WELCOME to my Blog, a page which I hope to develop into a pastiche of musings, advice and stories about life as an antiques dealer, a reckless and impulsive remodeler and a cancer survivor. Over the years, I've undertaken many remodeling, craft and decorating projects. I want to share my experiences to ensure that you don't make the same mistakes I've made and perhaps give blog readers some helpful tips to avoid my methods. My motto is "Don't Do It The Way I Do!"

As the owner of Finials Antiques for Home & Garden in Washington, DC, I also hope to help readers see design and decorating possibilities just about everywhere. Finally, as a mother of three children, a cancer survivor and a woman who has years of experience in political issues-advocacy, (I may be deluding myself) but I think I have something to say. I will occasionally post about whatever topics come to mind. Please check back often. I hope you'll be amused by my stories and will follow my blog.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


We all know the old adage, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” For some, it might refer to the sensational stories of a Monet found in an attic-to-dump clean out or the $5 yard sale painting that brings $50,000 at auction.  Most of us will never have a hit that big, but you can score well in a different arena--a whole world of discarded doors, windows, appliances, furniture and accessories that might be collecting mold in an alley near you.  With a little know-how, you too can navigate the shadowy world of strange people who skulk in alleys and dumpsters and enthusiastically sully their hands and cars, just because they see possibilities in everything.

My kitchen ceiling rack is a wonderful confection of curlicue iron. It holds dozens of pots and pans.  Hung with chains and turnbuckles and adorned with plant hooks, it makes a real statement.  I see similar items in magazines.  You can even have ‘em custom made.  Mine, however, has a more humble pedigree.  It’s an old window grate I found in someone’s trash.  There are examples all over my house. 

If you’re not embarrassed by the idea, trash can be a wonderful source for things you need. But, before you set out on your back alley adventures, there are some things you need to know.

First, what are good trash bets?  Look for things that might come in handy for a repair; small appliances like vacuums and Cusinarts might have the right parts when yours breaks down   Picket fence sections that aren’t rotten can make great gates to keep the dogs out of the kitchen.  Old wooden ladders make interesting towel bars. A discarded drawer may be the perfect size for your Empire table.  An old bike may have just the retro-looking fender you need.

The perfectly good handle on a rusted out garden hoe can save you a trip to the hardware store.  Old cupboard doors are perfect for making signs or paintings.  Drawer pulls and hinges are an easy find (just make sure you always have a Phillips head and flat head screwdriver in the car).  Even though your carpenter will probably beg for a brand-new, pre-hung, Home Depot door, stick to your guns.  An old true divided light French door from the trash may cost you as much to modify as you’d spend on a new one, but the end result can be much more satisfying.

 Second, believe it or not, the rules of etiquette do apply when collecting other people’s trash.

            DO NOT TAKE ANYTHING FROM A PILE MARKED FOR CHARITY.  Even though I’ve seen it happen, those items are destined to raise funds for a cause and the owner is getting a tax deduction. Ethically, it’s stealing.  There is, however, no reason you can’t knock on the door and offer to hand over some cash for something you really want.  Just suggest that the trash owner pass the money on to the charitable organization.  You’ve done a good deed.

            DO NOT GO INTO SOMEONE’S YARD. Respect people’s property.  If you see something at curbside that seems destined for the dump, you can ask.  The rules for bulk trash day don’t seem to require express permission (it’s pretty obvious what’s getting thrown out), but do not make a mess!  If you take something out of a box, spill some styrofoam peanuts, or rifle through a pile of books, clean up.  Impolite trash pickers make us all look bad.

            ASK PERMISSION IF YOU’RE NOT SURE.  I’ve asked contractors, homeowners and even clergymen if I could take something from a pile or dumpster (I’ve still got the great church windows, but haven’t found the right place just yet).  I don’t think I’ve ever been refused and often they’ll even help load it into your car.  Once, after spotting a great cupboard in the yard of an empty house for sale, I called the real estate agent listed on the sign.  She checked with the owner, called me back 20 minutes later and told me to help myself. Everyone won. Less trash to the dump, fewer hauling dollars spent, better curb appeal for the house, and I already had the perfect place for it.

            BE SELECTIVE.  It probably sounds ridiculous, but unless you’re discriminating, you’ll end up where I was last spring–a huge pile of other people’s trash that I had to pay $300 to have hauled to the dump.  Broken chairs are almost impossible to fix, so unless there are salvageable pieces (like a great piece of carving you can hang on your wall), leave them in the pile.  Soggy bulletin boards will crumble and there’s probably good reason for the rotten old wood to be there (think termites).  This doesn’t mean you have to ignore things with possibilities–it just means that you should be as thoughtful as if you were writing a check.

