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Prince George's Shop Owner Collects the Old, Odd, Reusable

By Kathleen Stanley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 28, 2002; Page H01

Looking for a vintage wooden-handled potato masher? Or an old-style hard-back suitcase? Or maybe a '60s-era red plastic kitchen clock? The Mount Rainier Antique, Thrift and Salvage Shop might have exactly what you're after. Then again, it might not.

Shopping at this funky, jam-packed, unpredictable store is like going through a great-aunt's attic or stumbling upon a flea market with stall after stall of quirky stuff.

The place itself is easy enough to find. It's located on 34th Street, part of the central business area of Mount Rainier, the first Maryland town north of the District on Route 1/Rhode Island Avenue. But confusion sets in as you try to reconcile the storefront's appearance with any accepted notion of what a retail shop looks like.

There's no obvious sign identifying the store, unless you count the vintage "shoe service" emblem etched onto one of the two bay windows. And there's no merchandise visible in the windows, though look carefully and you'll find a listing of the shop's name and hours.

Step inside, and you'll see stuff aplenty, in two rooms partitioned with bookcases and jampacked with home accessories, collectibles, a few pieces of furniture and enough uncategorizable kitsch to supply a museum exhibition.

Proprietor Stuart Morris emerges from the jumbled, dim interior looking as if he belongs there: casual, laid-back, more free spirit than super-salesman. He opened the shop last year and remains the sole organizing force of this establishment, the keeper of all information pertaining to what he has, where it came from and how much it costs.

Say, for example, you're looking for a vintage rotary-dial phone. He'll point you to a wide selection of these heavy-duty relics ($15 to $30) on a shelf near the front door. Or maybe you need a toilet-tank ball for an ancient commode. He can put his hand on one instantly ($3), proudly pointing out that it's still in its original box. Or perchance you've a passion for old-style thermoses? Morris has 'em.

"I don't really expect to sell many of these," he says with a laugh, gesturing to the dozens of brightly colored thermoses lined up near the high ceiling. "It's easily the county's largest collection."

The general price range in the shop runs from 10 cents to $1,500 (for a Heywood Wakefield dining table and chairs). But not everything is marked. "Trying to put price stickers on everything is just too overwhelming," says Morris. "Plus, it doesn't take long for people to realize that I'm not sizing them up for their income."

At first, the absence of any prices -- or seemingly any organization -- is a bit off-putting. But after you've wandered through the crowded rooms, heard Morris quote one reasonable price after another and discovered that things are generally neat and tidy, you begin to settle in.

Morris, 43, grew up in Anne Arundel County and the Midwest surrounded by old furniture and china. After moving back to the area to attend the University of Maryland, he started doing renovations and found he couldn't part with the great old things he found on various job sites. Before long, he started buying and selling architectural salvage and generally doing his best to recycle interesting items.

He prowls estate sales, auctions and yard sales for most of his merchandise and has been a regular dealer for years at the Georgetown Flea Market. But by the start of 2001, he had "run across so much stuff that it justified having an outlet."

He leased his current location and spent the next six months outfitting the space with recycled shelves and other display units. By last May, he had things squared away enough to open up formally.

While his range of merchandise virtually defines eclectic, some areas of concentration could be called specialties. He loves hand tools, which he sells as "more of a community service than anything else," and often has in stock dozens of old hammers ($3 to $8). There's a nice collection of vintage electric kitchen clocks ($10 to $30), American art pottery ($25 to $200), old linens ($5 to $50), Fire King mugs ($10 each) and used luggage ($10 to $20). And lamps, record albums, books and small appliances. And other things.

Check out the offerings of old kitchen tools -- potato mashers, spatulas and the like -- with distinctively colored wooden handles, selling for $5 to $15. "I'm not sure what it is that attracts me to these," he says. "This old cheap stuff just has more style, and is better made, than the new cheap stuff."

Morris's shop has become a real favorite in town, especially with the growing cadre of artists who are drawn to this area, officially called the Gateway Arts District. He's poised to be in just the right place once a new project gets underway nearby that's slated to make 12,000 square feet of commercial space available to artists in Mount Rainier by the fall of 2003.

If nothing else, he can provide the raw materials for any number of artistic expressions, especially for those who like to work with found objects. Who knows what potential lies in an old electric cow-hair clipper or a set of Brio wooden train tracks or a drawerful of pocket knives or a Frigidaire defrosting scraper?

"I just like keeping things in circulation," says Morris. "But even when I try to be discriminating, I tend to accumulate things at a frightening pace. Some of the stuff here will most likely end up at my estate sale."

In the meantime, look at Morris's shop as a great place to while away some time while browsing for old kitchen gadgets or a funky footstool. If you're after something specific, you might want to call ahead. If he hasn't got it, he can probably find it.

Where to find it: Mount Rainier Antique, Thrift and Salvage Shop, 3815 34th St., Mount Rainier. Open: Thursday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. or by appointment. 301-927-2800.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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