The twenty-mile stretch of Texas Highway 237 that runs north of La Grange is, most of the year, as quiet and undisturbed as the cow pastures it cuts through. But for two weeks each spring and fall, this unassuming road, located partway between Austin and Houston, becomes the main artery for one of the largest shopping events in the country. Known as Round Top Antiques Week, this buyer’s paradise is more impressive than its name suggests: it spills beyond Round Top to span several other towns, it features way more than just antiques, and it runs at least sixteen days at a time. Thousands of sellers haul in enough stuff to fill Houston’s Galleria, and every barn, dance hall, and shed in the area becomes an instant storefront. In fields and front yards, tents bloom like bluebonnets. And trampling through those fields are collectors, designers, merchandisers, bargainers, magpies, pickers, and junkers from around the world, who’ve come with wildly varying budgets and shopping lists but are there for the same reason: to feel the rush of striking gold at the biggest treasure hunt in Texas.
The origins of this biannual invasion can be traced to the sixties, when wealthy Houstonians, looking for some respite from city living, began buying historic properties in the area. These newcomers filled their weekend retreats with antiques from Europe and New England, a development that caused three society ladies—Hazel Ledbetter, Faith Bybee, and Ima Hogg—to worry that America’s and Texas’s finest early furniture was being overlooked. With preservation in mind, the three approached Emma Lee Turney, a successful antiques dealer who had bought a few historic homes in the area herself, about producing an antiques show in Round Top. The first show, featuring 22 dealers, was held in October 1968 in the weathered Round Top Schützen Verein. It was such a hit that Turney organized the event again, and then again. A decade later, the affair had outgrown the old rifle hall and inspired a host of other enterprising dealers, who began setting up shows to coincide with Turney’s.
Now, 45 years since that first show, the list of venues is seemingly endless (The Marburger Farm Antique Show! The Original Round Top Antiques Fair! The Old Depot Antiques Show! The Texas Rose Show! The Rose of Texas Show! Granny McCormick’s Yard! Das Blaue Haus! Das Gruene Haus!) and the shopping is incomparable (Victorian silver! Turn-of-the-century linens! Texas primitives!). Which means, of course, that for anyone who appreciates quality and value, this pilgrimage is a no-brainer. With more than five thousand vendors, however, it can be difficult to know where to start, so in the spirit of sacrifice, I went on an antiquing spree this past fall to find out for myself. Though it was impossible to hit every venue, by the end of the week I’d gathered enough intelligence to fill several notebooks, which I’ve since organized by day to offer you a sensible plan of attack. Read the following pages carefully, tear them out, and mark your calendar (this year’s dates are March 23–April 7 and September 21–October 6) for the most eclectic, mind-boggling, and rewarding shopping experience of your life. Happy hunting.
Mention Round Top Antiques Week to any casual collector, and he or she will most certainly tell you about the largest shows, Marburger Farm Antique Show and the Original Round Top Antiques Fair, which always open on the last Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. But talk to an Antiques Week veteran, as I did this past summer when I met a longtime dealer in Grapevine, and you’ll learn that the real action happens days before the big shows out in the fields, as the tent-strewn pastures just off the highway are known. If you want the best finds (and the best prices), my acquaintance told me, you’ll want to show up early and stay for several days.
That’s how I found myself driving south from Burton on Highway 237 on a rainy Saturday last September, three days before the Marburger Farm show. My first objective was to get the lay of the land. After passing hundreds of shoppers along the road, I arrived at Round Top’s historic main square and momentarily lost my bearings: its 1925 courthouse, usually a recognizable landmark, was completely encircled by pole tents, where vendors were hawking purses and T-shirts and silver jewelry. One of the smallest incorporated towns in Texas, Round Top has an official population of ninety. I counted at least that many shoppers in my immediate line of sight. As I continued through Warrenton, Oldenburg, and Rutersville to La Grange, I saw hundreds more going in and out of vendors’ tents with the glee of bees in a garden of honeysuckle.
