Saturday, May 10, 2008



By Jim Putnam

I went in search of a needle in a haystack. You see, I love old things starting with my late grandparents, cars, furniture, clothes, houses, and anything associated with them. Make no mistake I am an All American Baby Boomer, and not just any old Baby Boomer but one born in the very first year of the Baby Boomers, 1946. It is truly MY generation.

The 1950’s were my education, the 1960’s my graduation, and things have pretty much been down hill ever since. To be born in an era when people took pride in their work, when a work ethic was really a work ethic, when the things you needed were supposed to last, and when honesty prevailed seems like such a long time ago. I grew up when extended warranties weren’t needed because what you bought lasted.

So I set out to find those things. My journey has taken me from the Great Plains to California, New York to Canada, Mexico to Ireland and Scotland to Russia. I searched the world over for the magical combination of quality and service, pride and competence, the things we used to find in the 5&10, the soda fountain, the auto dealers, and the repair services, things that lasted and people who cared.

Well one day I found it in the strangest of places. You see, after driving through the entire continental USA, Canada and Mexico over and over staying off the super highways and scouring the back roads I was about to toss in the towel and give up. It was when I came to a sleepy fishing village in southern Maryland where time seemed to have stood still that my hopes were finally raised.

How many of you live in a place where there are no sidewalks, no streetlights, no stoplights, no water lines, no sewers, no cops, no politicians, no strip malls, no Wal-Mart’s, no through streets, no plethora of bars and churches, and no fast food joints? Somehow the Potomac River front in St. Mary’s County, Maryland has survived the so-called advance of civilization and remained frozen in time, a time long ago.

One day while driving the country roads and avoiding the Amish and Mennonite horse drawn buggies I came across a remote intersection with a softball field, a lively bar and eating place, and lo and behold, a little store called The Vintage Source. I pulled in, got out, and found the door locked with a sign that said open the third weekend of every month.

This is the 21st century; no one is only open one weekend a month! Stores stay open 24 hours a day to bleed you out of every last buck. Looking through the window of the old storefront I could see there were interesting things inside, everywhere inside, and was determined to come back and see what treasures lay within. Since we were still in the metropolitan Washington, DC area I was also determined to see what outrageous price might be on these treasures.

I returned that 3rd weekend and was in for the shock of my life. It was as if I followed the White Rabbit down the tunnel into Alice’s Wonderland where nothing was as it seemed as I stepped out of my car back into the 1950’s, or 1940’s or earlier. The Vintage Source was no 21st century antique store but a trip in H G Wells Time Machine to an era of ice cream socials, people helping people, no stress and wonderful artifacts of the past to take home with you.

The little store was packed with people but there were no fights over the bargains, no pushing and shoving to get a deal, and no arguing over prices. People were happy, were friendly, courteous and all the other things you no longer find while shopping. This was not a shop full of grandmother’s antiques, those things so uncomfortable they could only be used for display. There was a lot of vintage stuff in there, but it was all things that could be practical in your home.

Now I had often heard that when it come to antiques, Americans have a Neiman Marcus taste and a Sears & Roebuck imagination meaning they love antiques but have no clue how to incorporate them into their homes. They need someone to tell them what to do. If you did not have the imagination to figure out how to use the vintage items, there were pictures all over the place showing how to incorporate them in a home.

The Vintage Source is the brainchild of Michelle Combs Radez, and if central casting ever showed up she would be cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Her ancestors came from England about 200 years ago and she is the modern reincarnation of the beloved Scarlett O’Hara. Tough, she was the only girl with five brothers; the Iowa farm girl background of her mother influenced her.

After back packing around the country her first job at 15 was working in an antique store. It was there and traveling with her mother she began to appreciate the need for primitive antiques with character, maybe aged and bruised even, because they could be used for practical purposes without fear of losing their value. She did not fall in the trap of focusing on high value antiques, the items that remain in shops without selling. Appeal to people with high taste but limited budgets and you could succeed she believed.

