Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing experiential series by reporter Edwin Arnaudin.
Now, if you’re somehow still reading, please journey with me on a quest for three sorta-specific items — as well as insights from industry professionals on the modern world of antiquing — as I set out for a day of educational experiences in the wild west of other people’s used stuff.
Following a highly scientific process, Xpress Managing Editor Thomas Calder requested I procure him a “creepy” doll, leaving terminological judgment to a vocal horror movie fan; staff writer Justin McGuire asked for a bobblehead doll — any bobblehead will do; and I sought a movie poster of no particular size. The only rule was that each item couldn’t cost more than $20.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
First up? The Regeneration Station, where owner Nicole Laethem met me by the front entrance. Moments later, as we began our walk down an aisle that separates the roughly 85 vendor booths in the 36,000-square-foot space, she asked if I’d visited her establishment before. I replied that not only was I making my debut there but that I hadn’t been antiquing in over 10 years.
Stunned, she turned and inquired, “Where do you get your furniture?”
Preparing myself to get kicked out, I stammered, “Grand…par…ents?”
Laethem considered the excuse and said, “OK, that’s fair.”
Back in her good graces, I learned that Laethem’s parents were art and antique dealers who took her to Christie’s auction house in New York City and other such fancy places throughout her childhood. And, in many ways, her business is an antidote to that fancy-pants approach. Though her father passed away, her mother still sells at shows in Florida. But Laethem’s connection to the trade was truly galvanized through her fiancé and Regeneration Station founder Tyler Garrison, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in February 2018.
“What motivates me is love, and my love for Tyler and his family. And of course, the staff that has continued to work by my side who also worked with Tyler,” Laethem told me as we sat at a table in a booth situated roughly at the warehouse’s midpoint. “Their love and passion for the business, and the mission of keeping a green, eco-friendly company and giving back to the community and local nonprofits — it’s a fun and entertaining place to be.”
Also key to Regeneration Station is its TRS Junk Recyclers side. The sister companies work together and try to keep at least 85% of what they collect out of the landfill by recycling wood and metal and donating to homeless shelters and Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity. Items that are considered “keeps” can then go to the workshop and be restored, refurbished, up-cycled or painted.
As Laethem continued informing me about current trends in antiquing, I quickly understood why she led with her furniture question.
“My favorite is the midcentury modern — the ’50 and ’60s,” she continued. “I grew up in the ’80s watching ‘The Jetsons,’ so that’s where my love comes from. My whole home is basically furnished with things that have come through here.”
Laethem is especially fond of the futuristic, conical “atomic” legs that are on many midcentury modern pieces, as well as the appealing curves and beautiful fabrics that often adorn such designs. Western North Carolina furniture outlets are damn near specializing in the style, she adds, but if you have a Florida connection, such items can be had on the cheap through Del Boca Vista and other retirement communities where works from that era are prevalent and not nearly as valued.
Leathem believes more people are now gravitating toward used resale furniture because of its higher-quality material. Today’s mass-produced particle board, she notes, wasn’t assembled to last.
“And that’s when you start talking about antiques,” she told me as some potential customers waltzed by.
Of course, I wasn’t in the market for a chair or dresser. (Well, I am. But for my mission that day, let’s go with “no.”) I had a scary doll, bobblehead and movie poster to procure!
I ran through my not-at-all-juvenile wish list with Laethem, who was happy to help with the hunt, though she had her own set of rules. As it goes, haggling at her business is only allowed for items priced at $100 or more. Regeneration Station’s first-come, first-served policy also means she wouldn’t hold on to a promising item while I browsed another antique establishment for greener pastures. (If I had driven in from multiple hours away, though, that last rule would have been a different story, she let me know.)
“I can show you the different booths that may or may not have those items,” she says. “Otherwise, I’ll see you in two hours.”
I accepted her offer.
Watching her work was a wonder to behold. As a recovering public librarian, I was struck by the job similarities as Laethem quickly identified promising booths. Granted, several didn’t pan out; inventory changes daily, making any sense of certainly next to impossible.
In one booth, a vendor turned rubber baby doll heads into art. These certainly qualified as “creepy,” but also exceed my budget — art! — so, the search continued.
I later spied a “wood bobblehead cat” ($10) that didn’t actually bobble but could produce nightmares with its pair of blue maracas and exaggerated eyes that clearly peered into one’s soul. And a yellow porcelain Bo-Peep-looking figurine ($14) had the potential to come alive at night to steal baby’s breaths. But neither felt right.
On the movie poster side, I didn’t anticipate snagging a classic 24-by-36-inch-sized print that I and all other elder millennial children were required to have on their walls in the ’90s. But I figured I might find something about a quarter of the size — perhaps with some sun damage from hanging in a saloon. Laethem steered me to a booth with large, framed posters of Shaun of the Dead and Reservoir Dogs that I would have loved to have on my walls, but both were in the $100 range. Prints of Batman Returns and some old movie called Angel Baby also surfaced but were still about double my budget.
