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Bargain hunting in full drag





PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRYAN RINDFUSS



For years, I had been hearing about the countless tented fields that make up the Round Top Antiques Fair, but I never seemed to be able to get organized in time to go. On more than one occasion, I felt like I had totally missed the boat when I saw friends returning from “shopping the show” with carloads full of French antiques and jewelry to hoard or resell. This year, my pal Danny Spear, owner of the Land of Was Antiques, made sure I got the memo, telling me, “You have to see what happens in Warrenton on the last Thursday of the show. It’s called Prom. It’s like early Halloween in the middle of nowhere.”

The Round Top Antiques fair (which encompasses the towns of Round Top, Carmine, Shelby, Fayetteville, and Warrenton) is basically the South by Southwest of the antiques world, complete with “No Vacancy” signs, people sleeping three-to-a-bed, dirt roads gridlocked with SUVs, and that priceless combination of muddy shoes, sleep-deprived faces, and a feeling of excited curiosity brought on by the invasion of thousands of fascinating out-of-town characters. In other words, if you sleep too late or turn in too early, you’re sure to miss something of vital importance.

As instructed, I arrived at Marburger Farms just as the tents were closing on the last Thursday of the show. Fortunately, I managed to slip through the fence into Tent G’s “Material Recovery” booth, which had been rented by my friends Clare Watters and Martha Henry (as a design team of sorts, they recover vintage furniture with embroidered Uzbekistani textiles called “Suzanis”). I immediately headed for Tent D to find Danny and make plans for Prom.  We agreed to meet in Warrenton around 9 p.m.

Marburger’s extremely organized tents are famous for power-shopping Houston divas in search of the perfect diamond, and serious conversations about 18th- versus 19th-century antiques. While there, I overheard sound bytes like “He has no idea how much she spends, and they’re his credit cards!” And, “She wants 18th, but she can barely afford 19th!” Fabulosity, Texas-style. Over in Warrenton on the other hand, the word “junk” is treated with love and respect and “dead people’s stuff” is a popular topic of conversation - it’s also the name of a booth. More inevitable eavesdropping provided, “She told me I’m not selling well because my merchandise is stale. And I did have a lot of this junk last season, but someone will die soon — that’s something you can always count on.”

I talked Clare into assisting me in my mission to solve the mystery of Prom. Arriving in the parking lot of Warrenton’s Zapp Hall, which houses more than 100 dealers and a beer garden operated by Royer’s Café (undoubtedly Round Top’s coolest restaurant), we were relieved to see that there were, in fact, a number of people dressed in wacky outfits – folks in angel wings, Venetian Carnevale masks, tutus, and towering wigs were all headed toward the sound of live music.

Once inside the compound of makeshift tents and permanent barn-like structures, we spotted Courtney Fakhreddine and Trista Stallings looking very camera-ready in bustiers, petticoats, and gobs of jewelry, sending text messages from an iron café table. Their look brought to mind Madonna’s early years, only instead of spiked ankle boots, they were wearing the hand-painted cowboy variety.

Denton-based costume designers Phillip Howard and Judy Smith, went for a visually stimulating contrast with their outfits – he channeled a cigar-store Indian, while she looked as if she were headed for a tea party circa 1905. When I asked if they would be selling any of their costumes at the show, Smith answered, “No, we are merely spenders of money.” After about an hour of people-watching and beer-drinking, Danny appeared. “Did I lie?” he asked me with a big grin, “Isn’t it fabulous?” Indeed it was.

We noticed a trio dressed as what Danny described as “saloon girls,” carrying parasols to shield them from the moonlight. Gabrielle Dennis, Gemi Bordelon, and Ginny Gremillion turned out to be the perfect dates for Prom. “Come take our picture in the outhouse!” they demanded. There was a line of characters waiting to pose in the Junk Gypsies’ outhouse, which had been decorated with a disco ball for the evening. Speaking to these darling Louisiana girls, I learned that the Junk Gypsies basically invented the concept of Prom in Warrenton (the full name for the biannual party is “Junk-O-Rama Prom”).

