Unbeknownst to the uninitiated, a rich selection of world-renowned antique shops hide like diamonds in the rough along New Hampshire's Route 4
It’s hard to imagine driving past a rich field of buried treasure and never stopping to explore — yet thousands of people commuting along Route 4 do it every day.
Route 4, aka First NH Turnpike, runs east-west from the Seacoast to Concord. The road mysteriously constricts at certain stretches, and rush hour is a great place to belt out profanities and refine your mobile hysteria.
Should you need a break or an escape on your drive, Route 4’s Antique Alley is a nationally-known treasure. Primarily located in Northwood, it is the home to some great shops, and while the numbers swell and contract depending on the economy, there are plenty of outlets that will accommodate your wide and assorted tastes.
It is generally accepted that the term “antique” should only be applied to items that are at least 100 years old, with “vintage” and “collectible” sweeping up the rest and used to describe anything crafted later. Vintage toys, collectible lighters and antique snuff boxes are strict applications, but you will often find that the terms are applied rather loosely. In the Live Free State, such rules are meant to be bendy.
Collecting and trading in anything “early” is a treasure hunt of the highest order. Although you may not be scavenging an old shipwreck or following some faded map to a buried chest, it can still be a quest for riches — or simply things that matter to you. Perhaps you have a hole in your doll collection. Perhaps you’ll come by an early and unrecognized painting by a master working in Cubism. Maybe a cast metal toy of your first real car or perhaps an undervalued piece of jewelry with an overlooked and valid Tiffany Makers mark. It all comes down to what you know and learned, what your instincts suggest or simply what you love. It all counts.
Most all decent pieces show signs of wear. It is part of their history, and those blemishes or tarnished parts speak to their journey: the places they’ve been, the things that they’ve seen. The children that held them closely, eroding paint in the process — or that card table with your drunk Aunt Helen’s unintentional scratches in the varnish.
Your discoveries might become wealth or simply placed on a shelf, a testament to what you love and hold nostalgic.
As your knowledge grows so does your discrimination, mirroring itself in the pieces that you acquire. The rewards are there and any and all of it, once unearthed and bagged, represent the end of a glorious rainbow. Bask in the days when craftsmen labored over details or when plastic wasn’t an option then actually became one. Discover the history and delight in your finds. You will eventually agree that it often beats buying food. So, if you’d like to lose a few pounds, perhaps get wealthy but definitely have some fun, you should visit New Hampshire’s Antique Alley in Northwood.
To get you started, here’s an introduction to a few of the best-established gatekeepers and guardians of this field of treasure, buried in plain sight. Tell ‘em we said hello.
Antique Alley sprawls a bit as it hopscotches busy Route 4 through the Northwood stretch with about 14 different shops along the way, but if it’s a center or an origin story you seek, look no further than Parker-French Antique Center. Originally a seasonal New Hampshire souvenir shop that sold ice cream and moccasins to tourists, owners Sumner and Muriel Parker added a few tables of antiques. Soon other dealers were asking for tables next to theirs, and in the Bicentennial of 1976 Antique Alley was born, making it the first group antique shop in the state (if not the country).
Today, Richard Bojko co-owns Parker-French Antique Center with his partner, John Mullen, with Bojko primarily responsible for the day-to-day operations. The buildings he oversees offer 135 spots consisting of floor space, showcases and cupboards packed with the curations of other dealers. Bojko says there’s a waiting list for those wanting to sell there, offering a mix of pieces of what he calls “better quality.” “This is definitely not a flea market,” he says.
The shop is known for showcasing great jewelry, gold, silver and some vintage Native American pieces, as well as fine 18th-century furniture. But current trends always keep it interesting.
“Currently, ‘man cave’ pieces are hot,” Bojko says. “Automotive and beer advertising is selling well, and vintage toys are a strong market as well.”
And there’s always that unforgettable, one-of-a-kind find.
“We recently had a sea captain’s ‘naughty,’” Bojko says. “A special piece made from ivory and placed on his onboard desk. Made in the mid-1800s, it was of a woman on a swing, and every time the ship rocked, so would the swing — revealing her undergarments.” Bojko says someone purchased it there for $650 and sold it at a maritime auction for around $24,000.
In the heyday of Antique Alley, there were as many as 48 shops along the route, and their fame had spread into Canada, where tourists seeking the Atlantic beaches made it a required stop on the way. Parker-French was even featured in the Canadian TV show “Antique Hunters,” says Bojko, but individual shops have mostly morphed into group shops since then. Change is constant, even in the antique business.
“This is an evolutionary market,” says Bojko, noting that things like Pyrex have replaced formal glassware and fine china. “Generationally, younger folks want to recapture their youth. Techies today buy toys and stuff that they could not have when they were younger. Traditionally, older buyers have most of what they want.” But he says that rarity still creates demand. “As downsizing, retirement and death occurs, more stuff is coming onto the market than the demand can absorb.”
