Old but not obsolete: select vintage electronics are both visually decorative and entertaining. (Photo Credit: BrAt82 via Adobe Stock)

From the impact of an international pandemic to the changes of generational taste, the world of today’s antique and retro collecting and shopping wears a different face. Things that were once highly desirable or sought after may not be so as of late, and the way we go about shopping has changed, too.

A major impact on the business and the hobby, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted practically about every aspect of our lives. Even if you’ve been fortunate enough to escape it physically unscathed, chances are you still find that the overall impact is felt constantly.

For everyone, but especially those of us whom have not experienced the virus through infection or a loved one coming down with a case, there are still times when our desires for yesterday’s normalcy make us forget about today’s responsibilities.

It’s easy to think about going shopping or to a movie or stage show. Just like the old days. No worries about masks, social distancing, capacity limitations or businesses closing earlier than expected.

Overheard, or perhaps absent-mindedly, maybe you’ve even started a conversation with a friend like this yourself: “Wanna go somewhere for lunch, check out that new antique mall or maybe hit a few thrift stores?”

If you’re a habitual collector, you’re forgiven.

Antique hunting and collecting and picking through thrift stores, or going to yard sales and finding something unusual and distinctive, has been a favorite pastime for many people in the LGBTQ community. Now that we can’t go out and play as easily as we used to, how are we handling that favored method of enjoying the world around us?

“It’s definitely different now,” says Kathleen Metzler, a native of Charlotte who left the city in her teens, but returned later in life to spend more time with friends and family after a long term relationship with her former partner came to an end.

“When I first got back here, things had changed so much it was like I was in an entirely different city. So it was fun exploring and finding things all over again,” Metzler recalls.

“I would get together with siblings or old friends and we would go antique shopping and hunting for unfound treasure in some of the small towns surrounding Charlotte. Then we’d hit an at-the-time undiscovered diner for lunch. That kind of fun and spontaneity isn’t something that happens very much anymore.”

So just what does Metzler do now when she wants an antiquing fix?

“Well, it certainly isn’t the same, but I do most of my antique and vintage shopping over the internet,” Metzler explains.

“I’m in a high risk category because of some health issues, and I just don’t want to take that kind of a chance. So more often than not I’ll purchase something off eBay and it gets shipped to my house, or I’ll go shopping online using apps like OfferUp or Facebook Marketplace. Sometimes I even go back and check out websites like Craigslist.”

Most local sellers will allow a purchaser to pay online and in advance using apps like Venmo and PayPal, among others.

“Then they’ll do this thing called contactless pickup. The item is usually left wrapped up in a plastic bag. You know, something like you get at the grocery store, with your name written on a piece of tape and attached to the bag. You pick it up from the seller’s front porch, go and never come in contact with the individual you just bought from.”

“Even some thrift stores who advertise their items online will allow you to pay ahead of time and they’ll bring it out to your car.”

“I have to admit it’s sterile. I miss the human contact and conversation and the recreation of picking, but it still allows me to acquire unique items I might want to add to my collection without putting myself at risk.”

Metzler enjoys collecting a variety of things from vintage household items as old as the turn of the 20th century to mid-century modern collectibles like lamps, art and various unusual incidentals. 

She’s a Gen Xer but with each new generation, items that are considered collectible change. And so is the way people go about acquiring them.

“I’ve found that a lot of people from my age range collect things that are far smaller and less expensive,” says Gil Zukowski, a millennial, LGBTQ ally and a former long time Charlotte resident.

“Younger people are collecting things like Pokémon cards, 1990s memorabilia, Lego Sets and Polly Pockets. And they’re much more comfortable shopping out in public and buying reproductions just to capture ‘the look.’ Much more so than our older counterparts.”

Zukowski, however, doesn’t collect any of the things she mentioned. She considers herself different from many of her peers. “I’ve always had a passion for nostalgia,” she says. “I like antique sewing machines from the turn of the 20th century and old cameras from the 1960s. I also like older musical instruments. But most of all, I like things to be in working order. I enjoy the history of them, but I also want them to be fully functional.”

Clearly, what people buy is different for each generation and individual.

Seniors tend to buy with less frequency. They’ve already done most of their collecting (which — for this generation — is often a mix of Victorian and Depression era items) and many are downsizing as they choose to move into smaller spaces with less responsibility, but most still want to hang on to at least some of their history.

Those who are in the middle-age range seem to favor mid-to-late 20th century items, although some enjoy collectibles from the late 1800s and early 1900s, not unlike their Boomer Generation counterparts.

Younger people, perhaps because of economic challenges, space limitations and the desire to relocate with ease, tend to go for things that are less expensive, smaller and more easily accessible.

One thing they all have in common: The items usually have a connection to the individual’s past and are generally related to personal and positive memories.

From a market perspective, what’s interesting are the items that are currently deemed as hot goods by antique collection authorities and auction houses. They vary widely and frequently have no real rhyme or reason as to why they are currently raging in popularity.

At the top of the list is mid-century modern everything. Some people just refer to it as “1950s stuff,” but that’s actually inaccurate. You’ll find good examples of mid-century modern in the 1960s and even some in the early 1970s.

World War I memorabilia has always had a committed band of collectors but has suddenly jumped to the hot list. Don’t ask why. Haven’t a clue. 

All types of costume jewelry, once available for pennies at thrift stores, are currently commanding outstandingly high prices.

Vintage barware of any era, toys from the 1980s and objects made from bakelite are all currently popular collectibles with a high resale value.

Other sought after collectibles include vintage film, travel and advertisement posters, vinyl records, antique cookie jars (especially the highly glazed 1940s and 1950s editions that resemble cartoon strip animals), telephones, televisions, cameras, clocks and more.

Some things that people collect, as evidenced by groups on Facebook and other places on the internet, are things you’d never dream anyone would really want. And that’s not meant as a judgment, only an observation. 

There are groups on Facebook that celebrate the importance of the VHS videotape and 8-track audio cassettes. In other places on the net, there are collector groups for things like back scratchers, soap bars, vintage aerosol spray cans, older non-smart mobile phones and so much more we could potentially fill up multiple print issues with a simple list.

While antiquing may not be what it once was, collecting and selling goods from the past will likely always be with us. In the end, the vintage collectibles you decide to incorporate into your life are strictly up to you. There’s no right or wrong. It’s a personal form of creative expression. It will likely develop organically and make you inexplicably happy. 

Whatever it ends up being, it’s your own special piece of history.

Go, See, Do and Buy:

Sleepy Poet Antique Mall
4450 South Boulevard, Charlotte

Catawba River Antique Mall
406 Catawba St., Belmont

Main Street Antique Mall
500 South Main St., Mooresville

Piccolo Antique Mall
14 Main St., Belmont

Antique Alley
1325 Matthews-Mint Hill Rd., Matthews

qnotes is part of six major media companies and other local institutions reporting on and engaging the community around the problems and solutions as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.

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David Aaron Moore is a former editor of Qnotes, serving in the role from 2003 to 2007. He is currently the senior content editor and a regularly contributing writer for Qnotes. Moore is a native of North...