Noticing the large quantity of top-notch party dresses being sold at the antiques fair, the Junk Gypsies (Janie Sikes and her two daughters Amie and Jolie) were inspired, and the trio devised a clever plan to repurpose them. “We just wanted to give them a reason to be worn again,” Jolie said of the frocks. “I mean, they’re beautiful, and most of them were only worn once, it’s such a shame.” I was in awe of her empathy for these gowns, and absolutely love the idea that a costume party was created to stroke the egos of the forgotten prom dresses of Central Texas (and it’s a fabulous example of recycling).

While some partyers were on a whole retro-Vegas-inspired trip (there were seven men dressed as identical Elvises that I didn’t bother approaching), or looked like Mardi-Gras had exploded all over them, the Junk Gypsies seem to have inspired a distinct dress code I can only describe as “Cyndi Lauper makes a guest appearance on Bonanza.”

At 11 o’clock, the party was still raging, with a band playing “Footloose” to a bouncing crowd in costumes that were beginning to unravel. Reviewing the pictures, I felt we had collected enough visual proof of this “only-in-Texas” affair, so we called it a night.

Day two was beautiful, a perfect day for wandering the fields, taking pictures, and talking to people without buying much. I dropped $40 on salvaged carnival ephemera, and $25 on a green Herman Miller chair. I met the “Chandelier Queen” of Atlanta, who (according to her) is “very sought after,” but let me photograph an area of her booth that wouldn’t give away too many of her design secrets.

A booth called “Skip 2 My Lu” that sells cleverly reconfigured vintage jewelry looked like a collision of candy-colored jewels and weathered history books. All the necklaces were elegantly pinned onto mounted vintage photographs.

Jan Orr-Harter, of Hot Tamale Antiques, color-coded poppy paintings, rugs, and textiles, to create an ambience reminiscent of an artist’s barn, complete with hay on the ground.

Robin Brown, a Hill Country-based artist, took the idea of temporary space to the next level, with settees for her clients to lounge on and Victoriana elements adorning every inch of her booth. A constant influx of women tried on bohemian outfits from her clothing label, Magnolia Pearl. From a distance, the whole scene looked like a rose-tinted Stevie Nicks album cover.

Day three produced a grey sky that made vendors anxious about the always important last day of the show (most dealers drop their prices and successfully lighten their return loads). No one looked prepared when the torrential rain began around Noon. “Did somebody order hay?” I heard more than once as ranch hands dumped bails of it into rivers of rain that were creeping in from both sides of the tent. Rain also found its way in from overhead, somehow (I watched a crystal vase magically fill).

Danny’s booth was somewhat of a disaster by Saturday evening, so I stuck around to lend a hand, unpinning an ancient tapestry from a temporary wall while teetering on a ladder, which was not so firmly planted in a puddle of water and muddy hay.

“Last year, it was the wind. One of the tents lifted off of its poles and flew into the fields, trapping two people when it landed- they had to be cut out of it.” Danny insisted. “But this feels like the worst.” Just then, we heard a loud “pop” as a soaked power strip killed the lights in a row of antique sconces.

With wine in plastic cups, wet clothes, and sudden fear in everyone’s eyes, I began to feel like we were aboard a sinking sailboat decorated with European antiques. “Get the jewelry and let’s get the Hell out of here,” was our cue that Danny’s most vulnerable treasures were safely wrapped in plastic and it was time to head to “Julie’s Jewels,” a miniature horse farm in Carmine, where I was lucky enough to be invited to wait out the storm.

Driving back to SA the following morning, the sky suffered from an identity crisis. Halfway home, my truck started to look clean again, and the whole South-by-Southwest feeling returned. I was completely exhausted and sad that everything was over, but had new numbers in my phone, new toys to play with, and a whole new list of things to laugh about. I’m definitely going back.

Bryan Rindfuss

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Posted by brindfuss on 10/14/2009 4:46:05 PM
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