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Best place to buy antiques

Zenith Antiques
86 S. 26th St., South Side. 412-481-4833

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Nothing is easier than buying things. All you need is a little cash in your pocket or a wallet armed with a credit card, that token of a usurer's conditional affection. Sally on down to your local emporium and accumulate to your heart's content -- or until your plastic is declined. Malls and mills are organized and boundless, brimming with merchandise to proclaim your good taste, herald your value, and even make your digs look like the home base of a globe-trotter ... all without the inconvenience of jet lag, or the annoyance of people who don't understand English no matter how loud you yell.

But some have a different relationship with objects they purchase. They're not looking for the next big thing as decreed by the average American consumer, nor do they need the confidence instilled by an object's mass marketing -- that other people like it and therefore it is quite OK. Instead, they're searching for something rare, singular, and in possession of history. And when these treasures are unearthed, they hold the magic of a Rosetta Stone, an Excalibur or a wardrobe leading to Narnia.

Such rarities cannot be found anywhere within shouting distance of a Best Buy. They can only be found in antique stores ... and in Pittsburgh, the South Side's Zenith Gallery is one of the best.

You're not going to find porcelain soup tureens embellished with milkmaids here, and it's likely that if you show up on Antiques Roadshow with any of Zenith's merch in tow, they're not even going to bother rolling film. You will find affordable clothing, furniture, art and odds and ends that you can live with, and that your friends will envy you for.

It's impossible to accurately describe an excellent antique store because an excellent antique store is always changing -- part of what gives the pursuit of antiques a bit of a thrill. When the speakeasy sign is gone, it's gone. Once the Art Deco pedestal ashtray held up by Pallas Athene has been spoken for, your shot at it is over. And if you don't grab that moth-eaten, one-eyed teddy bear -- the one that, though tattered and torn, speaks to an empty part of you that's gnawed at your soul since childhood -- you're going to have to invest in therapy.

But we can say this much: Zenith specializes in mid-range, 20th-century collectibles: long-playing hi-fi records, brocade cocktail dresses, pink-elephant-festooned barware. You may find hand-painted Mexican table linens. It's not inconceivable that a stack of 1960s Playboys may be lurking somewhere in the shadows. You'll never know until you go. For sustenance when digging through the haystacks, Zenith also has a tea room and vegetarian kitchen.

Such is the glory of the antique store, and the extraordinary experience that shopping for the one-of-a-kind can be. Yes, there's the ease of eBay, where you needn't leave home to acquire new objects to fill the spaces you claim, and where you can round out your collection of atomic-era Melmac with a boomeranged sugar bowl at 4 a.m. with a cigarette smashed between your lips. But for those enthralled by precious cargo, pictures on a screen can't transmit the vibrations with which ripened objects hum. And there's absolutely no chance they'll bring you a cup of oolong.

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