Together with his wife, Ninette, Brian finds old items and turns them into modern furniture and home decor. Other antique hunters, like Randy and Joy Young and Tom and Betsey Craig, have the same drive to search for treasured items. Whether they seek collectible antiques, unique art or transformable junk, for these couples, the search is worth just as much as the items they sell.
Brian Hawkins fell in love with antiques when he was a little kid. He caught “the bug” as he called it, from his uncle who owned an antique store in Atlanta, Georgia. When he was in college at Texas Tech University, he thought taking a girl on a nice date would be taking her to an antique auction in Muleshoe.
“She looked at me like I had landed from Mars,” Brian said. “That’s when I knew I wasn’t like all the other people.”
Ninette, while not as much of an antique enthusiast, enjoys interior decorating, especially with old stuff.
“I started to love it when I saw other people’s houses, and I saw other people’s old stuff, and I thought ‘We could make that,’” Ninette said.
Their home is full of re-imagined items – like a headboard made from an iron gate found at Ninette’s family’s ranch, lamps made from scrap metal and old news cameras, or the bureau made from a vault that once lived in a tax office in Snyder before it lay in a field for 50 years. The couple found the vault in a pasture on Ninette’s family land, cleaned it up and added shelves made from the bleachers of an old basketball gym.
“He sees what’s underneath,” Ninette said. “You gotta have an open mind.”
Brian has an eye for finding things people will value. While visiting his mother in a rest home in North Carolina, Brian looked out the window of his hotel and saw bowling alley flooring being thrown into a dumpster. He asked if he could take the wood, and the owner said yes. But he didn’t have any way to transport the heavy, solid maple flooring.
“When I was trying to figure out how much they’re worth, I was googling bowling alley floors,” Brian said. “I couldn’t find anything. I kept going deeper and deeper, and bam! I got a hit! It was Westwood Lanes in Abilene, selling their bowling alley floor.”
He sold everything in that storage unit for $200 per 5-foot piece, but the market value of solid maple flooring is actually $700 per piece. As soon as he got back to Abilene, Brian purchased his own piece of bowling lane flooring from Westwood Lanes. He turned it into a dining room table with metal legs made from an old conveyor belt. The arrows on the flooring can still be seen on its shiny wooden surface.
The Hawkins said their goods tend to sell better among young people. Although they have a booth at the Rust & Roses antique store on South 14th in Abilene, their pieces sell even better at vintage markets in Austin. They were also found by the “American Pickers,” a History channel duo that finds old items around the country. They were looking for old porcelain signs, something the Hawkins had discovered and posted on the Facebook marketplace.
Driving her F-250 power diesel pickup truck, Joy Young goes hunting for antiques at flea markets, estate sales, garage sales and even the side of the road.
“We’ll go to College Station to see our son, and we come back looking like the Beverly Hillbillies,” said her husband, Randy. “There’ll be rocking chairs and tables and whatever else there.”
Joy found her love of antiques when she was a little kid and used to see old items – like a 100-year-old butcher block – at her great aunt’s house. When she got married, her love for decorating and collecting antique furniture joined with her husband Randy’s love of classic cars. About 30 years ago they opened the Model-T Mall, the first antique store in Brady, Texas.
Today they sell antiques, vintage furniture, and art in a booth at the Rust & Roses antique store on South 14th Street in Abilene. Randy doesn’t sell cars, but his garage is filled with old cars ranging from a ‘32 Ford Hot Rod to a ‘23 Model T race car, to a ‘72 GMC Model 8 Coup.
“Whatever I put in there and I put in my labor, the cars are always worth more than that,” Randy said. “My dad, he’s 85, and he still has a shop full of cars.”
Randy, his dad and brothers actually got to be on the show “American Pickers” on an episode called “Texas Pick ‘Em.”
If you take a look at their booth at Rust & Roses, you’ll find things like wardrobes turned into wine racks, an old Sonic menu, and a floor-to-ceiling tapestry with a nativity scene painted on it. Joy said she found it at a thrift shop and it looked like someone had taken the oil painting out of a canvas. Another treasure in her booth is a watchmaker cabinet with a set of magnifying glasses screwed into the top.