COVID-19 had its impact, of course, but the flow of taste and economy has always required antiques sellers to stay on their toes. Parker-French has more than a dozen knowledgeable folks on-hand on a rotating basis to keep current and engaging. “People always love to shop, but are always more cautious on spending in tough economic times,” Bojko says. “Dealers love to set up, but that ebbs and flows as well.”
Things he’s excited about that were on sale at the beginning of the summer include: “A fascinating Victorian child’s gliding ride horse, and a circa-1806 Dutch silver tea set in stock, from Jacobus Carronhoff, a silvermaker from Amsterdam who’s well represented in the museums.”
RS Butler’s Trading Company has been a fixture in Antique Alley since 1990. “We moved here from Portsmouth and opened the business with my parents,” says Colleen Pingree, who runs the shop with her husband, Don. After buying out their folks 10 years ago, “We immediately started our quest to turn the shop into a representation of our own aesthetic,” Colleen says.
Along with renovations, they created an outside space dedicated to garden antiques, including a large free-standing barn for customers to explore. “We are currently in the process of building an addition to that barn which will more than double the retail space in that building,” she says. “Our goal has always been to be a large enough shop to be our own destination.”
The Pingrees say that, unlike so many in retail, the COVID shut-downs were actually good for their business.
“Since our shop is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, maintenance and construction can be a challenge,” Colleen says. “We spent those two months cleaning, renovating and rearranging both buildings. We found that our customers were also stuck at home doing the same kinds of projects — so we did a lot of texting and emailing with folks who were looking for pieces for their homes.” Ultimately, she says, they handled a lot of curbside pickup for local customers and a lot of shipping to long-distance customers who were online looking through inventory on their website.
Music is a distinguishing trademark for their shop. They have a complete record store inside the shop filled with albums, 45 rpm singles, vintage equipment and vintage music posters. “We personally collect vintage concert posters, and Don has an extensive collection of original reggae LPs that he has amassed over the years,” Colleen says.
Counter to the trend toward more group shops, the couple are the original owners of their store, and they own everything in it. “This gives us the freedom to create a space that represents our taste,” Colleen says. They can keep their inventory organized, create eye-catching displays and rearrange spaces on a whim. “We have friends who work for us, which allows us to be on the road two days a week searching through attics and basements for inventory,” she says.
And while Don’s expertise as a record dealer makes him a specialist in that area, Colleen is a generalist: “So we have everything from vintage clothing and textiles to books and tools to garden decor and architectural salvage to taxidermy and decor to furniture and lighting.”
She says they keep their website current to give people a sense of the kinds of things they carry, but quickly adds, “We bring new inventory into the shop daily, so you never know what you’ll find here.”
It’s probably not a surprise to learn that most antiques/collectible dealers are themselves big-time (maybe pathological) collectors. In fact, the passionate drive to accumulate precious, collectible or just fun stuff often culminates in a form of “recovery” that involves putting some or most of it up for sale.
Steve Cash, owner of Coveway Antiques, was an avid collector of stoneware and redware pottery as well as hand-forged and cast iron, “But now, I say my collection is everything in the store that hasn’t found a home yet,” Cash says. He purchased Coveway in 1992 as a retirement business, and his passion is otherwise unabated.
“I’m attracted to the history attached to antiques, the adventure of learning new things about the past, and the treasure hunt antiques provide,” he says. This does make his retirement gig seem a lot like what those in recovery call “denial,” but he’s fairly sanguine about it.
“New collectors seek the things that interest them and trigger good memories or challenge their collecting itch,” Cash says. “We must remember we sell to our customers’ likes and interests and not necessarily our own. Not that we can’t and don’t try to capture their imagination about the things we love. We have our specialties in addition to items of interest we find. We have folks with focused knowledge and interest in militaria, ephemera, fine glass, stoneware, redware, antique iron, art, tools and more.”
He describes himself simply, as “curious and interested in many small and seemingly mundane objects that are new to me,” and cites an example: “One memorable piece was something called a Lyle gun. It was used by the U.S. Lifesaving Organization to shoot lines out to wrecked ships to rescue survivors. It was a small cannon that shot rope lines that could be attached to masts and shuttle survivors to safety.”
And most of the objects in his store have similarly triggered his curiosity, although the value of some items aren’t apparent until they’ve been sold. He remembers one such “sleeper” piece, a simple marble that sat in the shop a long time. It was a sulfide marble, made in Germany in the late 19th century, and naturally it came with a story. Embedded inside the large, clear marble was a tiny clay figurine of a person playing a violin. “Unlike marbles that are made in the thousands by a machine, this one took two persons to make,” he says, one to pour the molten glass and one to hold the tiny violinist in the perfect place. It was finally purchased and sold on eBay for $5,000.
