If a wormhole in time vacuumed up everyday objects used by people during the last 150 years and deposited them, willy-nilly, inside a two-story house in Reno, the result would be Reno Antiques.
Carpentry tools, frying pans, cooking utensils, hand-cranked meat grinders and piles of iron wrenches that may have been last used to repair a Model T Ford vie for space on the first floor. Stacks of casino ashtrays, poker chips, decades-old Reno souvenirs, novelty liquor bottles, books and other random items are crammed on shelves and stacked atop vintage furniture. A phalanx of kerosene lanterns is in tight formation on top of an oak dresser. A ceramic bourbon bottle—in the guise of a grizzled Nevada prospector—presides over a rack of military tunics. Beer signs, plaques, vintage photos and paintings share space on the walls.
Everywhere, in every room, the detritus of the past is displayed inside Reno’s last free-standing antique store.
Reno Antiques is the domain of Doug Schuster, 73, who has been buying, selling and trading (mostly) American artifacts for a half-century. His business weathered the changing tastes of antique collectors, multiple economic recessions and the rise of internet auctions. He continues to hunt for common objects and unlikely treasures at estate auctions, flea markets, garage sales—and among the objects brought by sellers who visit his shop at 677 S. Wells Ave.
It’s all about the connections, past and present, person to person.
“It’s been fun,” Schuster said. “The people are the main thing for me rather than the stuff. Whether they are homeless people or multimillionaires, I learn from every one of them. … I’ve got lots of regular customers, and people from all over the country—all over the world—have stopped in here. I’ve become friends with some of them.”
The items Schuster buys may stay in the shop for a long time or be purchased within days of arrival. Things pile up fast.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “I’ve got the buying part down; I need to work on the selling part. … I keep saying, ‘I’ll clean this place up. Someday, you’ll come in here, and this (front) counter will be clean.’”
A customer, who has known Schuster for a long time, laughed. “Bullshit,” he said.
On various days in February, a steady stream of folks dropped by the shop. Some came to see what has arrived since their last visit. Others came to hunt for specific items or just to browse in a space brimming with curiosities, surprises and, most importantly, memories.
Stephanie Baumgardner of Reno, a regular customer, looked at boxes of old kitchen products and tableware. “I see so much stuff I remember from childhood,” she said. “The antiques bring back those memories for me.”
Baumgardner buys “yard stuff, household stuff or whatever clicks. … This is one of the best antiques shops ever,” she said, as she walked the narrow spaces among the piles of Schuster’s inventory, waiting for connections. “The item has to talk to me. I just look around and wait for something to pop out. I could really get stuck in here. I have to talk myself into leaving. All this stuff has meaning; they all have stories, even if you don’t know what those are.”
She said she prefers the eclectic cacophony of Reno Antiques to the neat, shiny feel of antique malls. “In here, you know that things have been used, and everything has had experiences,” she said. “It’s all history. It’s all amazing. I think I could write a book about the stuff in here.”
People make connections that wind through time and space.
“Some people collect specific things, but a lot of the people who come in are looking to recapture something they remember or wanted from their childhoods,” Schuster said. “They’ll say, ‘I always wanted one of these,’ or, ‘My grandma had this exact vase.’ It’s about nostalgia and childhood dreams.”
Buy, sell and trade
As a boy, Schuster dreamed of being a soldier. In 1966, at age 17, he joined the Marines. He arrived in Vietnam as an infantry machine gunner, a job whose life expectancy in combat was measured in minutes. He beat those odds and saw the horrible reality of war.
He returned to civilian life in 1970 and got married two years later. In 1974, he got a job as a furniture refinisher in Mound House. Schuster sanded and stained dressers, highboys and tables; he reupholstered sofas and chairs and learned the values of the pieces.
“I always liked the old stuff,” Schuster said. “I’d buy something and then sell it before the rent came due. We were raising two boys. It helped feed my family.”
In 1975, he opened Reno Antiques at 501 S. Wells Ave.; he moved to the current location in 1977. In the early days, he was open for business seven days a week and offered a 24-hour buying service. That came in handy in a town where people moving across the country stopped for a night and tried their luck in casinos. Sometimes they went bust and had to sell things for travel money.
