Whenever I stop into Flying Machine Avionics, on First Street in Champaign, I notice the strange shop next door. It’s always closed. I think it’s always been closed. If you peek in the dusty windows of First Street Antiques, you see tables and shelves filled with items that haven’t moved in years. If anyone knows what the story is here, I’d love to hear it.
It got me thinking about the world of antique stores. I’ve wandered through a few in my lifetime — as a child and as an adult — and have always been a little intrigued, and a little bewildered, by them. I’m not much of a collector, and I am definitely not a DIY sort of person who is interested in finding great old pieces and figuring out how to incorporate them into my home. I’m am in awe of people who do that and wish I was that person.
However, I love a treasure hunt, and antique store are perfect for that sort of thing. This week, I zipped down I-74 to Mercantile Antiques & Trade Co. in St. Joseph to snoop around and chat with co-owner Debbie Calvo. Just opened on a Tuesday morning, the store was quiet, giving Calvo and I the opportunity to chat about the store and her experience with antiques. Calvo and her business partner Marion Feller met while working at the University of Illinois, and found they had a shared interest in family heirlooms. They began selling items as vendors, then once the store owner decided to sell the business, they became antique store owners. They’ve now been at their current location for 18 years.
Calvo refers to antique stores as “the original consignment shops” and says they have evolved quite a bit over the years. “We’re not your grandma’s antique shop.” Multiple vendors have set up stalls within the store, and each one is unique. Yes, you can find the collectibles — coke bottles, lighters, figurines, etc. But you can also find refurbished furniture, handmade items, and bakeware, as well as bath and body and food products. Mercantile even has its own DIY paint line. You don’t have to be a collector to shop there. It can be an opportunity to find well made and interesting pieces for your home. Located just off the interstate, and frequented by shoppers who like to travel for their treasures, Calvo likes to have a little bit of everything. “There’s still a lot of things that are usable, and I think that’s maybe what we sell more of.”
When antique collectors come through the door, there is a wide range of items they might be looking for.
“It’s so broad…the other day we had someone who collected pencil sharpeners. We have people who collect cast iron pans, people who collect Pyrex, people who collect Zippo lighters, people who collect coins…we have a lot of hand tools – woodworking hand tools- we sell a lot of that kind of stuff. We call those ‘mantiques’.”
I took a spin around the store after our conversation, wandering in and out of each section. I’m sure I could’ve stayed longer. There is so much to see, and it’s fascinating to see the collections of items that each vendor has amassed. It’s a bit like strolling through a museum. Which is why I was slightly dismayed to find so many items from my childhood there. In an antique store. Then I remembered that yes, these items really are relics, and took a minute to come to terms with that fact.
Vintage kitchen gadgets are wild.
You can find some clothing here and there. I’m obsessed with this nightdress. Throw on some curlers and face cream and it’s a whole vibe.
You can also find amazing pieces like this Victrola.
Get started on your bagpipe playing hobby. The people in your household will love it.
If you’re a University of Illinois memorabilia collector, you’ll find plenty here…even cinnamon! Okay maybe the cinnamon isn’t specifically U of I, but it’s orange and blue and was distributed in Champaign by Eisner’s (now Jewel-Osco).
It’s worth the 15-20 minute trip east to check out the treasures at Merchantile Antiques. Make it a day and grab a meal at The Wheelhouse or Scratch Kitchen or Geschenk Coffee, Cafe, and Gifts.
Merchantile Antiques & Trade Co.
302 Northgate Dr.
M-Sa 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.