Madison Monday: Joe Ley Antique Store and the bottom of the ocean

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scary rocking horse

The world’s scariest rocking horse

If in our modern lives we are constantly drowning in a sea of stuff, Joe Ley Antique Store is the bottom of the ocean. It is the place where everything eventually ends up, floating down to rest eerily on the sea floor. Thankfully, you don’t need scuba gear to check it out.

There is no way to describe the visual experience of being in Joe Ley Antique Store in Louisville. Mere pictures cannot convey the complete sensory overload that this four story memorial to stuff comprises. You simply must go. If you live anywhere close, go now. Go as soon as you can. In the meantime, here’s an account that will remain sadly inferior to the original.

“Antique store” can mean many different things. There are some antique stores you walk into and know that you will clearly never be able to purchase anything. There are some stores that don’t even bother opening themselves to the regular public because they know we won’t be able to afford anything inside. And then there are the antique stores that are mostly just stuff. This describes most of Madison’s antique stores. In these stores, there’s probably a small smattering of really valuable antiques, along with a whole lot of stuff. I say “stuff” instead of “junk” because junk is a relative term. My junk is someone else’s dear, dear treasure.

So when I say Joe Ley’s is low on the “junk” quotient, keep in mind that’s according to my own personal definition of what is and isn’t junk. In the upstairs is what you might call the “fancy” stuff. A lot of furniture and pictures. In one corner, a pile of old, battered fiddles and fiddle cases that were especially interesting to me. You might think of this as the front stage stuff–the stuff that’s good enough for company to see. Fascinating, but for me, the real action is in the basement.

massive coil of rope

Massive coil of rope

If you’re looking to re-furbish a historic house, Joe Ley’s is the perfect place to go. Every imaginable part of an old house is present in plenitude in the basement: moulding, doorknobs, hinges, windows, fireplace mantles, doors, knobs, chandeliers, tile, soap holders, bathtubs, faucet fixtures, shutters, and door knockers. And this list is made incomplete by all the parts available at Joe Ley’s which I simply cannot identify.

The architectural elements are in the basement, but also religious relics. You can find baptismal founts, votive candle holders, vestments, and even a box containing the tools necessary for giving extreme unction. There are church pews and pulpits. If you would like to start your own church from scratch, Joe Ley’s is the place to go.

Then there are the kitchen implements. Old stoves and hand operated beaters. Wooden spoons and dough kneaders. Tea pots and samovars and what looked like a little canner, but we discovered was a baby bottle sterilizer. And all the things for which my friends and I could not possibly imagine a purpose. Joe Ley’s is a material historian’s field day, and it would certainly be fascinating to take a day trip through the store with someone with more knowledge of historic tools than I personally have. What I particularly love about the basement is that it is where the completely unidentifiable things live.

A knowledgeable historian or a bit of internet research may uncover the purpose of some of these mystery objects. But the purpose of some of the things may just be lost. My friend had been to a museum in Massachussetts that displayed countless historical tools. Many came with explanations of what their purpose had been, but the uses other tools had been put to were lost to the passage of time.

Being uncertain as to how a particular implement is used is not an unfamiliar sensation in modern society; I experience it often standing in Williams and Sonoma or other high-end cooking shops. But contemplate for a moment the idea that we just have no idea how certain historical tools were used and maybe never will. What does this say about how much our lives have changed? The past is partially incomprehensible to us, not just because we cannot completely put ourselves into the historical perspective of the people who lived then, but because we don’t even know what the historical artifacts they left behind are. And we’re not talking something from thousands of years ago; these American tools can’t be more than 300 or so years old. Some of them are probably less than 100 years old, and already the knowledge of what they were is gone. Lost. If you need a physical reminder of how foreign the past it to us, go no further than Joe Ley’s.

concrete headsI didn’t buy a whole lot at Joe Ley’s, but one of my purchases was a small, white enameled cooking pot with a handle and lid for $25. It could date to the turn of the century or the 1940s–I have no real idea. It was not something I really needed, though it has come in quite handy as a container for the pane rustico dough that needs to sit overnight. It would also make a lovely compost bin, infinitely cheaper than the ones available online.

I like the way my little pot looks. I like its functionality. But mostly I like thinking about the life it had before it ended up in the basement of Joe Ley’s. Who might have used it in the past, and what did they use it for? Did it have more than one owner? What food might have been made in it which would be unrecognizable to me? What stories could it tell?

If all the stuff in Joe Ley’s were magically given the power to talk, we’d be able to hear the din all the way up the river here in Madison. But wouldn’t it be worth the noise for the stories to be told?

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