One Woman‘s Treasure

One Woman‘s Treasure

“I call it, in a very affectionate way, the affliction. Because people are afflicted with the urge to collect things they know they can resell for a little bit of profit.” Carolyn Thompson is giving me an impromptu tour of the vintage stuff in Connecticut Treasures, her small shop in residential Westville. As if to illustrate her point, a pair of two-foot plastic snowmen in stovepipe hats greet me when I walk in. Thompson recently sold their companion, a Santa Claus on a train, in an online auction for over $400. “Believe it or not,” she says, “blow mold are really sought after. They don’t make them anymore.”

In her shop, which also serves as storage and is open sporadically or by appointment (203-535-6905), Thompson’s stock is piled in a way that encourages careful rummaging. A welder’s mask and sturdy vintage tools occupy a box next to cookie cutters and kettles. A midcentury modern-style end table is itself a find but also a display for a handheld stereoscope from the 1920s. (I insert one of the dual-image pictorial cards into the viewer, and the leaping sheepdog on one side is now leaping through the hoop on the other.) Many of the items are from estate sales Thompson has administered. “A lot of things don’t sell,” she explains, “because you only have three days to make that happen.” Taking stock of the pieces remaining in her clients’ living rooms, basements and attics, she anticipates a second life for some of them and offers to bring them here.

“No one wanted to buy this little dinette set,” she says, pointing to the woodgrain-topped table just inside the front window, its intact set of four chrome tube chairs upholstered in tan leather. “It’s from the seventies. It reminds me of That ’70s Show or something. I couldn’t see it going into the trash.” I hasten to agree; there must be a groovy downtown breakfast nook waiting for it.

Across from the table is a massive primitive-style lamp that’s also an intricate diorama of a blacksmith’s shop. A bearded, aproned figure and his anvil, forge, horseshoe and tongs are all carved from a single piece of wood. Somehow the lampshade is wood, too. Thompson points out the inscribed signature of the man who carved it—somewhere in Quebec, according to a client whose parents had owned it. The painstaking, personal execution of it overcomes consideration of whether it’s in good or bad taste.

Farther back in the shop are a set of glass goblets, their stems a vivid green. “You sometimes see green glassware. It’s called Depression glass,” Thompson explains. They had been made with uranium, a method of coloration first employed in the 1800s, then halted—at least in the US—when the government began directing all uranium supplies to the Manhattan Project in the mid-1900s. “They actually glow under black light,” she says, suggesting both a way to authenticate them and a novel way to display them.

Thompson had moved into the space in February, and her dramatic filling of it on an otherwise residential block attracted curiosity. Throughout the week, Westvillians could stop and gaze at the stuff through the window, note the vintage jackets, scarves, jewelry—or the set of horse- and star-spangled tallboy glasses that had once made somebody’s den look a little like the Copa Room at The Sands. On most weekends, especially as the weather warmed, Thompson opened the door, rolled some stuff out to the sidewalk, let passersby know they could wander in.

A collection of black and white Hollywood photos—not reproductions but actual prints—feature hopeful, vivacious starlets in coiffured headshots or daintily posed by an implied swimming pool. Thompson had spotted them in an online auction. “When I first bid, I said, like, ‘That looks like Liz Taylor.’ But it’s not Liz Taylor, it’s Marla English… They’re not all B<-listers>. Some of them are A.” The shots are stamped with the United Artists Corporation imprimatur and dated from 1955, a year of poor business for the studio, when the prints might have been spotted fluttering from the open window of a casting agent’s office.

When contemplating the origins of vintage things, the where is as pleasurable as the when. Thompson shows me a silk-embroidered purse as big as a saddlebag, dated 1945 from the Philippines. “I thought it was a World War Two souvenir from someone who was deployed at that time… And brought it back for his sweetheart.” Likewise, a long, curvaceous couch on the other side of the shop had, it turns out, crossed the ocean at roughly the same year. Thompson had intervened in its disposal. “‘It needs to be totally reupholstered. That’s why it needed to be thrown out,’” she says, invoking a line of thinking she often encounters. “But it doesn’t need to be thrown out. It just needs to be reupholstered.” Thompson was told it had emigrated from Italy when its then-owner, now a great-grandmother, was 17.

As if to demonstrate the nautical miles traveled by some of her holdings, Thompson selects a desktop globe, its armature and map faded to an identical sepia tone. “It doesn’t spin very well because it’s almost 100 years old,” she says. The maker’s mark—“George F. Cram Company, Indianapolis, IN”—does not include a date, but the globe itself is a record of its time. Thompson rotates an old world into view. “If you look at Africa, you see that this is French West Africa.” She points to a large gray swath of continent from which eight independent countries hadn’t yet emerged. Thompson further dates the globe by indicating the absence of Austria, which had been annexed by Germany in 1938. It wouldn’t have reappeared on maps of Europe until the mid-1940s. “I love everything globe- and map-related,” she adds, “being a geographer.”

Indeed, Thompson holds a doctorate in human geography and teaches part-time at Southern Connecticut State University. But adjunct professorship is a notoriously difficult way to make a living, so she follows her passion for human handiwork too. It started five years ago, when she answered an advertisement for an auction cataloguer. “And I worked from home, and would just send me the photos of what would be auctioned off in these online auctions. He would be like, ‘Research this, and write up descriptions, and I’ll check them over, and that will be that.’” She knew the difference between midcentury modern and Victorian. She could “scrutinize photos to the nth degree” to find the particularities and peculiarities of a sideboard or a figurine. And she liked that those pieces’ years of possession had imbued them with their possessors’ stories. “My mom loved antiques, so she kind of passed that onto me. But I also like saving things from the landfill. Not throwing them out.” So when the cataloguing gig ended, she offered up her services in estate sales, which she continues to administer.

The shop’s place in Thompson’s broader business—which thrives online and, literally, at home—has come to be regarded by Thompson as experimental. “We’ll consider this a kind of year-long popup of Connecticut Treasures having a brick and mortar space.” The shop may gradually empty, down to the last teacup, until Thompson’s lease is up in 2024. And for her, that would be great. Emptied, the space would be the very opposite of a landfill.

We end the tour outside, where a pair of massive wooden corbels stand like sentries, salvaged from a church in Derby. Thompson had gotten a look at the square-headed iron nails holding them together and estimated them to be 150 years old. “So the director of public works saved these from going into the dump and had them by a shed for a while.” The wood is weathered and cracked but nevertheless imposingly carved. Appearing much bigger on the ground than they had among the eaves of the church, they still look capable of supporting a roof.

When I return to the shop a few days later, the corbels are gone—rescued from the dump, but then also leaving that corner of the street much more ordinary. But in the secondhand business, you have to be as willing to let things go as you are to save them.

Connecticut Treasures
143 West Elm St, New Haven (map)
(203) 535-6905 |

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features Carolyn Thompson.

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