I turned around in La Grange and drove back to Burton to check in at the Bird Song Cottage, a red one-bedroom studio with a shaded porch that I’d lucked into renting by the grace of the antiquing gods. Antiques Week is so popular that lodging reservations are paramount; every hotel nearby (in Brenham, Giddings, and even Bastrop, fifty miles away) books up months in advance. But on the advice of Ashley Ferguson, the manager of the Marburger Farm show, I had filled out a lodging request form on roundtop.org a few weeks before my visit. Within hours I’d heard back from two dozen B&B owners who still had vacancies. At the Bird Song, I found that innkeeper Leslie Elhai had left me a copy of the Show Daily, the free magazine known as “the bible of Antiques Week.” Before I nodded off to sleep, I studied its detailed tear-out map and recalled the advice of my Grapevine guru: “Antiques Week isn’t something you finish,” she’d told me. “So don’t even try.”
TIP NUMBER 1
Prepare as if for a long journey.
You’re going to be walking for days in (a) the hot Texas sun, (b) sudden rainstorms, (c) muddy, cow-chip-strewn pastures, or (d) all of the above. Lest your will and energy flag too soon, gird yourself with comfortable shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, an umbrella or poncho, rubber boots, a camera, several tote bags, a cart or wagon, and a tape measure. Oh, yes, and a firm budget.
A WORD FROM AN EXPERT
Emma Lee Turney
The 84-year-old Houstonian produced the first Round Top Antiques Fair in 1968 and has been recognized by three Texas governors for the economic impact her shows have had on the state. Though she sold the event (now known as the Original Round Top Antiques Fair) to Susan and Bo Franks in 2005, she still runs the Round Top Folk Art Fair and Creative Market, where you can find her personally greeting every customer.
“The original show was strictly antiques—no vintage pieces—and primarily Texana. Today, younger collectors aren’t into period pieces as much as things from the thirties, forties, and fifties, when their parents were growing up, but they do bring new inspiration. I’ve been counting cars, and I would estimate that about 15,000 people come through over ten days. Even with the price of gas and the economy, we get people from as far as New York and California. I’m also seeing Houston executives buy country houses out here again, same as they were doing when I started the first show. Round Top just attracts innovative thinkers; there’s not another town like it.”
DAYS 2 & 3
Rummaging is a highly personal endeavor, so there’s no one strategy for tackling the fields. But geography is as good a method as any, so on Sunday I set out for one of the northernmost fairs, La Bahia Antiques Show and Sale, and worked my way south. With about eighty dealers set up in a 1910 dance hall and several rows of tents, La Bahia is neither small nor sprawling. Under twinkle lights, I went wide-eyed over sterling silver tea sets, hundred-year-old monogrammed linens, and glitzy estate baubles. Five miles down the road, I ran into a parade of SUVs turning into Blue Hills at Round Top and the Arbor Antiques Show, both of which attract buyers who don’t blink at four-figure rococo chairs or Hungarian linen shams priced at $760 apiece. Though I was particularly taken with a boat compass in a binnacle nearly as tall as me ($1,200), I finally pulled myself away to go to the Round Top Folk Art Fair and Creative Market, which offers more modestly priced collectibles, like handmade jewelry and salt-glazed stoneware. Plus it’s where you can meet the woman who started this whole thing. When I asked Emma Lee Turney what she thought of the spectacle that is now Antiques Week, she shrugged and said, “Well, not much.”
The next day, I started across from Round Top’s courthouse square, in a cul-de-sac of colorful tents and Airstream trailers where I found hand-painted vintage cowboy boots and Texas-shaped cacti. When I mentioned to a Dallas boutique owner that I’d be tackling the fields of Warrenton next, he warned that though I’d find plenty of gems, I’d also have to dig through “a lot of corny dogs and crap.” At Ex-cess, I spied no corny dogs, just French and modern furniture and several acres of unusual pieces of industrial and architectural salvage, which are like catnip to professional merchandisers, who zip around in golf carts as they buy up warehouses’ worth of display props. But North Gate, Bar W, and Tin Star fields did offer seemingly infinite buffets of memorabilia, tchotchkes, fixer-upper furniture, and, yes, plain ol’ junk, so that by the time I got to Renck Yard and Hall, I’d lost count of how many cowhides, rusty doorknobs, and milk glass vases I’d passed up.
