John Langly may not go out with a pick and shovel, but as far as he's concerned, walking the streets of Ventura is like mining for gold.
For it is here, he says, tucked away in as many as 30 antique stores, that items from the past can still be found at reasonable prices, and where educated eyes have been known to spot bargains that set the imagination turning.
"Everywhere you go there are great finds," says Langly, owner of Antique Alley, a Ventura store that sells the antiques and collectibles of 10 different dealers. "You just have to know what you're looking at."
Many shoppers, some of whom drive up from Los Angeles over the weekend in search of a steal, would agree. And several claim to have had good fortune even without extensive knowledge of an item's value.
"I came up to Ventura and found a brooch for $20. I didn't know what it was at the time, but I loved it," said Blair Ashton, a Los Angeles collector who said she regularly travels to antique shows across the country. When she had the brooch appraised, she learned it had been hand-made in Norway in 1880 and was worth $500.
"That's the kind of experience that really keeps you going," she said. "It's like being on a treasure hunt."
Ventura antique dealers don't claim that every purchase will turn out to be as fortuitous. What they do say, however, is that good buys--whether on antique furniture and jewelry or collectibles such as plates and glassware--are abundant.
"In the last few years the antique stores in Ventura really have gained a reputation for having quality items that are priced significantly less than places like Los Angeles or Santa Barbara," said Dale Bowen, owner of Heirloom Antiques, a local store whose French buyer, Sylvain Caine, travels regularly to Europe in search of French and English furniture. "We get people coming here from all over the state, and antique store dealers come from all over the country."
Many store owners say that as much as 90% of their business is from out-of-towners. Some, store owners say, will whip out their checkbooks at the sight of a 77-inch French sideboard in perfect condition for $280 or a three-piece French bed set--including an armoire and marble-top bed stand--for $579. Others will snap up items such as a Victorian gold necklace, set with four diamonds and an amethyst, for $195; a turn-of-the-century brass lighting fixture for under $200; or a wood stove, made in 1880 and in mint condition, for $800.
The dealers have the deals, they say, because there's none of the flash, dash or panache of L.A., and overheads are low.
"I'd say that prices here are at least half of what they would be in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara," Langly said. "It just doesn't cost as much for us to be here."
Although independent antique appraisers don't argue that Ventura offers some good bargains to shoppers looking to buy a certain kind of merchandise, they also say that comparing the city's antique stores to those in Los Angeles is difficult.
Stuart Salsbury, a former antique appraiser with Sotheby's who now works as an independent fine arts appraiser in Los Angeles, said the antiques themselves are apt to be like the proverbial apples and oranges.
"The quality of antiques in the best store in Los Angeles will be completely different than in the best store in Ventura," Salsbury said.
"Even the stores in Ventura that import from Europe, what you're essentially getting is used European furniture," he said. "In your better shop in Los Angeles, there might not be a single piece for under $1,500."
Not having museum-quality antiques doesn't seem to bother local dealers who, with only minimal prodding, will talk expansively of the incredible bargains they have gotten at estate sales, yard sales or flea markets in the area.
Langly likes to talk about the good finds he's come across over the years, usually because he happened to know an item's value when the seller did not. Take, for example, the antique barber's chair he said he picked up at a swap meet for a few dollars and turned around and sold to a collector--who considered it a good price--for $5,000. A few days later, he said, he learned that a similar chair had been sold at an auction on the East Coast for $16,000.
And then there were the two pieces of inlaid onyx glassware, made for only six months during the 1880s, that Langly said he had just read about in one of his numerous reference books on antiques and collectibles. He said he picked the pieces up in a thrift store in Oxnard for 50 cents and later sold them for $125. Even that price, he said, was a bargain for the buyer, considering that it was still half of the items' listed value.
"It happens all the time that you come across something that the seller doesn't know the value of," he said. "Still, as long as I make my profit, it doesn't bother me if someone else buys it from me and then sells it at 10 times the price. And besides, antique stores around here wouldn't survive if we had that kind of a markup."
Then there are cases in which store owners might not have the correct information about a piece, which doesn't always work to the customer's advantage.
"There are so many dealers, and they all are selling to other dealers," said George Kovach, the former owner of an antique store in San Francisco who bought glassware and silver flatware from other dealers in Ventura. "So if one of them sells an item as something it's not to another dealer--and it may be because that's what he was told it was when he bought it--people are going to get taken. It happens all the time."