Taking a cue from Mick and Keef, I accepted that I might not always get what I want, but with a certain amount of effort, I’d get what I need. And so, I found a booth with small 5-by-7-inch movie posters in individual picture frames for $4 each. Eschewing such fine options as Shaft, High Noon, Gone with the Wind and High Plains Drifter, I opted for Raging Bull and North by Northwest and then vocally claimed success. I also got a sudden hankering to watch the Stonehenge scene from This Is Spinal Tap.
Laethem seemed mildly impressed. We then wondered aloud if the posters were cutouts from old VHS covers or something else. (Opening the frames when I got home, I discovered the truth: postcards — which leaves me a little disappointed, but for $4 in a nice frame, I’ll take it.)
The two-pronged attack for the remaining items raged on. Though former baseball journalist McGuire misguidedly supports the Baltimore Orioles and the student-athletes at UNC Chapel Hill, he’d issued no stipulation that the bobblehead had to be a sports figure. I pictured Abraham Lincoln or another politician, and though Laethem thought one might be over in the influx of Christmas items, we never located one.
A text to her entire staff yielded suggestions we’d already explored, though Regeneration Station does have a pending offers page where customers can make requests. The page is located on both desktop computers at the front desk at point of sale for easy accessibility.
As our time wound down, I partook in a photo shoot beside a mannequin that resembled Madison Cawthorn and/or Jared Kushner. When I stepped away from said mannequin, Laethem pointed to some figurines that were right behind me. The handwritten label? “Creepy World Dolls.”
“Ooh! And they’re only $9,” she exclaimed. “I don’t know, buddy. I don’t think you can pass that up.”
I concurred, especially once I picked up the dolls and — Zardoz be praised! — one of them had eyes that moved. We (Laethem and I; not the doll and I) laughed at our success while I simultaneously stifled the extent to which this clearly cursed object was causing us discomfort by turning the package over so that those peepers stared at the ground as Laethem and I headed to the checkout register.
By some miracle, the World Dolls didn’t cause me to wreck on my drive over the Swannanoa River and down the waterway’s namesake road to the Antique Tobacco Barn — arguably the premier establishment in the city, if not the region. Brit Turner, the business’s general manager, is well aware of its reputation, which she says has helped the AT Barn to operate with a fair amount of confidence during uncertain times.
“You can be a tourist that’s coming in and looking for the weird cool thing that you found in Asheville,” she told me as we traversed the hallowed floor. “Or you can be somebody who lives here and you’re trying to redo your house.”
Turner, who previously worked at Regeneration Station, notes that the COVID-19 pandemic had its upsides for the AT Barn. Customers emerged from the lockdown phase with extra money to spend, and employees who stayed on staff did so for a love of antiques, resulting in a stronger workforce moving forward.
Whereas Laethem reported that her vendors were almost uniformly cagey about revealing where they source their items, Turner says her clients vary wildly. While some keep their lockboxes sealed, others are quick to brag about their triumphs, down to the last detail. So it goes with an eclectic mix of vendors, some of whom she says have been selling in the space for 30 years, back when it was primarily a tobacco auction house that doubled as an antique warehouse in the offseason.
“Some of our higher sellers who have been at this a long time used to have a business of their own where they shut down their brick-and-mortar, and now they’ve got booths here instead,” Turner revealed. “There are some rivalries within the building. That’s just how it goes. ‘Oh, guess who’s selling cowhides now?’ And I have to field those questions. But they manage the rivalries pretty well.”
The antiquing version of Biggie and 2Pac piqued my interest, and Turner’s hyperactive puppy that she brought to work was supercute, but I was on a mission to find a bobblehead. Turner led me to a pop-culture-centric booth. As we approached, a The Rise of Skywalker poster eyed me from the very booth. And wouldn’t you know it — less than $20. (As were a wealth of other 24-by-36-inch cinematic peers stacked all around it!) Obvious and inevitable as this semidefeat was, refunds from Regeneration Station I would be seeking not, Master Yoda! (I’m happy with my framed postcards, and no one is going to tell me otherwise.)
Still, bobbleheads remained elusive and, based on that same booth, appeared to be shoved out by those ugly Funko Pop! dolls. (Really, if you want a rotten onion carved into the shape of a beloved character, I can do that on my front porch for a song.)
After Turner recounted tales of past flooding issues at the riverside space and vowed to be on the lookout for this unexpectedly hard-to-find toy, we said our farewells by the Kafe Neo Espresso Bar at the AT Barn’s entrance, and I considered my next move.
Saves the day
Going into this journey, I knew being unsuccessful was also part of the potential antiquing narrative. But I wanted to feel as if I’d given it my all — by daytime effort standards, of course — so I drove over to Sweeten Creek Antiques & Collectibles to see what I could find. Within seconds of my entry, the noticeable uptick in sports memorabilia and figurines overall gave me hope that a bobblehead would appear in one of the shop’s many booths.
I passed by an obscene amount of Clemson University gear and, at the back of the space, saw an item glowing while angels sang their sweet, sweet songs. Lo and behold, a foot-tall rendering of Mark Martin — my dad’s favorite NASCAR driver back when the original M&M was active — stood, arm akimbo and wobbly head protected by the toy’s original plastic packaging. With a steady hand, I picked up the doll to investigate its price.
$12 — we have a winner! Justin’s son will be so proud that his father’s co-worker did his Christmas shopping for him.