Thursday, February 27, 2014


It's a rare weekend when I'm in New York that I don't do a once around at the flea market garage on 25th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. This pilgrimage has been going on for years. We started when the flea market stretched across several outdoor parking lots dotting Sixth Avenue and winding around Twenty-sixth Street.
There was a time when we could pick up yardage of vintage barckcloth for a song and fiestaware plates for a dollar. Celebrities and prominent interior designers were out early flashlights in hand scouring the tables for precious finds. Things change, trends change and the value of a dollar has changed. Our, Rick and my, need for accumulating has also changed. We're no longer in need of trying to stock our country store or fill our home with those treasures we just couldn't pass up. The store is gone and our real estate has diminished.
Now we have two storage units filled with our overflow and a daughter who tries desperately to keep us in check letting us know we don't really need another light up globe.
So I can stroll through the aisles of the diminished flea market under the mantle of a mere observer enjoying the oddities on display and the beauty of my comrades in arms. The flea market tends to draw a unique crowd even for New York and I am proud to count myself among them.
Eva doesn't know my name but I'm well aware of hers.
She sets up her racks of vintage clothes every weekend that I've strolled by marveling at her sense of style and total fun. It is to her I owe a fabulous seersucker suit and a half dozen retro vests, my signature article of clothing and my major weakness.
I usually try to come home with one vest from every visit. I figure I can bury a $20 purchase somewhere in my expense account without anyone being any the wiser. Oops, I guess my secrets out.
Last weekend I almost walked away with this box of clip-on ties to go with my vests but I decided I wasn't Brad Goreski or Jesse Tyler Ferguson so I passed them by. I can still carry off a bit of flair but a clip-on is beyond the point of acceptability for someone my age.
I'm a sucker for signage and this Quality Court sign would have been in the back of a cab if weren't so big. Sometimes there are things that even I can't figure out how to justify.
My daughter would have killed me if I had managed to figure out a way to squeeze this mountain lion into the overhead compartment and don't think the thought didn't cross my mind. I've got a real soft spot for the bizarre.
I guess a taxidermied mountain lion fits that profile but even I had to think twice about this doll that resembles Chuckie's creepy evil sister.
I had no idea Hannibal Lecter memorabilia had a market but these masks made me think of fava beans and a nice Chianti.
The designer side of me always gravitates toward what I can put on my wall or place on the living room rug. I can't completely explain my fascination with this Doberman painting, it's kind of anthropomorphic the way it seems to capture such a human stare even if it is a bit menacing.
I did like this marbleized lamp and the red crackle crescent moon bookshelf. It pulls at my shabby side. It makes me think of cabins in the woods with a roaring fake fireplace, a mug of fat-free hot chocolate and a stack of People Magazines.
Every year there seems to be another rumor that the flea market is going to close. It's a bit sad the way the flea market has dwindled to two levels of a parking garage. It has a name but the market really doesn't feel as if it has a permanent home, not like Paris and their Porte de Clignacourt or the first weekend of each month when the streets of Arezzo are taken over by miles of stalls and tables baring embroidered 19th century Italian linens and paintings by obscure artists whose work is still worthy of hanging on a wall. We have antique malls strung throughout the land but they seem to come and go. America has yet to put the kind of value on its pedestrian past the way the Europeans do with more permanent places where you can pick up a 1930's handkerchief with the Eiffel Tower stitched in one corner or a vintage brooch made from some now obsolete Lira and know you can come back decades later and that market will still be there

Hardware Store Lower East Side, Bleeker Street, 1938
Berenice Abbott, photographer
Represented by Lumiere, Atlanta, Georgia