Like Scarlett, she set out to learn all there was to learn and Michelle set up a tent one weekend a month on her front lawn to chase her dream. It was a wedding tent she found at a sale. A year later she leased an old storefront not far from her family home, then bought the old store, and three years later the business is booming. She still sets out for auctions, garage sales and estate sales in search of the items her clientele is seeking with her trailer and the tireless help of her husband.

She also realized if some minor repairs were made to the items the people were more likely to buy them and she learned wood repair, stripping and painting old items, and became so good at repairs she was asked to teach classes on restoration at college. In the store they tell you how to make repairs and sell items to help you. Michelle never stops learning about antiques or how to use them and never stops trying to find new ways to recycle old items.

But even Scarlett O’Hara could not do it alone so Michelle invited two people to be in house dealers in her shop. One is Sheryl Tort, from the Texas panhandle where life is tough; ingenuity is essential and self-sufficiency the lifeblood of survival. If you were to imagine the star of the story O Pioneer by Willa Cather about the pioneer woman who saved the family farm it could have been Sheryl rather than Jessica Lange.

Married to a Navy man, her story is one of creativity, hard work, a love of salvaging and recycling furniture, and a heritage of packrats. Her uncle back in Texas was a collector and salvager of furniture and her sister also has an antique store in Texas. It was a way of life down there and a passion she would never lose. First she built up a business of sewing slip covers for furniture and then became a dealer in Michelle’s store specializing in finding prized antiques on the Internet through eBay and Craig’s List.

The other dealer invited to join the store was Cathe Chiomento, the Auntie Mame of The Vintage Source who hailed from a comfortable Pennsylvania family whose father was one of the first Arbys franchise holders on the east coast. While Michelle and Sheryl may seem quiet and thoughtful at times Auntie Mame is a fireball of energy and activism. She was also a Navy wife but her journeys throughout the world left a wealth of programs behind that she helped organize to aid military wives and families in fighting drugs and alcoholism, and addressing the many other problems of military dependents.

This same sort of activism and energy was directed toward her obsession with antiques and once she settled in Maryland she decided to give it a try as a leisurely side job. After a couple of starts exploring the waters she came across Michelle’s store and decided this was the place she want to be.

So Scarlett O’Hara let Auntie Mame and the O Pioneer woman be dealers in her store and the result is a store they describe as classic to funky, eclectic to non-traditional. The atmosphere is like a social event or a happening and the once a month opening gives it a mysterious quality unlike most commercial traps.

Make no mistake, this is a very successful business but it is far from typical with very reasonable prices, being environmentally sensitive as it seeks to restore and revitalize furniture thus saving the unnecessary destruction of trees for new and cheaper furniture, and it shows people how to use the antiques and collectibles in ways they never knew.

You owe it to yourself to make the sojourn to The Vintage Source on the 3rd weekend of the month. It is so unlike the crass commercialism, the unfriendly service, the inferior product quality and the stressed out shoppers you encounter every other day it is like therapy for the soul and just might restore your faith in the forgotten quality of American entrepreneurs.

The Vintage Source is located at 22080 Newtowne Neck Road, Compton, Maryland.

From the DC area: Take 495 to Rt. 5 south, towards Leonardtown. Turn right at Rt. 243 (at the McDonald’s and Dash-In stores). Travel three miles. We are on the left, just past the BackRoad Inn Bar.

From the 301 Potomac River Bridge or LaPlata area: Take Rt. 301 north to Rt. 234 south (at Whitehouse Motel). Exit onto Rt. 5 south. Turn right at Rt. 243 (at the McDonald’s and Dash-In stores). Travel three miles. We are on the left, just past the BackRoad Inn Bar.

From South of Leonardtown: Take Rt. 5 north towards Leonardtown. Turn left at Rt. 243 (at the McDonald’s and Dash-In stores). Travel three miles. We are on the left, just past the BackRoad Inn Bar.

From Calvert County:Take Rt. 4 south over the Solomon's Island Bridge. Continue straight on Rt.4 towards Leonardtown. Exit onto Rt. 5 north through Leonardtown. Turn left at Rt. 243 (at the McDonald’s and Dash-In stores). Travel three miles. We are on the left, just past the BackRoad Inn Bar.

Lost?? Call 240-925-1060

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