“I’d often see them twice,” he said. “Once for the jewelry and then, when they lost the money they got for that, they’d call me again to take a look at the stuff in the U-Haul.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Schuster traveled regularly, making the rounds of antique stores, flea markets, estate sales and thrift stores across the U.S. “I’d even drive down country roads and knock on doors and ask if they had any antiques they wanted to sell,” he said.
Over the decades, though, a lot of his inventory also has come in through the front door.
“Great things have come in here over the years,” Schuster said. “From a 15th-century armor to a meteorite to a Ben Franklin newspaper page. Every week, there’s something cool that comes in the door, and that stuff usually goes right out again.”
The business has changed a lot in 50 years. “The baby boomers’ parents died off, and the boomers are scaling down, de-cluttering. Younger people don’t have the interest in the 100-year-old antiques. When generations die, markets also die. But it has been a good living for a lot of years.”
Each item for sale has a tag or sticker. Prices range from a few dollars for household items to more than $1,000 for rarer objects, like the large bronze Pony Express plaque offered for $1,275. “I always paid as much as I could to get (pieces he wanted) in the door,” he said.
Schuster prices things to make a little profit on each, he said. “I depend on the volume of sales and treating people fairly,” he said. “I never mean to make a killing on anybody.”
Schuster, like all antique dealers, has occasionally paid too much for an item. When that happens, he gets what he can out of the piece rather than hanging on to it in the hopes it will appreciate. “I want to get it out of here fast,” he said. “I’ve bought something for $100, realized I’d made a mistake, and sold it to the next person coming through the door for $40. The faster you cover that mistake and get that money rolling again is what’s important. I’ve seen people sit on things waiting for them to be worth more to recoup what they paid for it. Every one of them goes broke.”
He keeps track of what various antique and vintage pieces are selling for and the trends in collectables. The age of an object doesn’t mean much on its own.
“Just because it’s old, that doesn’t mean it’s valuable,” he said. Rarity, condition and market demand always come into play. One cast-iron frying pan might be worth $25, but a Griswold #13 skillet can command more than $8,000. Oak furniture was popular (and expensive) for decades, but that market cratered years ago. Even so, some vintage pieces are still in demand.
Customers Vic and Sharon Fabbri of Reno, for example, are fans of mission-style furniture. Their purchases have included an oak mission-style desk and a walnut dresser from the turn of the 20th century, as well as some neon beer signs. The shop’s inventory, Vic Fabbri said, “changes all the time. We come in about once every few weeks. You won’t find a nicer guy than Doug.”
Schuster said a steady stream of locals and tourists visits the shop on the three days a week it’s open. “Spouses come in when their husbands or wives are gambling. We get famous people sometimes; Kid Rock came in twice. You never know what you are going to find in this mess. It’s not in any order; it’s just what comes through the door.”
There is no list or catalogue. Schuster’s inventory is filed in his head. His system is simple: He remembers where he put things down. As other antique stores closed, and antique malls have moved around the Truckee Meadows as properties were sold and rents skyrocketed, Reno Antiques has stayed put.
“If I didn’t own the place, I probably would be out of business by now,” Schuster said. “The rent in Reno is so high; it stops people from opening. You have to sell a lot of stuff just to make rent.”
The shop is a barometer of economic trends, he said.
“In a business like this, where you buy and sell and trade, you’re on the front lines of the economy,” he said. “You know what’s going on. Back in the day, I’d get a lot of working-class people in here who had some extra money and would buy things they remembered from their childhood. You don’t see that as much anymore. They don’t have that disposable income; it’s pretty sad.”
His business was once a 24/7 effort, but these days, Reno Antiques is open from Thursday to Saturday. Schuster, who has had three heart attacks and two strokes, said he may retire when his shop turns 50 in two years. But he’s planned to call it quits before—and nothing came of it.
“I believe if you’re working, it’s good for the mind, and the body will follow the mind,” he said.
If he closed the shop, Schuster said, “I’d miss the people. But I’ve had fun here. … I didn’t get rich, but I made a living—and a lot of friends.”