            BE CAREFUL ABOUT YOUR REPUTATION.  I have a wonderful neighbor who holds an annual yard sale of what he calls “scavenged items.”  He loves to make a few dollars on a pair of andirons or an old bowl that he’s found in the alley.  And he deserves it.  After all, he found it, cleaned it, hauled it and spent money on the ad.  But just like me, he’s getting a reputation and he might end up being the repository for others’ unwanted and useless stuff.  If someone offers you their trash, make sure you don’t just haul it away and end up adding it to your own trash pile.  A great rule of thumb: politely turn down the 20-volume set of 1970s Encyclopedia Britannica. You probably won’t use it; you certainly don’t have the bookshelf space, and most thrift shops don’t want it.  This, however, doesn’t apply to someone who says, “you can have this, but you’ve gotta get the rest of the stuff outta here!” Try negotiating, but if that fails and there’s something you really want, quickly and efficiently sort out the real trash and throw it away!

Finally, feel good about what you do. There are lots of noble reasons people pick from the trash.  Some find real treasures. Others are curious dabblers.  Okay, I admit, some are just plain cheap.  But visions of overflowing landfills and garbage barges floating aimlessly with no place to dump their cargo do contribute to this peculiar passion. 

Some of us, like my own children, will always find it odd or distasteful to hoard the discarded remnants of someone else’s life.  But look at it this way: who doesn’t want to crow when they get a pair of Ferragamos at 70% off?  Outlet mall and off-price store shoppers aren’t ashamed.  Plus, it puts a whole new spin on bragging about a bargain.  If there were a market, I’d have my own bags printed a la Filene’s basement.  Mine would read  “I just got a bargain–in the trash!”

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Maybe it was the 20 inches of white snow piling up outside, and maybe it was cabin fever, but the eggshell walls in my house were really closing in. I was restless, so at the height of the storm, I drove to my friend Lise’s house for a cup of coffee in front of the fire.

Lise was obviously feeling confined too–I walked in while she was poring over a file of pages ripped from home decorating magazines. For a while, we looked at the pictures, thought about daring makeovers and stared at the snow.  Then my eye caught a photo of a large bathroom–the walls were striped in bold hot pink and white.

“That’s it,” I thought.  Regardless of the staggering number of projects mounting up in my house, despite my allegiance to neutral walls, I knew I needed this.  I needed relief from the gray skies and cold weather.  I yearned for color–bright, bold color–and it couldn’t wait.  I too needed  pink striped walls.

Pink was my teenage daughter’s favorite color, but even she was skeptical when I walked in, shook off the snow, and announced that I was going to paint the hallway in giant, 10-inch wide pink and white stripes. My kids are fairly used to my eccentric tendency to jump into a project and then, just as recklessly, abandon the idea.  They knew I only really finished things for customers.
But this time they knew something was different, the kids were actually intrigued, and my more adventurous friends were egging me on.  We were trapped by snow.  I had to try it (besides, a couple of gallons of white paint could easily obliterate all evidence of my poor judgment).

The next morning, when the snow stopped falling, I slogged through the icy streets to the paint store, picked the perfect pink, bought some blue, easy-release painters tape, and a gallon of bright white pearl latex paint. At home, it was instantly clear that the “Peony Petal Pink” should have been named “Bazooka Bubblegum.”

Lise came by and we tried mixing in other colors–too purple–too light–too deep. Finally, surrounded by peanut butter jars and coffee cans filled with our test colors, we hit on the formula–lots of bubblegum pink, a little periwinkle blue, some white, a touch of red and just a dash of raw umber.  It was perfect–sophisticated and daring.  It was also the same color my younger son was begging me to dye his hair.

My approach was haphazard at best.  First I rolled white paint over all the walls, then grabbed a tape measure and set about figuring the width of the stripes and how many I’d need.  Although I’m the daughter of an astrophysicist, I consider myself severely math-challenged.  I wasn’t sure where to start and where to end.  Should I include the doorways in my measurements?  How should I handle the corners?  My solution was to jump on in and take my chances.  Fortunately, it worked, but I did learn a few things that could make this project go very smoothly for even the most inexperienced painter.

Of course, pink and white isn’t to everyone’s taste.  Contrasting colors aren’t even required. Subtle shades of white or cream can work. Even the same color, alternating the stripes from flat paint to semi-gloss or gloss, will give a distinctive effect.  Go through the paint chip book at your local paint store for ideas.