Friday, February 21, 2014


Every other year when we still had our weekend home in Andes we'd host an open house for the community around the Christmas/New Year's holiday. We'd print out announcements and hand them out at our store trying to make sure that everyone in town knew that they were welcome. It became a bit of a tradition at times attracting up to three hundred locals and weekenders with six hundred stockinged feet padding around the house from top to bottom, tens of kids playing hide-n-seek from the third floor to the basement, an advertising executive and part-time opera singer leading caroling in the snug and an array of desserts and hors d'oeurvers prepared days in advance by Rick and Rosalie, a close friend and local slow food trained baker. The event became so popular that one year Country Living came to cover the event for their magazine.
The house in Andes is now gone but the tradition is bubbling up again in a new location, Madison. The Prosecco is back on the bar menu along with the other whites, a chardonnay, a Riesling, some sparkling cider and some bubbling water.
A big rule of hosting an open house as opposed to a dinner is not to serve anything red if you value your furniture and carpeting. It also makes your guest a little less nervous and a whole lot less guilty if they spill a glass. Another thing we do is use all our best stemware. We've lost a few pieces over the years but it tends to set a tone for the evening that takes the event a few steps above a college kegger. Rule two: no Solo cups for us.
The next rule is always dress the table and any other place you can think of with fresh flowers. I'm most likely to grab a couple dozen roses and spread them around the house. I'll think about color but that's usually about as far as I get. Rick, on the other hand, is miles ahead of me on presentation. We had these fish bowls sitting in our store since we opened - no takers. Then they went to a storage shelf in the garage until Rick pulled them out to contain his arrangement, filled them with water and slices of lemon and then twisted a bunch of daffodils in a perfect spiral for a simple but outside the box set of centerpieces. Just another way of making the table look more laden with goods without really having to cook or bake anything more to fill the voids.
Another of Rick's rules to make the event a little less stressful is to focus on two or three wow offerings and let the rest come from already prepared foods from local vendors. A huge fruit and cheese plate
and a few dips by the pound
accompanied by a big basket of breads, crackers and cheese sticks fills out a whole section of the table.
Then you can always ask your friends to help out. We, fortunately, have a friend we don't even need to ask. Julie Moskal donated her services and every little sweet treat we laid out: Momma's classic chocolate chip cookies, double chocolate cookies, lemon tartlets and the best ginger snaps you've ever tasted.
We also set up two bars in two unconnected parts of the house and separate from the food. It relieves congestion and tends to spread the guests out so everyone feels they have a little more room to circulate or hide.
Rick will spend weeks before a party perusing his wall of cookbooks and the Internet looking for the perfect wow moment for the table. This year Ina Garten and Rachael Ray came to his aid.
Deviled eggs are always a hit but Rachael Ray gave us eggs with a twist: Ceasar salad deviled eggs. This was something we thought we could begin a little in advance by getting our eggs boiled and set ahead of time. What we didn't find out was the age of our eggs. Unlike a fertility clinic you want your eggs to be a little on the old side instead of freshly laid. They peel a lot easier when they're old. It's kind of like any of us as we age, the skin starts to loosen and sag away from the bone. Rick's mom would put a sign on her eggs warning the kids not to use the old ones she had pushed way to the back of the frig if she was going to use them for deviling. Even after we had let our eggs sit for twenty-four hours they wouldn't easily peel. I spent hours chipping off pinhead-sized pieces of shell on every one of four dozen eggs. I had cuts under my fingernails that didn't heal for days from trying to get those shells off.
But the gold-star appetizer was Ina's caramelized bacon. Guests were slapping each other's hands as they struggled to out wit and out play each other for one more piece of spicy finger-lickin' sweet and sticky caramelized bacon.
You can look up Ina's recipe but here are a few tips we learned in preparing our bacon. We used locally produced applewood-smoked thick, and I mean thick, bacon. We started cutting it at an angle at about four inch long pieces thinking it would shrink up but if you use quality bacon shrinkage is at a minimum. We then cut down to two inch pieces, which were more bit sized.  Ina's recipe calls for placing the bacon stripes on a baking rake to bake. We used a cooling rake and since we're such neat freaks we set the rack on an aluminum wrapped baking sheet.
The benefit here was unplanned but a sweet, sweet surprise. The drippings left on the aluminum foil after the bacon had baked hardened into a caramel lace that we peeled off and placed in a container. This combination of brown sugar, maple syrup and bacon fat broken up over some French vanilla ice cream is ambrosia. Sorry to all our guests and the pigs that made this possible, we decided not to share this one but keep it for ourselves.
Even if the food you serve is spectacular it's ultimately the guests that make the event. Thanks to all our friends and neighbors who came. Sharing when you can is proof to us of how rewarding it is to give.