I’d also lost sight of how far I was from my car. By the time I doubled back to retrieve it, I had only an hour left to explore Zapp Hall and Field, best known for housing the Junk Gypsies, two sassy sisters and their mama who recently designed the country-kitsch wedding of their friend Miranda Lambert’s dreams. They sell “chippy-peely” flea-market furniture and “Honey Hush”–inscribed T-shirts and also throw a Junk Gypsy “prom” that’s the social event of the season. Maybe I shouldn’t have passed on that pink taffeta tutu I’d seen two fields back after all.
A WORD FROM AN EXPERT
Born in Paris (France, not Texas), the Georgia-based dealer specializes in turn-of-the-century French furniture. She has been selling her imports at the Marburger Farm Antique Show since 2005.
“All of my pieces are straight from Paris. I handpick them all, but I don’t sell anything as is; I will repaint a chair or add some chicken wire to a wardrobe. I love playing with my furniture and making it look better. My longtime customers run to my booth first, and they buy, buy, buy. An interior designer from Oklahoma City recently brought thirty of his clients, and they bought almost everything I had. Then there was a woman from Austin with nine bathrooms in her house who bought a $3,200 chest of drawers for her sixteen-year-old son. Another woman was going to buy a cabinet, but she got her tape measure out and realized it was two inches too long. I missed a $3,000 sale because of two inches! I always say to people, if you have two places in your home where you could put a piece, then you should buy it. But if you are not sure about something, walk away from it. If it’s been sold by the time you come back, it was not meant to be yours.”
TIP NUMBER 2
Though many sellers accept checks and credit cards, you can usually get a better deal with cold, hard currency. “This guy wanted $295 for a Mexican retablo that I had my eye on, so I handed him two $100 bills,” one shopper told me. “I got it for $200. It’s hard to say no to cash.” (Note: the on-site ATMs are often out of money, so best fill your wallet beforehand.)
WHERE TO EAT
If you can’t snag a table at Royers Round Top Cafe, on the courthouse square (reservations are required during Antiques Week), you can still enjoy the Royer family’s home cooking a few blocks east at the Pie Haven, where daughter Tara serves up signature desserts such as the seven-fruit Junk Berry Pie, and at Zapp Hall, which offers fare like Funky Chunky Chicken Salad and Ay Caramba Sausage. Barbecue lovers can get their fix at Carmine Dance Hall, where I feasted on a $9 two-meat plate complete with German sausage and sauerkraut, or at the Marburger Farm show, where Black’s Barbecue (out of Lockhart) serves up sandwiches with sliced turkey, sausage, and chopped beef. Two other vendors I was happy to stumble upon: the Coffee Bug, a Volkswagen Beetle–camper hybrid in Warrenton that’s just big enough for owner Brad Frank to whip up his popular fruit smoothies and frozen hot chocolates, and BJ’s Bake Sale, at the back of Renck Hall, where I bought a Ziploc bag of homemade gingersnap cookies.
A WORD FROM AN EXPERT
The Philadelphia-based dealer runs the two-acre venue Ex-cess, in the fields of Warrenton. He has been coming to Antiques Week for nineteen years.
“When my paternal grandpa passed away, I got a piece of his purple carnival glass. I did some research and realized it was worth $500 to $600, so I found a buyer and used the money to pay off my Jeep Cherokee. I couldn’t believe something like that was worth so much. I was fresh out of the Army and living with my parents in New Jersey, and I started going to flea markets in the area. Pretty soon I was going to six a week, buying stuff at one and selling it at another. I jumped to the flea markets in New York, then to the big shows in Massachusetts, Atlanta, and North Carolina. Eventually a friend said, “You need to come to Texas.” This show is by far the biggest—though, of course, being busier isn’t always better. A wholesale dealer who buys an entire truckload of stuff in one fell swoop is better to me than a hundred customers.”
