I’m looking at a secretary’s desk that belonged to my Mother-n-law. It’s old, maybe from the late 1800’s, but it’s not necessarily an old family piece. It wasn’t passed down from generations. She just found it, liked it and bought it somewhere. For the 40 plus years that I came and went to Selma, it stood in her house.
When you go through the process of deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, you hang on to things that remind you of the past. Things that, when you touch them or use them, you think of Mama. I’m guessing she got it because it reminded her of something in her past. It meant something to her, so it means something to us.
It needs a little TLC. The back corner of the top is cracked, held on only by a screw from underneath. There’s an ornamental piece on top with a mirror that tilts. Both legs to that piece are cracked and loose. The front piece that hinges down to make the writing desk is in good shape, but the slides are not attached. One is bent and the other is missing the rivet at the pivot point. They are laying inside the cabinet.
The back of the cabinet is not original. By the small nails used and the thin plywood piece, I’m guessing it was replaced in the 1960s. I have to remove it to get to the screws that hold the top in place.
When I start on a project like this, I am constantly aware of the hands that built it. Men with old world tools that would be clumsy in my hands. Carvings and curls and details not made by machine. Skills that I only wish I possessed.
I am not a full-on antique restorationist. I’m no expert on period pieces. But I am fascinated by the old ways. And when I see a shiny phillips head screw in a piece of furniture where I know it doesn’t belong, I get all uppity and swear at the fool who put it there. A guy who didn’t care enough even to try and do it right.
I am gentle with the dismantling. The broken corner piece cannot be replaced. A little clean up. A couple of dry fits. A little more sanding and fitting. Then glue and lots of clamps to get it back in place. The seam is almost unnoticeable.
The bent hinges and slides are pressed straight again in the vise and with a soft tap of the hammer. Most of the screws are still good. The ones under the top are hidden well. It takes me several attempts at removing the top before I find them all.
By the time I get ready to reassemble everything, I realize that I have a hodge-podge of screws that are not right. I search through small drawers and coffee can collections around my shop but come up empty. This means a road trip.
Born Again Antiques is a small shop on Main Street in Hogansville, GA. Although there are several pictures of Jesus that hang on the wall behind the counter, the name is a play on the idea that old things can be repurposed. Old hinges and doorknobs and architectural pieces can be reborn. I love this shop. Bins and boxes and shelves of the stuff you cannot find at the hardware store. Even thousands of old screws that have been saved for another life.
The proprietor of this establishment is Alan. Alan is from Utah. Working for Delta got him to Atlanta almost 20 years ago. He was forced to take early retirement in a downsizing shuffle almost as soon as he got here. So, he got into antiques. I enjoy talking to people about their stories. Besides, there was no one in the store but me, and he looked like he could use the company.
We chatted while I dug through his stuff.
“I lived in Hampton for a while” he says. I perked up. Told him that I grew up there. He lived out on Woolsey road near the racetrack.
“Being from Utah, I had no idea what NASCAR was, but I found out real quick. I couldn’t leave the house on race day.”
We swapped a few stories about living with “one way” traffic to the speedway. I told him about the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969. He talked about how Hampton had changed. I wondered if he really understood how much it has changed.
“So, how in the world did you find your way to Hogansville?”
He talked about working some of the antique shows around the southside of Atlanta. How he set up his booth one year right next to some folks from Hogansville. About how it was time for him to make a change and get somewhere quiet. About how they told him of this vacant building on Main Street and how they really needed a guy like him to fill a void in their town. And about how he and his wife finally decided, “Why not?”
Alan gave me a little metal tray to put my treasures in. Various sizes of old tarnished flathead slotted screws. A few sets of small worn hinges. Tiny panhead bots with square nuts that are a little dinged up. Perfect for old furniture, they’ll all find a new home in a coffee can on my shelf. A few will go on this secretary’s desk to make it work again. The rest will wait for the next project.
I take my tray to the counter. Jesus is staring at me from the back wall. “How much do I owe you?” Alan scribbled something on a ticket pad that is yellowed with time. Like the ones that shopkeepers used when I was a boy. I guess he likes the old ways, too.
“Would $10 be too much?”
I’ve had too much fun to feel like bartering over a few screws and hinges. “Sounds fair to me.” For all I know this could have been Alan’s big sale of the day on a Thursday afternoon.
The old screws are just what this desk needed. Out with the new and in with the old. A kind of reversal. What I like most about doing stuff like this is seeing something damaged put back together. Something old taken out of a box of discarded unused parts and finding a new purpose. Brokenness made whole again. When you think about it, it is kind of like being born again.
Not a bad name for a store full of old stuff. Not a bad idea for mankind.