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Widespread appeal and rising values mark country store memorabilia

From the essentials of day-to-day living of the past, to nostalgic and popular collectibles of today, country store memorabilia continue to enjoy widespread appeal.

By Eric Bradley

Few categories of fine collectibles are as fun and colorful as country store memorabilia. The staple of quality antiques shows and shops nationwide, the phrase often refers to such an expansive field of items that it’s often difficult to decide where “country store collectibles” begin and “advertising collectibles” end. However, that’s one of the very reasons why the category remains so popular and is growing in value and appeal.

Country store collectibles are associated with items in use in general or frontier retail

Mack's Fancy Bag Rack

Mack’s Fancy Bag Rack with cast iron string holder, early 20th century, holds nine sizes, wood with stenciling on sides and back, excellent condition, 21” h. x 8” w. x 16” d. $840. Photo courtesy Rich Penn Auctions

establishments dating from the mid-1800s and well into the 1940s. The country store was a natural evolution of the pioneer trading post as the more affordable source of day-to-day living items, baking and cooking supplies, or goods for general household and home garden use. Country store furniture is rare, but larger pieces usually include retail countertops and dry goods bins.

The appeal of country store memorabilia has never really waned during the last 40 years; however, the emergence of online trading in the late 1990s redefined items dealers once described as rare. Much like how mid-20th century rock ’n roll and entertainment memorabilia is used to decorate Applebee’s restaurants, so have country store collectibles been used to line the walls of Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Old Country Store establishments to evoke big appetites for comfort food.

Among items in high demand are original and complete store displays in top condition. These displays were originally intended to hold the product sold to customers and were not generally available for private ownership. Those that survive are highly sought after by collectors for their graphic appeal and their rarity. Until recently, restoration of these items would negatively impact auction prices. However, recent auction results show strong prices for these items if they are rare and retain most of the original graphics.

A great deal of time, talent and production value was invested in these store displays. Think of them as the Super Bowl commercials of their day. With limited counter space and a captive audience, marketers used every technique and theme available to catch customers’ eyes. And here is where the appeal of country store collectibles crosses over so many different categories of collectibles. A store display of a fine paper poster advertising DeLaval Cream Separators may appeal to those who collect farming items, cows, and country maidens in addition to country store items. The same principal applies to store displays. Are they collected as country store items or as well-preserved examples of vintage advertising, or both? The definition takes shape when the items are added to a well-curated collection, like the one Bill and Kathie Gasperino amassed over the last 35 years.

The couple sold the collection in April 2013 with Showtime Auction Services, as part of a massive collectibles event that realized more than $2.2 million. The couple happily traveled across the Pacific Northwest and beyond cultivating a collection of obscure and unusual items. It was a true team effort. “Kathie and I drove all over – Montana, Idaho and Oregon,” Bill says. “Half the fun was finding the stuff. We loved crawling around attics and basements of old stores finding things.”

The Gasperino collection was displayed next to the couple’s Washington State home in

Oversized Fitz overalls display

Oversized pair of Fitz overalls display, circa 1930s, denim, name across front and on each suspender, very good+ condition with minor wear, 120” h. x 40” w. $1,200. Photo courtesy Rich Penn Auctions

a large building designed to look like a circa 1880s country store. “We had dry goods on one side, and on the other was a combination of things you’d find in a store of that period,” Bill says. As they encountered more items, the two began branching out to larger and larger items, such as country spool cabinets and eventually back bars, a bank teller booth, and even a 19th century soda fountain.

When it came time to downsize, the Gasperino collection hit the hobby like a comet. It remains one of the most important collections offered in recent years. Even the Gasperinos were surprised at the prices collectors were willing to pay for especially rare items in top condition.

“People called us and let us know how much they appreciated the collection and the quality,” says Bill, a retired police officer. “We knew it was special to us, but it was interesting to hear from collectors who said they hadn’t seen some of these items.”

The Gasperino Collection is a good example of why the country store collectibles category continues to hold its own. The category was extremely popular between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s. It appears the hobby is reaching a point at which longtime collectors are ready to begin a new phase of their lives – one that requires fewer items and less space – and are offering these collections for the first time in decades.

So if the old adage, “The best time to buy an antique is when you see it” is true, the country store collectibles category stands to grow as these large collections come to market, and the crossover appeal catches the attention of a wide variety of collectors.

About our contributor: Eric Bradley is Heritage Auctions’ Public Relations Associate and is editor of the Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide. An award-winning investigative journalist with a degree in Economics, Bradley has written hundreds of articles about antiques and collectibles. He is also the author of Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff, Picker's Pocket Guide — SIGNS, and the upcoming Picker's Pocket Guide — TOYS (due out in June of 2015).