The nation's basements are close to barren, barns have been cleared of forgotten things and our better homes and gardens are hanging heavy with Taiwan reproductions.
But to favor Ventura, just two-thirds and a bit between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, is to find a relatively untapped enclave, where genuine antique stores continue to cluster and a bargain remains the $220 sticker price on the oak armoire before you haggled a reduction.
"When we came here 18 years ago, there was only a handful of antique stores, about four or five," said Gus Thiros, co-owner with wife Virginia of the 5,000-square-foot Snooty Fox, with art glass, bronze and antique jewelry its specialty. "Now there are more than 30 antique shops."
And five refinishing and restoration shops and a dozen thrift and junk shops and Antique Alley, which is one roof above 17 stalls of collectibles and a store that specializes in turn-of-the-century brass lighting fixtures. . . .
They come here, Thiros says, because overheads are low and living is a little easier.
Also, he believes, antique dealers suffer from chronic nostalgia, and their common passion for dealing in older, charming things is best indulged in older, charming surroundings. Such as Ventura. Where there's none of the expansive dash of Los Angeles and even less of the expensive panache of Santa Barbara and where the center of things really is Main Street.
Ventura's antique prices, Thiros claims, are "about 50% less than Los Angeles'." Therefore, he says, Ventura's clientele is largely out-of-town "and many of my customers are antique dealers from the (San Fernando) Valley and Los Angeles."
So look for Nicholby's, where the emphasis is European and the bargains are ebony dresser sets and mahogany wardrobes. Or Heirloom Antiques, featuring perfect to fixer furniture in an ancient bank building that is itself a municipal heirloom. Or Nancy's, a 20-year fixture, for Early American pine and hand-carved decoys.
But the shining light, as it were, is Sherlock's Antique Lighting in Casitas Springs, five miles along California 33, between Ventura and Ojai.
Mike Sherlock hunts and restores and sells electric fixtures that predate Edison--because they are former gas lighting fixtures that were converted to electricity in those turn-of-the-century years of transition.
His most expensive would be an 1890 "four and four" (four shades turned up and four turned down) front parlor chandelier for $2,000. The least expensive are 1920 wall sconces for $65 apiece. In between are leaded lamps, kerosene lamps, flush mountings, free-standing lamps, wall hangers and danglers from a single bulb to great clusters of globes that would light a banquet hall.
"Most of my stuff comes from house sales, auctions and flea markets on the East Coast, mostly Pennsylvania and Upstate New York," he said. "The fixtures are just coming out now from attics and basements of homes where the lighting was changed 50 years ago and the fixtures were tucked away in storage.
"I've just picked up one lot from a Victorian home in Kingston, N.Y., where the attic contained six fixtures, three and threes, four and fours, and 32 combination gas-electric sconces."
Sherlock--a 13-year veteran of his specialized trade after failing to be illuminated by a career as a grade school teacher--believes he is one of only a dozen antique lighting dealers on the West Coast and maybe one in a million in that he loves his specialty and never tires of the eternal buffing and rewiring of total restoration.
He refuses to deal in reproductions. His shades, from beaded fleurs-de-lis to acid-etched cherubs, are as original as the fixtures.
"Every one I work on is different," he said. "I'm fascinated by the quality, the uniqueness of the products of that time. I'll never get rich, but I earn enough to make a comfortable living in a comfortable town where I can look at times that were a little bit slower.
"And when things were not all plastic or came from overseas. . . ."
Listing of antique dealers from Ventura Chamber of Commerce, 785 Seaward Ave., Ventura, Calif. 93001. Telephone (805) 648-2875.