In a business where the value of an item is often determined by what someone is willing to pay for it, some shoppers without much knowledge of antiques and collectibles still consider it best to let good sense be their guide.
One woman browsing in a Ventura antique store said she saw a Fiesta dinner plate, an increasingly popular brand of dinnerware that was first made in the 1930s, priced at nearly $30. She considered that price, no matter how fashionable the plates, to be "completely unrealistic."
Yet, for many dealers and antique store addicts, the growing field of "collectibles"--items that, because of their relative youth don't meet the 100-year-old criterion for classification as antique--represents a gold mine in itself. Many of the antique stores in Ventura carry a large supply of these items, ranging from tasteful Rookwood pottery from the 1930s to cartoon-painted restaurant glasses from the 1970s, once free with a large drink.
"A lot of it is stuff that people tossed out when they cleaned out their attics and didn't know would be valuable later on," said Kevin Ross, a collector in Fillmore who sells old glassware, silver and pottery at antique shows statewide.
That is something that will never happen to Tes Wolf, owner of Waxing Nostalgic Antiques in Ventura. Wolf drives two days each week to something she describes as an advanced course on spotting items of value and determining their worth: an antiques appraisal class at the University of Redlands. Students in the class go to various antique stores, she said, and examine items for age, rarity and condition.
"For an antique dealer, the worst thing has got to be when you look right at something and don't know what it is or what it's worth," Wolf said. "You pass up a lot of things that way."
But then there is the question of fashion. One reason some items in Ventura can be found at such reasonable prices, many store owners say, has to do with what's hot at the moment and what's not. As with clothes and music, tastes in antiques change.
"A few years back, the country look came in, and all of a sudden the price of antique pine furniture went way up," Langly said. "Now that look is kind of dying down, and so are the prices."
Bowen, of Heirloom Antiques, shook his head slowly at the memory of the pine craze: "It's a pretty terrible wood, but no one seemed to mind. I'm glad that people are interested in buying other styles now."
Today, several store owners said, some of the hottest-selling antique furniture is California Mission, a simple, utilitarian design from the early 1900s. The style, which went out of fashion for many years, was revived when actress Barbra Streisand recently paid a record $365,000 for a California Mission sideboard, signed by famed furniture maker Gustav Stickley.
"We get a lot of dealers from Los Angeles who buy our California Mission furniture, and then turn around and sell it for twice or three times the price," said David Marcus, a sales assistant at Hall Place Antiques.
"It kind of irks me," he said, "that prices get inflated like that."
LOOKING FOR PATHS PAVED IN 'OLD'
Where to start on the bargain-hunting trail? Below are only a few of Ventura's many antique stores:
* Heirlooms Antiques, 494 Main St., 328 Main St., 327 Main St.
Three stores, totaling 16,000 square feet, are packed with fixer to perfect French furniture. In abundance are Napoleon- and Louis XV-style beds and armoires, which store buyer Sylvain Caine, a native of France, brings back from his bimonthly trips to estate sales in Europe.
One store has a wide selection of antique oak dressers, starting at about $180.
* Snooty Fox, 1718 Main St.
Co-owners Gus and Virginia Thiros, both certified antique appraisers, have gathered 5,000 square feet of antique jewelry, antique furniture, crystal glassware, Meisen figures, antique French clocks and other fine objects of art.
* Antique Alley, 263 S. Laurel St.
Ten dealers of mostly collectibles are under one roof here, selling glassware, pottery and some furniture.
The biggest-selling items at the store, according to owner John Langly, are brightly colored plates and dishes from the 1950s.
* Esther's Antiques, 1994 E. Thompson Blvd.
Mostly Americana antiques and collectibles, with the emphasis on collectibles.
Several furniture pieces date back to the early 1900s, such as mahogany chests and an iron, wood-burning cooking stove in near perfect condition, but the majority of items are from the 1930s onward.
* Waxing Nostalgic Antiques, 1725 E. Main St. Mostly small furniture items and decorative pieces. The store also has a good collection of Rookwood pottery.
Frank's Furniture, 560 E. Main St.
A good selection of fixer to antique furniture and collectibles at reasonable prices.
* Hall Place Antiques, 50 W. Main St.
More than 12,000 square feet of carefully restored American and European furniture, as well as a good selection of leaded stained-glass windows.
If the store seems bright, it's because of the hundreds of turn-of-the-century lighting fixtures on the ceiling, which start around $200.