The news came in a phone call from a friend who got it from a picker who heard it at the Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania, flea market, a ratty Monday-only gathering of vendors at the lowest rung of the antiques ladder, where the merchandise can include anything from day-old donuts to a 100-year-old butter churn. “Everyone was buzzing all morning,” the picker had said. “the Pier Show’s been canceled.”
A check of the show’s website confirmed the worst: The Triple Pier, Manhattan’s premier collectibles event, a 600-dealer extravaganza that managed to be at once glamorous and unpretentious, won’t be taking place this November. When the piers were ruled off-limits after the World Trade Center disaster, the company that runs the show tried to mount it at the unlovely Javits Center — a sort of pier-show-in-exile. But that fell through too, according to Stellashows.com, which could have been speaking for the entire antiques industry when it concluded in its sad web message, “Every day since September 11 has been a long arduous process.”
It might seem as if the cancellation of an antiques show is small potatoes at a time like this, but in a season when so much has changed, the desire is stronger than ever to cling to the things that made you happy in the past. The semi-annual Pier Show was so much fun not only because you got to look at objects you loved in a setting of dazzling light and water and air, but also because you had a chance to check in with the far-flung family of collectors you’d known for dozens of years but only got to see at blockbuster shows like the Pier.
If these dealers, so familiar after decades of antiquing, were not exactly your friends, they were more than casual acquaintances. The Pier Show, and big shows like it, serve as a great gathering of the tribes: a place where people who live for Depression glass or belle epoque posters finally find a kindred spirit. In this, the shows are like nothing so much as the great peace demonstrations of the ’60s and ’70s, when thousands of like-minded souls from all over the country would gather on the Washington mall. They may have waved hello to you from under bandannas instead of peering out from behind a showcase full of Mickey Mouse watches, but the feeling was the same: Here, at last, is someone like me.
This year in particular, one was looking forward to seeing the old faces. The lady with the silver beehive hairdo who sells beaded evening bags — would she have flown in despite her fears? The guy in spandex tights with the Peter Max posters? The one-legged shopper in the three-cornered hat? There was a deep comfort, as it turned out, though one didn’t notice it at the time, in seeing the flinty guy who specialized, incongruously, in a particularly rare rag doll, an item called a Volland Raggedy Ann whose shabbiness belied its $1000 price tag. He knew you would never break down and buy one, and you knew he knew, and yet his terse nod was as reassuring as an annual Christmas card from a relative you didn’t particularly like.
Three weeks ago, at an antiques show in Rhinebeck, New York, a place that turns out to be a lot further from New York City than it looks on the map, a guy from Cleveland who sells hooked rugs and twig furniture and always set up on the pier, in a booth directly facing the water, said the minute he heard about the World Trade Center he thought, “That’s it. My business is fucked.” For vendors all over the country, the trek to Manhattan paid off with the kind of profits you just can’t realize from small-town shows. Now his inventory will languish in a garage in the Midwest instead of finding a new home in Tribeca or the Hamptons.
But even if the show had gone on, those tramp art picture frames might have had to make the trip back to Ohio. At an antique jewelry show in Manhattan last month, so many dealers canceled and attendance was so sparse that the promoters, ashamed to take money at the door for such a lackluster event, turned the gate over to the benefit of September 11 victims. When asked how the opening party was, one guy looked up from a case laden with a particularly fetching collection of baubles and said, “Oh, very festive. They handed out razor blades.”
It isn’t just the specter of financial ruin that’s keeping people from buying this season. After all, the kinds of shoppers who frequent fancy antiques shows in most cases have the same amount of disposable income they had before the catastrophe. It’s just that the shopping instinct, no matter how we try to convince ourselves otherwise, feels a little shameful in the current climate, a climate we have scant experience dealing with. At least the Victorians had a million rules about what you could and could not do during mourning, plus a host of gloomy ephemera — watch fobs made from the deceased’s hair; rings engraved with the name of the departed; miniature ivory paintings decorated with weeping willows, urns, and sad verses — so profuse it still shows up at virtually every antiques show.
The spontaneous rituals that sprang up after the Trade Center disaster had, in fact, some things in common with their Victorian forebears: People wrote poems or drew pictures and tacked them up on park fences and the walls of makeshift shrines like the 26th Street armory or the facade of Ray’s Pizza on Sixth Avenue. When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria, swamped with grief, used to carry his picture everywhere, holding it up on visits to places like the Taj Mahal so he could see it too. It was easy to be reminded of Victoria during the seven-hour Concert for New York City, when all those people in the audience held up pictures of their loved ones, so vibrant and so alive until a few weeks ago, so that they could see Mick Jagger and the Who.
Still, by the time the Christmas tree goes up under the arch in Washington Square, now stripped of “Missing” posters and votive candles, things may improve. “Don’t be surprised if a new show pops up,” George, the vintage Rolex seller who has a booth in the best location at the Showplace, an antiques center on 25th Street, said last weekend. “After all, dealers have been buying stuff all year to sell for the holidays. You wait — someone will swoop down and set up a show somewhere.” But no one has yet, and even if they did, would it glitter as brightly as those three gleaming piers on the Hudson?