Californian Jack Santoro can play 11 instruments and sing, but almost 40 years ago, the professional musician’s tune changed a bit. He gave up the heat and passion of a Hollywood music career for the heat and passion found in antique stoves.
Thirty-six years ago, Santoro had given up the glamour of music and touring to start a moving and storage business; with a road crew seasoned in moving items, it seemed a likely detour. But when a local actress found a 1930s gas stove on a set and looked for someone to restore it, Santoro put on yet another one of his hats — tinkerer.
“My parents were always into antiques, but not old appliances. Since I’ve been a kid, I loved taking things apart. If it’s mechanical, I like to explore,” said Santoro, owner of JES Enterprises in Ventura, Calif., a company that provides parts, service, information, upgrades, and restoration of antique stoves. He’s also a member of The Old Appliance Club. Founded 10 years ago, the group has about 6,600 members devoted to antique appliances.
After Santoro repaired that first stove, his moving and storage business gave way to his focus on antique stoves — even though at the time, he had no idea of the interest level in or value of them.
“In California since then,” he said, “the demand has never gone down.”
Santoro combed junkyards to find springs, dials, and other parts for the vintage gas and electric stoves. “People were saying, ‘Where did you get that?’”
Santoro usually has about 15 stoves in restoration at a time; he works mainly on pieces from the mid-20th century. “The stove is the cornerstone of the kitchen,” he said. “They love the way they look, and they’re crazy about the way they cook.”
And Santoro himself is a big fan of their cooking ability. “I love the way they cook… the way they were engineered,” he said. In his home, he has a 1951 O’Keefe & Merritt gas stove. Santoro discovered the 60-inch-wide piece, which had been damaged in a fire, at a garage sale.
“This was the last of the big domestic stoves,” he said. Even in its damaged state, Santoro said the stove was a great find. Only 500 to 600 were made in the 1950s, Santoro said, and it retailed for an astounding $650. “It’s sort of like finding a Rolls-Royce.”
Santoro said he was lucky to get the stove for $500; today, an example in restored condition could bring $25,000.
Santoro serves a diverse clientele, including gourmet chefs and culinary enthusiasts looking for the top standards in cook stoves and ranges. “All of the early equipment was made so well,” he said. Tons of features add to the stoves’ functionality, and the quality of steel and other parts makes antique stoves sound investments after they’ve been restored. “There’s a good reason people are going back,” he said. Sometimes, a vintage stove can cost less than a new one with comparable features, and Santoro said antique stoves can add to the value of a home. “The stove is constantly going up in value.”
Stoves from the 1950s, for example, might have cost $500 or $600 new; today, those restored pieces could sell for $3,600 to $4,000 or more.
But even non-cooks invest in old stoves. Younger buyers, Santoro said, consider stoves a decor choice, perhaps because they remember a stylistic one from their parents’ or grandparents’ houses. “Younger people like the 1960s stuff,” he said. “Mid-century is always hot.”
Whether he restores stoves for nurses, architects, scientists, or actors (he completed one for British actor Malcolm McDowell), Santoro said he loves hearing stories from customers pleased with their decision to go retro.
“These people really love what they have.”
Cast-iron stoves also cast spells
While some people seek vintage stoves they remember from the homes of their youth, some have a decidedly older bent — reaching back into the early 20th century and late 19th century for cast-iron stoves.
The Good Time Stove Co. of Goshen, Mass., is just one dealer specializing in selling and restoring heating stoves (wood and gas) and cook stoves dating from 1880-1930. Many models — including parlor stoves, Franklin stoves, and Victorian ranges — are made of heavy cast iron and have a style all their own.
“They’re often times works of art,” said Sara LaBonte, also known as the “stove princess.” She’s worked at the company, founded by her father, Richard Richardson, for the past 10 years.
“Whatever room the stove goes in,” she said, “it becomes the area to which people gravitate. It becomes so central in the home life.”
Richardson started Good Time Stove in 1973, smack in the middle of the oil embargoes, when many people were concerned about rising heating costs and looking to embrace simplicity. “People were wanting any alternative they could get their hands on,” said “Stoveblack” Richardson. “We found an instantaneous market for stoves.”
With an eager market comes demand, but Richardson said he found no shortage of supply of antique stoves, either. He credits that to living in “Yankee Country,” where, he said, people tend to keep things they believe might be useful someday.
“Being in New England, there’s a rich stockpile to draw from,” LaBonte said.
Good Time Stove sells and restores antique stoves for heating or cooking purposes. Inventory includes Franklin stoves — which owe their heritage to Benjamin Franklin — to potbelly stoves, a widely recognized symbol of America’s past. Both were used to heat early 20th-century homes and draw on their solid construction for their efficiency.
“These antique stoves were hand-fitted, and many of them are airtight,” LaBonte said. “The antique stove is a very efficient heater. This last season,” she said, “a lot of people were looking into (heating alternatives).” She said 2005 did see increased sales. “A lot of people are considering more options.”
Historic cook stoves include cast iron from the early Victorian times to those made around 1910-1920 with the introduction of enamel. “The Victorian kitchen stove is highly prized,” LaBonte said. “They’re very ornate.”
Depending on age, style, and restoration, the stoves vary in price, but most can be purchased in the $2,500 to $6,000 range fully restored. Some are retrofitted to a customer’s needs. “We do conversions… take one of the early wood and turn it to gas or electric,” LaBonte said.
For more information on Good Time Stove Co., call (413) 268-3677, or visit www.goodtimestove.com.