But these items won’t be in the shop for long. Joy said the industry is fast-moving, with items coming and going every week. She constantly searches for or discovers new items, sometimes specifically for a customer.
“I like finding the stuff, but I like selling,” Joy said. “It is fun to meet a sale, to make it a business.”
“She’ll see things and say ‘oh this is so-and-so’ and she’ll call them and before we’ve gotten back, she’s made a sale,” Randy said. “As long as Joy’s out there in Texas, they know there’s nothing going to get by without them having a shot at it.
Joy often goes to great lengths to get something she feels has value, Randy said. While traveling in a big city and going to a fancy restaurant with friends, Joy saw some furniture on the side of the road and went to get it in high heels.
“They were the ritziest looking junkers,” Randy said.
Or she finds old items in “the sketchiest places,” Randy said. He served as a judge for 20 years, and sometimes he was surprised by the type of people she would meet in her search.
“I know their type and I’m like ‘I know that guy and don’t tell me you went to that place…’” Randy said laughing. “She’ll go in the sketchiest places, and she’ll come out and be their best friends.”
For Tom Craig, antique hunting is about curating collections for himself and his customers. At the Antique Station, which he co-owns with his wife and three other couples, he specializes in traditional pieces, most of which are at least 30 years old.
“It’s very relational,” Tom said. “People like to talk about what they love, and they’re looking for things that they’ve got a passion for. In the business, you get to know people, and that’s what makes it fun.”
Tom’s parents bought and sold antiques, so from a young age, Tom was in tow for antique shows. He started buying pieces when he was 10 years old, mostly collecting old advertising signs and Depression glass. By 1989, he had such a large collection, he was able to sell it to buy the ring with which he proposed to Betsey.
Although Betsey isn’t as big of a fan of the hunt for antiques – often bringing a book to read on antique-buying trips – her parents are also antique hunters. In 1998 they teamed up with Tom, his parents, and another couple to purchase a historic building in downtown Abilene and transform it into their own antique store.
The four couples take turns working at the Antique Station, so for years, Tom would leave his day job at Abilene Christian University to go to the store and help customers hunt for antiques. Although he retired from ACU in 2018, he said the connections he formed there continue to pop up in as alumni and parents of students travel into town and stop by to see what’s new in the store.
“When they come here, they ask questions: ‘Where is a good place to eat? What else can I do while I’m here?’” Tom said. “We’re constantly telling people, ‘Check out this restaurant. Check this out if you have time.’ It all works very well together.”
But not all of the Station’s customers are traditional antique-hunters, Tom said. Young people gravitate toward mid-century and eclectic items in the store, while those in their 30’s and 40’s search for usable furniture.
“We try to keep up with whatever is trending on Pinterest,” Tom said. Like mason jars that seem to sell out quickly as a decoration for weddings.
People in their 40s and 50s are often looking for a collectible item, like the old advertising signs, a KFC lampshade, fiesta pottery and nostalgic cookware carefully placed throughout the store. Tom said the dealers at the Antique Station try to follow the 30-year rule, which means they typically sell items that are 30 years or older. This is because most people begin to have more discretionary income around age 30, and they begin to buy things that their grandmother or parents owned.
“You gravitate to things that you have an emotional connection to,” Tom said. “We have people come into the shop, and they see things like Corningware dishes. And it strikes a memory. All of a sudden, they have this affection to the piece, and they want to buy it.”
Tom said more antique shops in town doesn’t necessarily mean more competition, because the dealers don’t all have the same merchandise. When antique hunters come to town, they can go to multiple shops to find exactly what they’re looking for.
“Some people hunt deer, some people hunt bargains, some people hunt antiques,” Tom said. “You get that same euphoria when you finally find it, like, ‘I’ve been looking for this. Here it is.’”
By Haley Remenar
Photography by Beth Dukes