Such finds have kept Coveway going, even through the dry period of the pandemic years, which he says ultimately helped them out by drawing in younger customers who had fewer choices during the closures. Many of them made antiquing a habit and remain clients of his group shop that features glass cases and floor space for wannabe dealers of such treasures. And if anyone’s looking, Steve says “a compatible dealer could find space here.”
Blasts from the Past: Antiques Week in NH
Once upon a time, before planned obsolescence set in and plastics became omnipresent, people kept things for a long, long time. In fact, the number of years a thing had been around was viewed as a tribute to its worth. If something had been used for a few decades then you knew it was built to last, easy to maintain or repair and nice to have around.
Maybe it’s a longing for a return to such values that motivates the deep love of antiques that we share here in the Granite State. After all, from its grand hotels to its ancient-but-still-in-use capital building in Concord, New Hampshire itself is a bit like a rugged, patinated antique that is preserved and repurposed to new uses with each generation.
But the truth is that collecting treasures from the past triggers even deeper urges. Antiquing mixes the thrill of the hunt with the satisfaction of “scoring” something delightful or useful. It blends the forensics of a murder mystery with the visceral euphoria of high-roller gambling. And it gets individuals, couples and sometimes even whole families involved in a leisure activity that blends sightseeing in cities and on backroads with storytelling. After all, an antique is a bit like a desktop icon that, when clicked, opens up pages of knowledge and lore about the era of origin and lifestyle that it was part of. Most antique dealers are themselves master storytellers when it comes to the items in their shops.
And for antiques dealers and collectors in New Hampshire, Antiques Week each August is their happy place.
“Antiques Week in New Hampshire is exciting, as it brings dealers and collectors from all over the country together to share their passion for antiques, history and collecting,” says Jason Hackler of New Hampshire Antique Co-op in Milford. Indeed, the weeklong series of events brings thousands of people to the region who visit the shows and fan out to area antique shops, like those of Antique Alley in Northwoods. Hackler, whose co-op has regularly been cited as one of the state’s best group shops, exhibited at the NHADA in Manchester during Antiques Week for more than 10 years, but now focuses on his family’s group shop and art gallery during those days just to keep up with traffic. The co-op is celebrating 40 years of business this year, and Hackler says he anticipates this Antiques Week to be the biggest yet, with people regrouping after the lull of the pandemic years.
According to Hackler, Antiques Week is a bit like Black Friday and Christmas combined for lovers and dealers of precious things of the past. “All of the area antique shops get ready for this boost in activity, concentrating on getting some of their best antiques, folk art and Americana on display for all of the visiting collectors, designers and dealers who come to the area for the big week,” Hackler says.
For the serious (or adventurous) fan, the week is a chance to do some exploring around the state; the focus progresses around New Hampshire’s southern regions, starting in Milford and ending up at the 66th Annual New Hampshire Antiques Show in Manchester.
Here’s a guide for the curious with a variety of places to experience the abiding joys and occasional thrills of the antiquing game.
2023 Antiques Week at a Glance
Milford Antiques Show
Sunday, August 6: 8:30 am – 12 p.m.
Features 65 exhibitors in quality antiques and collectibles with an air-conditioned space complete with free parking and a café.
Early Buying Available: 6:30 a.m. – 8:30 a.m.
Regular Admission $5: 8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.
Free Admission: 9:30 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Hampshire Hills Athletic Club, 50 Emerson Road, Milford
The Deerfield Antique Show
Monday, August 7: 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
A 30-year tradition featuring 85 selected exhibitors of fine antiques, Americana and decorative accessories with displays indoors and outdoors under the pines and even a shuttle bus to parking.
Admission: $15 or $8 after 11 a.m.
Deerfield Fairgrounds, 34 Stage Road, Deerfield
Hosted by Gurley Antique Shows
Americana Celebration Antiques Show
Tuesday, August 8: 10 a.m. — 3 p.m.
A Peter Mavris Antique Show featuring 60 selected exhibitors of authentic American antiques offering 18th and 19th century furniture and appropriate decorative accessories in room settings, air conditioned.
Early Buyers: 8 a.m. – 10 a.m. ($25)
General Admission: 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. ($15)
Douglas Everett Arena, 15 Loudon Road, Concord
Antiques in Manchester
Wednesday, August 9: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Thursday, August 10: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
The Collectors’ Fair, now in their 11th year, offers a wide range of antiques, Americana, and art for collectors at every level. Organizers say the 64 featured dealers save their most exciting acquisitions for Antiques in Manchester. With air-conditioning, free parking, a café and on-site shipping.
Sullivan Arena on the campus of Saint Anselm College, 101 St. Anselm Drive, Manchester. (Watch for highway signs to Saint Anselm from Route 101, then watch for signs to correct entrance.)