Photos and Story By Alyssa Kang
In Austin there lives a mustached cowboy that rides a pale giant Jack Rabbit. With revolver slapping against his right thigh, he swings his lasso high above his head. Meanwhile, his peculiar steed’s blue eyes gaze toward the city’s skyline from its perch above a Christmas-colored doorway.
The pair are part of Uncommon Objects’ signage, living on South Congress Avenue since 1991, an area that is now a hotspot for Austin culture. Uncommon Objects, an antique mall, diverts the flow of sidewalk traffic into its doorway especially during weekends. Should curiosity prevail, which happens in most cases, one will encounter the treasure trove of knickknacks within.
Inside the store, overwhelming colorful detail at every turn keep eyes delightfully busy. Things normally found in antique stores can be seen such as odd things, aged furniture, silken clothes, and uniquely crafted jewelry. However, there is a consistency here in the midst of distinct variety that is uniquely Uncommon Objects’. The place is a gallery of personalities, exhibiting the common, yet different styles of 25 vendors under one roof. This interesting sense of unity sets Uncommon Objects apart from other antique stores around Austin.
Every day, the cowboy watches overhead while vendors arrive as early as 8 a.m. to set up shop, scurrying in and out of the store, carrying bags and packages full of found things. These individuals are modern day treasure hunters.
Each of the 25 vendors is chosen by Steve Wiman, owner of Uncommon Objects, based on his or her style of selection. “The difference between us and other stores is that we curate our items,” he says. Staff takes a look at what vendors bring. “Everything we bring in is from the 1960s and 1970s, or older – there is very little in the store that is contemporary.” According to manager Kitty Buick, this method effectively brings the store into a cohesive whole because “a range of various people bringing in the same type of merchandise works together to create a seamless effect throughout the store.”
Shelves are also constantly replenished to ensure newly found objects are always on display. Wiman says, “we try to keep things freshly merchandized and be responsive to what’s sold and what needs attention.” Considering the heavy traffic the store deals with and the constant need of a fresh inventory, it is easy to see that a treasure hunter’s life is a very busy one. “Being a vendor is a big commitment,” says Wiman. “This is more than a full time job and one must be completely focused and diligent.” According to Wiman, vendors come to Austin from Dallas, San Antonio, Missouri, and even Kansas on a weekly basis to keep their spaces stocked and fresh. “The people who work here feel privileged to be a part of what we do because we are so successful,” he says.
And sure enough they have been successful. Uncommon Objects was started in 1991 and has since become a prominent Austin tourist stop. “We were here before ‘Keep Austin Weird’ and before they gave this area the trendy name ‘SoCo,’” says Wiman. The store is an antique mall in the sense that it is divided into booths that are rented out to vendors who in turn divide up the cost of the shop’s rent space.
Uncommon Objects has taken advantage of this division, allowing vendors to vent their creativity into their spaces. Each space is given as much attention and care as decorating a home. Each item is placed with some amount of intimacy. Coming into the shop is like being invited in as a guest and this has captivated movie stars, politicians, television set designers, and interior designers alike.
“Everyone buys with a unique eye and pulls together things that they love.” Wiman loves how customers are so unpredictable and finds it amusing to watch what someone would buy. He recalls the stylist from the remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre who “came through and picked out the weirdest and ugliest things in the store and put them together, and the result was pretty creepy.”
Wiman, himself a collector and assemblage artist, graduated from the University of Texas art school in 1986. Working for Chili’s restaurant décor for five years, he discovered his skills of recognizing things of value. This brought him to the realization he could make a living collecting antiques. “I look for the implied history of an object, not some story someone would tell,” he says. He keeps his eyes peeled for objects with signs of patina, or, show of wear.
“Each vendor’s personality and booths are very similar,” says vendor Ryan Rowe, standing before his 1940s wartime-themed booth. “Everybody here is good at articulating themselves with things,” he says as he explains how he himself hides messages within his booth. Rowe, from New York, attended the Savannah College of Art and Design and has been with the shop for three years.
Collecting antiques has been Rowe’s life’s joy, ever since he was a little boy lining up found things up on the windowsill. “Antiques have so much meaning. You can see the life of an object that someone used it and loved it. I like mystery. I know why I love something,” he says. To Rowe, Uncommon Objects is also a place that reinforces the recycling initiative, a concept that he thinks is something people fail to see about the store.
Connor Sharp, calling himself a “loyal pawn,” who studies environmental studies at St. Edwards University, has recently become an associate clerk at the store. Before jumping on board, Sharp was a customer who came by often enough that store staff knew him. “I came to Uncommon Objects to shop because there is something about the aesthetics of it all. The store is cohesive and different at the same time,” he says. “It blew me away when I was a shopper how the merchandise is constantly fresh.”
Max Tibbits, has been a vendor at Uncommon Objects for 20 years. Graduating from Texas A&M University School of Architecture, the theme of his booth is mid-century and his objects have a clean feel to them. “I am not interested in nostalgia at all but in interesting design,” he says. “I have huge amounts of fun finding things beautiful or amusing,” he says, “if not beautiful, what makes me smile in some way.”
Uncommon Objects carry a little bit of everything, including exclusive vintage accents, unique publications, curious pieces and oddities. Items for all people of different interests are splayed out throughout the store for whoever takes a fancy to them. “I admit that this place is not for everybody,” Wiman says. “But vendors and collectors who work here love what they do and we like being here,” he says, “I hope that is what people feel when they step in.”
“Uncommon Objects is not an antique mall,” says Tibbits, “it is more of an art gallery of interesting things, interesting and affordable.”
It’s unfortunate that these vendors leave shop after setting up, as in the Elves and the Shoemaker, and customers don’t get to see them most of the time. Nevertheless, their simultaneously different but collective views and fancies are what makes this antique shop uncommon. It is their hope that visitors walking through Uncommon Objects would also themselves become treasure hunters and, as Wiman puts it, “find the thing that speaks to you.”