My upbringing injected me with some odd tastes and sensibilities. Mom was a junk dealer, and dad flew jets in the Navy. So not only did my family move a lot, but I grew up surrounded by an ever-changing array of artifacts from the American experience. From the time I can remember walking and breathing, I was spending days with my mom and brother in second-hand stores, salvage yards, and flea markets, searching for things to put into the rotation of strange objects in our house.
One such junk source was in Coventry, Rhode Island. It was owned by a salty, quick-witted old character named Cookie who smoked cigars and wore a Greek fisherman's cap. Cookie's store was huge — four stories tall, packed to the rafters with items big and small. To walk into Cookie's was to surrender your connection to reality. It was so captivating and cavernous that when you walked out, it seemed like a different day and planet that greeted you.
An East Bay location with comparable draw is the San Pablo Flea Market, which occupies the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 61st Street in Oakland. To walk into the outer lot is to enter a museum of the weird. The items you might see include a brown Dial-a-Snack vending machine, racks of graded laboratory glass, and archaic metal blow-dryers that seem like props from a Tim Burton film. The owner, Claude Davis, is incredibly personable and is likely to remember you even if you go months between visits. I usually go there looking for industrial detritus that I can work into sculptures, but friends who accompany me go through the piles of what look like throwaways to find amazing colored-glass serving dishes, vases, and other household items. A couple of years ago I bought a working manual typewriter there for an art salon I was organizing. Claude and his sister have redone much of the inside areas, where furniture from the 1930s to 1960s sits alongside wooden flat-file cabinets, barber chairs, and office machinery.
Almost as eclectic is the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, which recently moved to Telegraph at 47th Street in Oakland from Berkeley. Once known for its cheap and plentiful materials, the Depot has taken a turn toward the boutiquey since the move — which isn't entirely a bad thing. Its massive selection of matte board, for example, might be diminished, but now it has more furniture such as cool old coffee tables, chairs, lamps, and glassware for prices that will keep your jaw off the floor. The Depot is also a magnet for urban artifacts. In 2004 I bought a red-arrow traffic signal lens and made it into a lamp that hangs on my wall. Last year I got a plaster cast of teeth from a cosmetic dentistry office and worked it into a sculpture. The Depot's inventory changes quickly, so even if you visit regularly you're still likely to see new things.
A place that will keep junk-hunters smiling is Park Street Antiques in Alameda. It has three levels, including a basement. It contains multiple dealers who rent space, so the stock varies quite a bit, from Art Deco to early American to World War II era to 1970s kitsch. Although prices also vary a great deal, the diversity of dealers is one of its strengths. You might find a bargain on a small metal Chrysler Building souvenir or a coffee mug from a defunct Oakland diner but also get the "museum experience" of looking at a case of $1,300 German violins and some of the most amazing Jazz Age cocktail ware you'll ever see.
Another location that's part bargain basement, part museum is Urban Ore, on Murray Street in Berkeley near the confluence of Ashby and Seventh. A few years ago during the renovation boom prices increased noticeably, but cool old housewares can still be had there for a good deal, and the remaining items are just too amazing not to mention. An area near the entrance contains gorgeous old machinery that looks like it belongs in the Smithsonian. An RCA radio (the Radiola 25 Super-Heterodyne) that's the size of a small trunk sits alongside a black-and-gold Standard sewing machine, a Burroughs adding machine, and a big gray metal box called an Engravograph.
By far the strangest place I've found to look for antiquities is Tail of the Yak, on Ashby near College Avenue, where you'll see rarefied — and pretty dark — offerings. Display figures in various states of dismemberment populate the place, but these are not cut up department store dummies. They're Santos figures from Spain and Italy, some from as far back as the early 1800s, remarkable in their construction and wearing expressions that no Macy's mannequin would have. Other items include mounted human-anatomy diagrams and a wooden Ouija board from the early 20th century. Although it's a small shop, the more one looks, the more that's revealed. I doubt a bargain is to be had in the place, but, like Cookie's, it will make you think you've entered a time warp. — Keith Bowers