WHERE TO BUY
In shopping, as in life, it’s important to “know thyself.” Are you willing to dig through heaps of fox pelts, roller skates, and lawn ornaments for that one vintage pencil? Or to inspect hundreds of used chairs for the fixer-upper you’ll show off on Pinterest? Then you’ll be happiest in the fields, especially those in Warrenton like Cole’s Antique Show,Bar W Field, and Dillard’s Field, where you can sort through life-size statuary (think lions, horses, and buffaloes), rusty metal signage, stripped-down airplane wings, fifties-era carnival-ride seats, costume jewelry, rotary phones, spurs, and tables of other flea-market-type finds. If, on the other hand, you have limited patience and a yen for decor that wouldn’t look out of place in Architectural Digest—a neoclassical cheval dressing mirror, say, or a nineteenth-century French farm table—then the exquisite booths at the Marburger Farm Antique Show, the Original Round Top Antiques Fair, Blue Hills at Round Top, and the Arbor Antiques Show are for you. You can find specialty items at shows like Cowboy Corner (Old West antiques) or McLaren’s Buyers Market (red British phone booths). And if your tastes run to the obscure? Check the buyer’s guide index in the back of the Show Daily to pinpoint where to hunt down that rare dental cabinet or Sterling boudoir doll you’ve always wanted.
TIP NUMBER 3
It’s perfectly acceptable to start a conversation with “Hello, what’s the best you can do on this?” Most dealers will deduct something from the price—sometimes as much as 20 to 25 percent—so not asking if they’ll negotiate is plain silly. “The worst thing they can say is no,” said one veteran shopper, “and who’s afraid of no?”
A WORD FROM AN EXPERT
A lifelong collector and a former director of men’s clothing for Neiman Marcus, the Dallas resident has been shopping at Antiques Week twice a year for more than fifteen years.
DAYS 4 & 5
On the last Tuesday of Antiques Week, I was involved in a minor stampede. At exactly ten o’clock, an iron triangle was struck, signaling the beginning of early buying at the Marburger Farm Antique Show, and hundreds of shoppers power walked past me into the ten huge white tents and twelve historic buildings. (An early pass, from ten to two on Tuesday, costs $25; after that all shoppers pay $10 to enter.) With more than 350 dealers occupying 43 acres, the sixteen-year-old fair is one of the fortnight’s biggest attractions. So what’s all the fuss about? “Although it’s worth picking through the fields for treasures, it’s easier to find them at Marburger,” said Rachel Ashwell, the interior designer known for pioneering Shabby Chic, who also owns a B&B nearby. It’s not exactly hush-hush that dealers at the big-ticket shows will come early to shop the fields, then resell their finds at a profit (the term “free market” came up in several conversations). But what you miss in savings you gain in quality. If you’re looking for high-caliber goods that are arranged as artfully as those at Neiman Marcus—perhaps a circa-1900 Louis Vuitton trunk (priced between $14,000 and $16,000) or a shadow-boxed sea fan found in France (yours for $1,400)—Marburger’s your spot.
The next morning, a similar stampede took place when the Original Round Top Antiques Fair opened six miles north. (A $10 pass covers all four days of shopping, as well as entry to a satellite location at Carmine Dance Hall.) Better known as the Big Red Barn, it still showcases the early American furniture and Texana that Hazel Ledbetter and her friends were so intent on preserving, as well as a notable assemblage of art, glassware, textiles, firearms, and unusual accessories (some European finery has also been allowed in; you can find those dealers in one of the two tents next to the barn). “We are still strictly antiques,” co-owner Susan Franks assured me. “No reproductions and nothing new.” Sure enough, the things that caught my eye were impressively old, like a twenties-era Abercrombie and Fitch picnic set ($2,850), a circa-1670 leather-bound version of The Art of Suffering and Compassion ($300), and a circa-1700 Mexican Colonial bargueño desk ($4,500).
By the end of the day—my fourth straight day of browsing, inspecting, and haggling—I was beginning to feel as though I’d seen it all. But then I spotted it: the nineteenth-century chair of my dreams. With a wooden back hand-carved into the shape of a golden-feathered peacock and a trapezoidal seat covered in leopard skin, it was in perfect condition. I finally understood what seasoned dealer John Gray had told me the day before: “When something affects your breathing—when you have a physical reaction to it—that’s when you know you shouldn’t pass it up.” Although the chair was out of my price range at $2,200, I had to have it. As I went to negotiate with the dealer, however, a small tag on the chair’s back caught my eye: “Sold.” The disappointment jabbed me in the ribs, and I got back in my car to head home.
My dismay was not long-lasting. As I turned north onto Highway 237, I found myself slowing to rubberneck each time I passed yet another field of loot, and soon I was buoyed by the promise of future discoveries. There would always be more chairs, and I would be back in six months to find them.