I t might as well be through the looking glass: an intriguing space stacked with strange, beautiful creations from another world.
Or rather, another time.
This is the English Building Markets, a most unlikely vintage and antiques shop on Chapel Street between Church and Orange. If you’ve noticed it before, it was likely the expansive street-front window that caught your eye. It’s an ever-changing landscape where you might see enormous Roman-style columns paired with wingback chairs, crystal chandeliers and wedding dresses made of paper. “They’re all objects with soul,” says the market’s owner, Carol Orr. “They all have stories to tell.”
The wood and brick lined shop, deceivingly enormous, stretches back seemingly forever and changes daily. With the help of a part-time staff, Orr stocks the space with a moving carousel of furniture, clothes and kitchenware from years gone by. One can easily lose track of time thumbing through racks of color-coordinated vintage clothes, shoes and jewelry or stacks of enameled, cast-iron pots and pans.
The Market, now fully stocked and well-curated, is an evolving business ten years in the making, Orr says. She and her husband, the architect Robert Orr, bought the English Building at 839 Chapel Street in 2002, renovating it floor by floor and bringing everything up to code. Carol herself is a trained landscape architect (she has a B.S. in Plant Science and a Masters in Landscape Architecture).
At that point, Carol and Robert were working out of a building on Chapel Street past Wooster Square but hoped to move closer to downtown. “We knew the neighborhood was in transition,” she says. “And we wanted to be part of the change.”
Ten years later, the neighborhood is still
The English Building Market
839 Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
in transition but significant progress has been made. 360 State Street with its 500 apartments has attracted more residents to downtown, the newly opened Elm City Market brims with customers and Arpaia-Lang Jewelry adds considerable dazzle. “All the store owners here are hopeful but anxious to see this area grow faster,” Orr says.
Now, Robert practices architecture from his fourth-floor office. Salon Lulu lives on the third floor, and the Orrs own a co-working space called The Bourse on the second level.
Since they moved into the building, Orr has always made an extra effort to keep that front window alive. Before she opened the Market, she regularly donated the window and the space behind it for use by New Haven artists, festivals and local performance groups. Then, she realized, that wasn’t financially sustainable. She teamed up with a friend — an interior designer — and set up a tag-sale type shop largely stocked with treasures from her own collection.
Early on, the cavernous space wasn’t fully equipped for heat or air conditioning. “So we just didn’t bother with it. I sat on a heating pad and froze under 12 layers. It was run on a total shoestring,” she says. “But the customers didn’t seem to mind.” It was an on-again, off-again affair, mostly for fun she says, until 2008 when she stepped up and turned it into a real business. The next two years saw more renovation and even a few pipes for heat. EBM in its current incarnation was born.
So what about all those treasures displayed floor to ceiling? Orr used to
do consignment. But now it’s all about the estate sales. “That’s how Robert and I ended up with so much stuff to begin with,” Orr says: The couple used to scour those sales for their own treasures. She’s been on the lookout regularly for the past four years, and most of what she buys for the store comes from a 20 mile radius of New Haven. And she’s learned to keep her own taste out of the process, because, as she says, there’s really something for everyone.
“I love it—I get a real adrenaline rush when I’m out discovering stuff,” she says. “And I’ll buy things that no one else wants—vintage patterns, yarn, wrapping paper, dishware, candles.” The unusual items really capture people’s imaginations, Orr says.
And then there’s the palpable sense of history. “I have so much fun getting into the personalities of people who owned the stuff, getting a glimpse into their lives through their old letters and photographs.”
She’s got stacks of love letters written from a soldier to his future wife in the 30s, and a white lace dress that matches a wedding photograph she found in a pile of old pictures from the same estate sale. Sometimes, with some luck, she finds family members by looking on ancestry.com. Mostly, the items remain in her possession, waiting to be scooped up by a customer.
“Sometimes, getting into the history of these people makes it hard to sell their things. You don’t want to split up the story,” she says, laughing. “It’s like going through a divorce.”
But even if she hangs on to a few things, there’s plenty to buy at English Building Markets. Orr’s business is expanding every year, and she’s working on ways to invite more people into the space. She plans to open up the back section for arts instruction and DIY-type activities. She’s building a photo studio. And she’s developing a more vibrant online presence.
Most importantly, the Orrs are staying put.
“We’ve got such great hopes for this city, especially for this neighborhood,” she says. “It’s got incredible potential.”
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.