The year I lived in the store

A COUPLE OF DAYS after I'd unpacked suitcases in the rental-retreat I'd taken for two months in Santa Fe, I set out on a walk with my dog through the neighborhood of old adobes. At the end of our block, just before we rounded onto Canyon Road and its endless succession of galleries, we happened upon an L-shaped house with a discreet sign in front. An antiques store.

Just outside the door was a stone bench, where a man sat with his eyes closed and his face lifted toward the brilliant sun of mid-September. I didn't want to disturb him by tying Callie to the leg of the bench, so I just took a step over the threshold, stopped and looked around. What I saw was a room of magnificently weathered furnishings, fresh flowers, burning candles and a burning fireplace, where four or five people sat around on needlepoint chairs and a leather chesterfield sofa, drinking and eating.

I was momentarily rattled. I'd gotten it wrong, this wasn't a store, must be the building next to it, no, this was a private residence. I turned to leave.

"It's OK to bring your dog in," I heard someone say. "As long as she's housebroken."

Every afternoon thereafter I went to the house-turned-shop, as much for the communal gatherings as for the pure, lusty pleasure of being around so much outrageous beauty that I craved to own. Having once visited, people usually came again. And again and again. It was a grown-ups' hangout -- a university student center, Southern front porch, hometown diner and backyard fence rolled up in the guise of an antiques store, and it was exquisitely, unfailingly gratifying. All that distressed wood and worn stone, that dented hardware and faded fabric. Those earthy, collected smells of the ages.

When my two months were up, I decided to stay on in Santa Fe for a while, and took another adobe nearby. By then I was spending so much time at the store, the owner asked if it wouldn't make sense for me to work there a day or two a week, and I agreed, it would. I could write there, see my friends there (it's where I'd met most of them, anyway), have my meals there. No different from being home, really, except that it was bigger and better looking. I even dusted and vacuumed.

Nearly every day, a friend would bring morning coffee and scones or afternoon tea and oatmeal cookies, and at least once a week there would be a lunch of fat sandwiches and steaming soup. We'd pull up chairs at the desk or go in the back room and sit on whatever other chairs hadn't been sold or clear a bistro table and partake of our meal in a proper, civilized manner.

I was happier eating and socializing in the store than I was anyplace else in town, with the exception of the lacquered-black kitchen of an artist, a theatrical man who made everything in life, from his house to his conversations to his meals, a kind of avant-garde performance art.

A little of that went a very long way, but what was most compelling about going there for cold lunches was being in his workplace, which was like being directly inside his art, and not just in a room set up for the mundane tasks of peeling vegetables and washing dishes. Every detail was accounted for: He drank a champagne that came in a black bottle because it was in a black bottle. Even the way he arranged each simple dish of smoked fish, sliced tomatoes, whole berries gave me the curiously offbeat but lovely sensation of actually dining on his art. When I told him that, he said he'd be glad to cook one of his canvases in a cream sauce so I could sample the real thing.

As uncommon as it was, the experience was not at all unlike eating in other workplaces, and by workplaces I don't mean the standard office cubicle littered with those dreary paper piles and fluorescent overheads that make you look like yesterday's fish. I mean stores and studios. Places where the eye is captivated by something pleasing, inventive, inspiring, wherever it falls.

Especially a good antiques store. Carved tables and urns, cherrywood armoires and scratched hutches -- at once, you might be in a palazzo, a chateau, a manor, a hacienda, a farmhouse. Going to a candlelit store after hours, where the hearty scent of roast chicken asserts itself in an atmosphere that looks exactly the way you're convinced at that moment that all houses should look, is about as pleasurable as it gets.

You don't even have to go home writhing with your distasteful pangs of avarice and envy. The five chandeliers hanging in one room (who in the world needs five chandeliers in one room?), the six Oriental rugs (who needs six rugs?), that incredible tapestry staring you right in the face all during dinner. Life is not so unfair after all. You don't have to try to go on living without that object that belongs to someone else that you should have seen first and that you're just dying isn't yours, you'll get an exact, an exact, duplicate. The owners, as it happens, would be thrilled to let you take any one of them with you.

Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at

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