Hog Killing Time in Appalachia
Photographer unknown
From the blog: My Appalachian Life
By Roger Hicks

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Every region of the world has its initiation rituals that are part of the process necessary to become worthy of calling one a member of that particular tribe. Some of these rituals are perhaps a little tougher than others like the boys of the Mandan Indian tribe who have skewers drilled their chest muscles and are then hung from the ceiling until they pass out. If that isn't enough once they wake they need to slice off their little fingers on both hands and parade around the village with their bloody stumps. The Wisconsin initiation ritual is less painful but does require a certain amount of self-induced inebriation to accomplish. It's called the Meat Raffle.
Some of these Wisconsin specific rites of passage are held in the evening and some in the afternoon in low-lit dens with names like The Drunk Driving Warrior or Hooligan's Super Bar. Our initiation was at the Villa Tap, a much tamer named tavern but located on Packers Avenue down the road from the Oscar Mayer plant.
It was a snowy Saturday in the late afternoon. My little sister was having a birthday party for her new husband and sent out text messages to meet them there at three. I really think she never thought we'd show up and we almost didn't. Rick was white knuckling it all the way there. His Georgia roots come out every time we need to get in a car and there's a trace of snow on the ground. It requires I leave a minimum of a football field between us and any other car fore or rear. I did the best I could and he managed to not hyperventilate or loose his lunch prior to arrival.
The parking lot behind the bar was almost full which is not too unusual for a Wisconsin bar at three in the afternoon. Since we had made the journey and safely arrived we saw no other alternative then to hustle out into the freezing afternoon and into the comfort of the heated bar. From the near whiteout of the snow covered parking lot it took a second for my eyes to adjust to the cavern within. Multi-colored mini-lights encircled a rectangular bar filled two deep with a mix of middle-aged couples wearing Wisconsin Badger or Green Bay Packer sweat clothes, flannel shirted workmen just off their shifts at the Oscar Mayer plant and Birthday party guests all yammering in voices choked and strained from trying to be heard over a mix of country music and eighties pop blaring out of the juke box that also doubled as a photo booth where you could punch in a tune and put your picture up on the screen all at the same time.
As my eyes began to adjust, I saw that the big man behind the bar was being handed a token by a burly line worker nursing a rum and Coke. The burly guy had pulled the token out of a velvet Royal Crown bag the big guy had been holding. Once he had the token the big guy yelled out, "7". A woman seated at the bar almost fell off her stool as she thrust a paddle with the number seven stenciled on it into the air and squealed out, "Those five pounds of lean red meat are mine" and then burst into peels of husky laughter. This, we learned, is how a Wisconsin meat raffle works, lots of squeals, lots of meat and a lot of liquor.
I had heard about meat raffles but only in a peripheral sense that allowed my imagination to go wild with an unsubstantiated definition. I fantasized a group of tank-topped tattooed women vying with a bunch of macho beer-gutted inebriated rambos fighting it out for some outdated tainted meat. I could smell the stench of putrefaction as some sort of bidding war was fought among these desperate combatants willing to pay discounted prices for hamburger two steps away from dumpster. Boy was I wrong.
Here's how it really works. Bars and religious organizations, sometimes-indistinguishable one from the other, purchase a mix of meats from very reputable butchers. There ain't no tainted meat here. The ritual at the Villa Tap was to break the bulk order into parcels that became the prizes for each drawing. Each drawing was limited to sixteen participants and this ran around the bar so a different group of inebriants had a chance at a mega slab of meat each time the hand reached into the bag of tokens and drew out the winning number. You paid a dollar for a paddle and a chance to win. The paddles were kept number down in a metal pail so you couldn't see the number you were picking. Anticipation reached out and grabbed each chubby hand as it sunk into the pail and pulled out what one hoped would be the lucky number. The odds were one in sixteen against you but then we've always believed in  beginners luck. So with that in mind when it was our turn Rick and I both ponied up our buck a piece. I drew number eleven and Rick drew number twelve. It's the responsibility of the previous winner to draw the winning number for the subsequent drawing. The lean red meat lady stuffed her hand in the bag of tokens and handed the coin to the man behind the bar. "Twelve" he yelled out. It took Rick a second to realize he had the winning paddle but then up went his arm with the number twelve paddle waving in the air. We were having steak for dinner.
The meat part of the raffle ended with a two-dollar entry fee for a chance at five pounds of select bacon. Who can devour five pounds of bacon is beyond me although Wisconsin is known for an abundance of tractor butt. Our luck had run out but then maybe not winning five pounds of select bacon might be considered winning in the weight gain game.
What happens after that is something a bit unexpected. After all the meats have been doled out there's a last bit of excitement with a fifty-fifty raffle. This one touts a five-buck entry fee. Everyone is welcome to put in as much as they want. The winner walks away with half the take and the other half goes to a different charity every week. We may be a bunch of lushes here where the winter temperature tends to hover around zero but our hearts never freeze in a bar where charity is as important as a fifeteen pound box of Oscar Mayer wieners.