Even though I always ignore this cardinal rule of do-it-yourself projects, preparation is key. Clear out the room, make sure the walls are clean, and have all your supplies (ruler, pencil, tape, paint and brushes) ready. Let the base coat dry, pick a corner, pluck the cat off the stepladder and jump on in.

Measure the length of each wall  (including the doors and windows), add them up, divide by the width of your planned stripes (10 for 10-inch stripes, etc.), and you’ll have a rough idea of how many stripes you’ll end up with. 

I decided that I didn’t want all-white corners, so I started by wrapping the first pink stripe about three inches around the first corner.  With a level or a chalk line, pencil in a vertical line from ceiling to floor. Apply the masking tape and with a small roller or pad painter, smooth on the color.  After about twenty minutes, you can add another coat, peel the tape and get a sense of what you’ve gotten yourself into. By then of course, it’s too late. You’re committed and you have to see it through.

Once you’ve got one done, you can approach the rest of the room with some patience and care. Mark off the entire room (just be sure to measure each stripe carefully–I got distracted and set the making tape on the wrong sides of the pencil lines, resulting in a stripe that was nearly 14 inches wide).   Don’t worry if your measurements are a little off.  My stripes are varying widths, but they’re all pretty close (within 3/4 of an inch or so).    I didn’t want a stripe in the exact middle of each wall (too planned for my random eye), so I adjusted as I went.  A little bit of asymmetry will give your wall some interest so your result won’t be as regular as wallpaper.  When you get to the last wall, adjust again as you go so you’re not left with a final stripe that’s much bigger or smaller than the rest.

Roll the stripes carefully; two coats about 20 minutes apart is usually enough, and pull the tape off while the paint is still a little wet.  You can also “seal” the tape to the wall by rolling over it with your base color.  After it dries, roll  two coats of stripe color.  This will give you the sharpest line.

Even if it’s uneven and beyond your touch-up ability, take heart.  As my cousin Andy used to say about do-it-yourself art projects, “if you mess up a little, don’t worry. It’s folk art!” Only a few of your dearest friends will examine your work that closely and they’re honor-bound so say something nice.  Only your kids will loudly point out the flaws.  The point is to take a chance, have fun, try something new, and don’t fall off the ladder.  If you can accomplish all that, a crooked stripe or two is nothing.

A simple snowstorm can inspire an entirely new direction in style. The color of a car, the shape of a sofa, a glimpse of the old wallpaper under the paint you’re stripping, can send you veering off into uncharted creative waters. The truth is, if you’re open and a bit adventurous, you’ll develop an artist’s eye and cultivate a flexibility that will keep you and your surroundings fresh.

My pink and white wall is a dramatic departure from my typical color scheme. It makes me smile.  It reminds me of being stuck at home during a blizzard while I perched atop a ladder and the kids made snowmen and drank hot chocolate in front of the fire.

Reactions have been mixed. Some people shake their heads. Others are really complimentary; still others wonder how long it will be until I’m bored and try something else.  But everyone has noticed and after years of living with safe colors, I’m happy with my new-found status as a bold color person.  Maybe next I’ll paint the kitchen a nice shade of electric purple–the same color as my daughter dyed her hair in ninth grade might be nice.

Friday, October 29, 2010

So You Wanna Be an Antique Dealer?

If you want to surround yourself with beautiful things, quit your job and become an antiques dealer. You get to keep the best for yourself.  Your home will be a tasteful mix of period styles and eye-catching art.  You can take charge of your own life and set your own schedule.  Everyone will tell you that you have “a great eye.”   Best of all, you get to shop for a living! What could be better?

One evening at a dinner for my son’s 5th grade class, I was sitting across from another mom.  I mentioned that as an antique dealer, Monday was my favorite day of the week (that’s the dealer’s day of rest).  She looked puzzled and said,  “Oh . . . I didn’t know you had a shop.”  I’m sure I turned bright red.  This mom had picked her daughter up at my home many times.  She’d navigated around the boxes, chairs and half-painted furniture and ducked the chandeliers hanging from every available ceiling spot.  In a panic, I asked,  “Did you think we were just a bunch of slobs?!?”  She quietly answered, “Well I did notice that you have lots of stuff.”

That’s reality to many antique dealers. Your house is really never done since every week you might find a giant cupboard that will work “much better” than the giant cupboard you just bought and filled last week. Your husband is always complaining about moving furniture and even the cats and dogs are confused by the ever-changing landscape.  You constantly ask friends to switch car pool days because your mini van is too full to accommodate more than the driver.  Having a few friends over to dinner doesn’t just mean cooking, it often means finding the dining room table!

