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Iowa City's treasure chest

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | OCTOBER 02, 2014 5:00 AM

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Artifacts — the vintage store at 331 E. Market St. — is like your quirky grandma’s basement, except it isn’t your responsibility to clean and organize everything.

At first glance, the shop seems to be full of junk. At second glance, it seems full of really interesting junk. But when you actually dive into all the odd clutters of assorted objects, the store finally reveals itself as a treasure chest full of ancient goods.

In the back of the store are clothes from decades past, including mismatched gloves, scarves of every color and pattern, and purses that look like what a grandma would have carried in a John Hughes film. Right down the center of the clothing section is a rack devoted solely to fur coats ranging from vibrant white to silky smooth ebony. They are a joy to pick through, especially if your companion has a penchant for trying on old wigs that look utterly ridiculous.

Venturing into the side room to the left of the clothes, I saw the yellow paint of the store wall meet white in a jagged line; maybe someone had run out of paint and never moved all the knickknacks to finish the job. The room had a stack of brown leather saddles piled on top of blankets so ragged they could have been left over from the Oregon Trail. In stark contrast, three-dimensional brightly colored paintings lined the wall above them.

Moving into the next room I found a grab bag of old photos and post cards, 50 cents apiece. Diving my hand down deep into the box, I pulled out a Polaroid of a military officer, a snapshot of a preteen boy in the snow, and a young couple at prom. The postcards ranged from a grandma sending birthday wishes to a brief check-in from a son across the country.  Seeing just short glimpses of their histories, it was fascinating to ponder the lives of these people I knew practically nothing about, save their name and that they knew someone in Arizona. Lining the shelves in the room were more blasts from the past: old Hawkeye yearbooks. If you’ve ever wondered what sorority girls looked like 50 years ago, this is the room for you. Not sure which dorms use to be male and which were reserved for women? These books can tell you. Flipping through them was like holding a little piece of University of Iowa history in my hands.

The center of the store is where it gets really cluttered. Just standing in one spot I could see: upwards of 30 framed photographs and paintings, a smorgasbord of plates and cutlery in a rainbow of colors, little wooden carvings that appear designed to induce nightmares, a lamp shaped into a covered wagon ($55), an ornate wooden room divider covered in little leaves, a towering painting of a crying baby wrapped in a blanket ($75), a doll with a pink bejeweled headdress resting on a purple cushion with a gold lamp and wooden bowl near her bare feet ($18), a pink and brown punch bowl in the shape of a duck with the ladle’s handle serving as the tail ($95), a glittering glass chandelier, and ancient, rusty tools that make it clear you aren’t actually handy but are handy at decorating.

Dominating the room is an entire wall of salt and pepper shakers, $6 a set. My personal favorites were a pig pulling a white cart labeled “ashes” and a toilet seat with “mustard” scrawled across it sandwiched between two teacups labeled salt and pepper, respectively.

Toward the center of the room lay the greatest find of the day: the Thousand Flower Vase for $700. Standing waist-high, every inch of the vase is covered in green, pink, red, and white flowers sprouting up over each other, the occasional blue bloom poking through. Wrapping around the narrowing neck of the vase are great gold dragons, mouths open expectantly towards the top of the vase. On the other sides are two shining dogs facing each other. It’s an odd image when you look closely, but the flowers are beautiful from a distance.

Speaking of huge things none of us can afford, Artifacts also has a towering grandfather clock displayed in the entry room of the store. It’ll set you back $1,000, but it sure is beautiful. With gold, intricate numbers and ornate black clock hands over a dull silvery-white frame, the clock stands at nearly seven feet tall. The glass-paneled front reveals chimes that are just begging to ring throughout your home. But, considering I don’t own a home yet, I had to pass on it. Maybe someday, Artifacts.


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