Glory Days, La Crosse, 2011
Carl Corey, photographer
From his book, Tavern League

Friday, February 7, 2014


Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue.
I had to think about this one but I think I can make this perennial verse work to describe the transformation of our living room. The first part of the verse is easy to comply with. We're both reluctant to throw things out and unlike children that you are required to turn loose, furniture and objects that also build history and sentiment are prisoners of your clutches for as long as want.
Most of our inanimate pieces have the ability to outlive us; we purchased wisely and built well.  Our well-built pieces are the ones from our original Shaver/Melahn line: the Emmy cigarette tables and ottoman, the Lee breakfront, the "X" Series floor lamps and trolley
and the beautiful Lorena side table.
Although these pieces are part of our older line the real use of "old" is showcased in our Biedermeier sofa from the mid-1800's and the eighteenth century olive jar we brought back from Provence on a buying trip financed by a very generous client.
The sofa has its own history but its history with us dates back to our first apartment Rick and I bought in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
We really tried to keep new to a minimum but one thing we absolutely couldn't live with anymore was the shag rug my parents had laid down a good forty years ago. That carpet had seen more dog accidents, and an encounter with battery acid disguised as a Christmas present that had been turned upside down so that the acid ran out and ate through the carpet. My sister and I discovered this by trying to sneak a peek at the gifts under the tree and when we had finished snooping and got up our socks fell apart and dissolved into shreds. So for "new" we put a new wooden floor and topped it with a pair of silk and synthetic fiber rugs we purchased at
Then we added some pillows from Global Views and a couple of throws we picked up in Dublin,
but probably the newest and most fleeting of purchases are the roses. A room is just a room without fresh flowers; at least that's what Rick says.
We've already told the story of something borrowed, that Hollywood regency sofa we borrowed from the curb on a lonely street in a working class neighborhood in Madison. Left for the trash collector and minutes before Mother Nature would take it for her own with an impending rainstorm I enlisted the assistance of my youngest sister and her mini pickup truck and snarfed up the sofa. Dressed in emerald green chenille with a drooping fringe skirt and missing its cushion, it was a wounded stray I couldn't pass up and not come to its aid. Through the magic of local but French trained, Matthew Nafranowicz,of The Straight Thread, our pig's ear of a couch was transformed into a gem of a sofa, borrowed from the street and resurrected to new glory topped off by handmade poms made by Rick.
One can look to the sky for blue, so for the last piece of the puzzle we also looked up but only as far as our ceiling where we captured a thousand shades of blue in our stained pine slated ceiling.
Designing spaces needs forethought; it's not advisable to go headlong into a project without a plan. For our living room we developed a concept based on the bones of the house and the region it sat in. It was a sixties ranch that leaned toward country cottage. Conceptually we wanted to bring out the cottage aspects of the house so part of our plan was to change the moldings and window casings to a larger profile, add the pine ceiling and put more emphasis on the three sided fireplace.
The layout of the room was our biggest struggle. We moved furniture around in a dozen configurations on paper and then pushed the real furniture into all of them until we found what we think is the best use of a long narrow space. We created two conversation areas with one of them doubling as a TV watching area.
It's got its own sophistication but there's a lot of comfort and loungeability (you can look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls). I can't tell you how many times I've slid down on that couch while watching Modern Family only to wake up to Chelsea Lately.

Blues at the Overture Center, Madison, WI, 2014
Lee Melahn, photographer