Salvage Transforms Old Houses
And apart is where the money is, unfortunately. While Tom is sometimes able to keep a roomful of paneling together or see a whole set of windows leave the shop in concert, most buyers want only fragments. Consider, for instance, the elegant ebony grand piano, circa 1840, which on the day of my visit has been reduced to a big black box, lying on its narrow side against a vast file of doors.
“I got that piano in payment for a debt, and I’ve had it for five years. I tried everything, offered it all over for 250 bucks. No one would buy it-the sound was never too good on those old square grands. Finally I sold the legs and the fret-carved music stand for way more than I wanted for the whole thing; they’re going on a new Steinway. A piano-repair specialist will buy the ivory keys, and someone will probably buy the wood, too.”
In other words, don’t think of this as vandalism; think of it as organ transplant. Tom gets cross when people accuse him of being a butcher. “Butchery is when you go into a standing house and change it all around. What I’m doing is closer to recycling,” he says, showing me a new use for an old safe deposit box. Turn it on its side, screw it to the kitchen wall, and presto-instant spice cabinet.
A picker pulls up outside. Rite Aid may deliver the big stuff, but pickers are a steady source, tentacles reaching into yard sales all over the state. The picker, a pleasant fellow named Fred, pulls out a box of assorted hardware, most of which I’d probably dismiss as junk. Shows what I know. As Tom goes through the box of miscellany, I realize this shop is, among other things, a singles bar for doorknobs. He has thousands and can discourse at length on the social significance of various doorknob materials.
“People would use a set like this downstairs, in the front parlor,” he explains, showing off a pair of crystal beauties. “The ceramic ones might go on the family’s bedroom doors, the metal ones on the maids’ rooms. Or you often found crystal on the front-hall side of a door, something less grand inside the room itself.”
Call him a historian of small things, an anatomist of old houses – call him a philistine, if you must. Just don’t call him a destroyer. No matter how much he tears down, he’s saving a lot of neat stuff.
Excerpt from “3 Ways to Love an Old House,” Yankee Magazine, March 2000