Old is the New New

The East Bay is at the epicenter of Rhode Island’s growing vintage and upcycled shopping scene

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Alfred Brazil of Alfred’s Consignments has seen a lot of people come through his shop over the years: interior decorators, home stagers, real estate agents, theater groups, collectors, homeowners. Most often, forty-somethings wander in looking for the things they remember from their childhood. But occasionally, young people venture in, a new generation of antique shoppers with a very different purpose.

“They don’t want their mother’s look,” quips Alfred. After almost 48 years in the business and multiple locations across the Bay, he’s seen an evolution. “Kids today are not looking for old furniture, they’re looking for practical things. They’re looking for pieces they can put a TV on, painted furniture, or something they can paint, something they can drop a sink into for a bathroom vanity.”

Alfred’s Consignments is not your typical overstuffed, musty antique store. Sure, it has all the same trappings – furs, crystal, solid wood furniture, paintings in gilded frames – but it’s arranged and curated with the customer in mind. The walls are a clean white, plenty of natural light filters through the windows, and items are presented intentionally, like the fine china set out on a dining table. It’s an easily navigable maze of treasures, all sourced locally.

“Now, it’s all something they want to buy and re-do,” Alfred continues, talking about these savvy thrifters. He recalls a woman who came in looking for a table, but asked to buy just the base, presumably for some kind of home project. “Years ago, we would’ve said ‘Oh no, don’t touch it, it’s an antique’.” Today, he acknowledges, it’s a very different story.

 

Antiquing has been a shop trend for many, many years. It’s a way to connect to the past, whether for sentimental value or for the sake of preservation. It’s a great strategy for finding period-appropriate items to decorate a historic house or for adding character to a room. And, many shoppers prefer the sturdy make of older furniture compared to the disposable, inexpensive stuff imported from overseas.

“There is an appreciation for well-made furniture and decorative objects that have staying power and a connection to the past,” echoes Nancy Chace, owner of Sea Rose Cottage, a specialty paint, vintage, and interiors shop in Bristol.

However, it isn’t just the age and history behind these kinds of goods that is appealing to the modern shopper. Instead, they’re the solid, storied foundation for an even newer trend: upcycling.

Sea Rose Cottage is a living, breathing example of this trend in action. The store itself is beautifully outfitted with fun and folksy vintage home accents such as signage, pottery glassware, and Americana like matchbox cars and industrial wares. But it is also a place to showcase owner Nancy’s work – painted and restored furniture pieces.

“I think the upcycled/vintage trend is a result of many influences,” Nancy muses. She lists a few, including the Makers Movement, where artisans combine salvaged elements with fresher ones to create a melding of old and new. Nancy’s shop caters to these creatives who can find an array of paint and hardware options to update furniture and cabinetry. “While often these pieces just need a refresh – painting, re-upholstery, or refinishing – to be relevant to modern interiors, some people are reinterpreting them completely.”

Carol Riley is one such reinventor. While her Bristol business, Tatters, specializes in handmade clothing, she also dabbles in home accessories, transforming old clothing into pillows and patchwork or reclaimed wood into coffee tables and serving boards. “Not everything has to be thrown away,” Carol contends.

This sentiment is echoed by both purveyors and participants in this eco-friendly shop trend, including Sea Rose’s Nancy, and Warren shop owner Kate Simpson.

“I think part of the draw is that it is good for the environment,” says Kate. Her gift shop, Cerulean, carries handmade items from over 50 local businesses, plus vintage or refurbished roadside scores. “Otherwise, those pieces are getting dumped into our landfills.”

 

All four agree that the East Bay is at the epicenter of the vintage and upcycled trend in Rhode Island. The area is at the forefront of the Green Movement in the state: Barrington was the first to pass a plastic bag ban, then Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, Bristol, and Warren followed suit. Recently, a wastewater treatment facility in Warren was recognized by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Then, of course, there’s the plethora of antique shops in the area, which, as Alfred explains, is a collaborative network driving business to one another. With interest piqued in re-doing vintage furniture and decor, they make the perfect shopping destination.

“What’s nice about vintage is that there are so many different aesthetics, so each shop will have something different,” adds Cerulean’s Kate. And from Barrington to Newport, there’s certainly no shortage of style: Water Street Antiques, Grasmere, Nick Haus, Cory Farms Past & Present, Cottage & Garden, Eagles Nest Antique Center, Aardvark Antiques, Peter’s Attic, Epilogues – just to scratch the surface.

And, exactly one year ago in May, Kate launched Shades of Vintage, a multi-vendor vintage marketplace. It’s the perfect marriage of antique and upcycled home goods: Think shelves made from salvaged wood, old dressers freshly painted, pegboards full of vintage items like sleds or tennis racquets turned into unusual wall hangings. Stores like these – antique shops, consignment stores, vintage suppliers – are brimming with undiscovered finds that beg the modern savvy shopper for a second chance at life, perhaps as what is was, or with a new purpose.

As Tatters’ Carol says shrewdly, “There are lots of ideas for upcycling...it just takes a minute to think it through.”