So, if you’re considering a career change, keep the following in mind:

You get to keep the best for yourself:  That’s true, except first, you have to sell things in order to afford to buy more.  You must be willing to load some of your favorite pieces into a smiling customer’s car.  Besides, most antique dealers have enough already.  The kids can’t always walk in the house.  You run out of room for things and with the parade of items in and out there’s never a surface that’s free.  Boxes of “possibilities” overwhelm.  And if you have big dogs and can’t suffer some significant losses, forget it.  Wagging tails can destroy more fine glassware than an earthquake.

Buying antiques to sell is loads of fun.  Sure, but keeping a shop filled is hard work. Since eBay and other online auction sites have enticed many more people into the business, it’s harder to find things to sell.  No sleep, long drives and never getting a weekend off take their toll.   Physically, we’re wrecks.  Each of us is battered and bruised from lifting and hauling.  The places you go to search for stuff are places you’d never imagine you’d enter.  Mouse droppings containing the deadly Hantavirus may lurk in every garage. I once went to an estate sale where they were handing out respirator masks to anyone brave enough to forage through the basement.  I once spent a week in February stumbling around in a rat-infested pitch black house with no heat  or electricity, snow pouring down through holes in the roof and giant, and rusty nails sticking out of the walls.  The pickings were great!
It’s glamorous handling all those old beauties: Just about everything we touch is covered with decades of grime, grease, dust and cobwebs.  Most pieces of  furniture need a few nails, screws, glue, paint or new knobs, but sometimes that expensive table will crumble to pieces when you tighten the clamp.  Paint remover will occasionally reveal the deep and unremovable scars of cigarette burns.  Scrubbing, hauling, hammering and mixing gallons of ammonia have replaced my need for the gym. All my clothes are covered with paint.  I’m outside so much that my husband calls “Deep Woods Off” my summer perfume.

It’s a more relaxing life--after all there’s no messy commute, no office downtown and no boss to tell you what to do.  You can set your own schedule!  In my informal surveys I’ve found that the average antique dealer sleeps about five hours a night. Rising before 4:00 a.m. to be first in line at the estate sales or head out to a country auction means that sleep isn’t high on the list.  Sometimes I’ll sit in front of a house from two until four a.m., hoping that this is the bonanza sale. Occasionally it’s worth it–more often I’m bleary-eyed and empty-handed.  We load more miles on the odometer and spend more time in the car than any commuter.  No confining 9 to 5 for us: it’s seven days and seven nights a week of hunting, hauling, painting, washing and waiting.  Sure, no boss comes looking for that late report, but who needs a boss to make you jump?  After all, the classified ads and auction schedules rule your life better than any staff meeting or deadline could.

So why do we do it?  The customers are wonderful, interesting people.  The other dealers are fascinating.  And you sure do learn a lot.  Ask any antique dealer what he or she considers the best part of this business. You’re likely to get a great story about how a simple piece of pottery with an unfamiliar name led them on an historical odyssey that included trips to the library, calls and visits to other dealers, hours of Internet research and an illuminating lesson on the economics of a particular period or culture. A trumpet that I bought at a yard sale for $5 taught me more about the African-American jazz movement in 1920s Chicago than any book (I still don’t know much about the trumpet though!).  A letter, signature, monogram or even a dinner plate can transport you back to glittering Continental parties or make you an expert on political and social scandals at the turn of the century.

In the end, even though we’re sweaty, filthy, exhausted and suffering from bad backs or broken ribs, there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. There’s the thrill of the hunt, the unearthing of some treasure from the bottom of a box at auction. It’s wonderful to see a customer find something they’ve wanted for years. You get to meet interesting people and see really fascinating (albeit, sometimes dangerous) places.

For those of us who do our own restoration, there’s even more.  Sometimes the harsh paint remover and denatured alcohol will uncover a magnificent cherry wood, mellowed with age, that can be waxed and buffed to a glowing patina.  Ammonia, vinegar and rust remover can reveal the dazzling rainbow of 100-year-old chandelier crystals.  Buckets of primer and white paint can turn grandma’s old mahogany sideboard into a showpiece.

It’s hard work and it’s never reliable.  You can’t bank on producing a product even with hours of effort.  But it’s never lonely and it’s never boring.  Other dealers and customers have become great friends and even better sources.  Each object you acquire can become a truly inspiring history lesson.  And that incredible oil painting on my living room wall?  I snagged it at a yard sale and discovered that it’s a 19th century impressionist maritime painting of my childhood vacation spot.  I couldn’t have touched it in an art gallery.