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Everything Old Is New Again

Aunt Katie’s passion for vintage fills her Scotia shop with retro galore

by Ann Morrow on March 20, 2014

 

It’s always Fiesta! time at Aunt Katie’s Attic, and not just because the shop carries a wide array of the colorful ceramic dinnerware so redolent of the 1930s. The entire shop—and it’s a large one, occupying two stories of an old schoolhouse in Scotia—is brimming with cheerfully colorful nostalgia, right down to its many shelves of old-fashioned, sherbet-hued Tupperware. That’s right, even the lowly plastic containers of yesteryear have been swept up in the vintage trend, which is currently dominating fashion, home decor, interior design, even architecture. But long before it was hot, hot, hot, vintage had its adherents, and Kate Halasz from Feura Bush, the future Aunt Katie, was one of them.

The mother of two is as colorful and festive as her inventory, with her red hair streaked with pink and yellow and a knack for play-acting, but it’s also in the way she welcomes her shop’s visitors, and how she interacts with the inventory as real-time products instead of props. Which they are: the Attic specializes in kitchenware and cookware, and almost all of it can be used for its original purpose rather than to just make a design statement. Along with owl tchotchkes (anyone remember “hoot couture” from the ’70s?) and faux fruits are such utilitarian icons as a Bissell carpet sweeper, dry-ingredients canisters, and Pyrex in all shapes, sizes, and patterns.

“The dealers made fun of me for years,” she cheerfully admits. “They told me, ‘no one is going to buy that kitchen junk.’ But this is what I do.”

Kate Halasz photographed by Ann Morrow

Now that tea towels are all the rage, and flour sifters are becoming a must-have accessory (Katie calls such collectables “farmhouse fab”), her many years of accumulating the unappreciated has proved prescient. Wooden spoons are flying off the shelves—among her regular customers are area chefs—and Corning ware has collectors as ardent as any fine-china aficionado.

“I hung out with my grandmother when I was young, and always liked her stuff,” Katie explains. “I was always collecting stuff as a kid, and I loved vintage kitchen from the get-go, because I was always with my grandmother in the kitchen. I loved her Pyrex bowls. She had a Big Ben wind-up clock and an old Niagara Falls motion lamp, and it fascinated me. She had good stuff, and we had good times.” 

Katie’s Attic is soon to celebrate 19 years in business with an open house-house party, on April 5 (for information visit auntkatiesattic.com). And after all these years, she still enjoys how the memories associated with old stuff contribute to their appeal. “These are things that had a life,” she says. “They were part of people’s lives.”

Those in the know are setting aside their k-cups for percolators, but there is practical side to the fads. Many of Katie’s customers are simply looking for higher quality at a lower price, a reminder that the recession helped to fuel the vintage boom, especially for everyday items. “Old cooking utensils, cookie sheets, spatulas, things they just don’t make like they used to,” she says. “Things were made better back then, and because it’s quality, it lasts.”

One of the most delightful aspects of her job, she says, is hearing customers excitedly exclaim, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen one of these in years,” or “I’ve been looking for that for forever, I can’t believe you have it!” She adds, “And if we don’t have it, we will help you find it.”

Starting out with just her own collections, what Katie does has resulted in what is likely the most extensive selection of kitchen kitsch this side of the East Side in vintage-mad Manhattan. “It’s weird, I have a built-in predictor,” she says. “I pay attention to what’s going on, and then I think where everyone is gravitating to. And then, ‘ka-boom!’ Like with Pyrex coffee pots. I’ve been doing Pyrex for years.” 

Katie started in retail at 16, and furnished her first apartment from garage sales and flea markets, “because it was cheap. But I already had the vintage bug,” she says, “because of the efficiency, the function, and the look of it, the artistic design in general.” (Some of that artistic design is now called Atomic Ranch, and in the big cities, its carries a correspondingly nuclear price tag.)

But just where, exactly, does she find all this stuff from decades long gone? “I go everywhere,” she says. But not to auctions or estate sales, she adds, because the crowds cramp her style. “I go out into the wild and find it.” 

Within the former schoolhouse are distinct areas of artfully arranged categories that Katie calls vignettes. She does all the styling herself. And this is where the expertise of a dedicated shop owner really comes into play; aside from the knowledge that can distinguish between a potential collectable and a piece of crap at a single glance, the arrangements help curate the not-always-obvious uniqueness in vintage design, such as can be seen in a shelf of gleaming stainless-steel toasters with architectural lines. It also makes browsing easier.

“I want for people to come in and feel like they’ve gone back in time, and then go into another little space and it’s another different era,” she says. “There’s a retro room, a ladies room upstairs, a cookbook book nook, and a sewing area . . . sometimes customers stay for hours,” she says, a level of sociability that she encourages. Katie herself especially likes the late ’40s to the early ’70s for its strong and structural design elements (think cat-eye glasses and Cadillac fins), though the shop carries “a little bit of everything” from the 1920s to the late ’70s.

Katie also repairs, restores, repurposes and reupholsters, acquiring whatever skills the shop needs, including social media, where she tweaks vintage ads with witty captions.

Her customers range from young girls looking for retro fashion to married couples outfitting their suburban house as a country cottage, to “older ladies who just want an old cookbook.” Katie’s attic also does a brisk business with burlesque performers and fans. “The pin-up girls want to wear authentic clothing,” she says. “A lot of them furnish their homes in that era, and they’re looking for an old vanity,” or aprons or oven mitts, because according to Katie, “Fifties Housewife is the hottest thing going now, and these girls live it head to toe.” From Bettie Page to Betty Draper to Betty Crocker, Aunt Katie has been ahead of the curves.

Also among her regulars are people she describes as being “old, age-wise, but who are young at heart and who come in just to visit,” she says. “And I’ll tap into their heads, “Do you know what this is’ or ‘Or how does this work?’

In addition to the quest for authenticity, Katie has a true appreciation for her clientele. “There’s just something about vintage customers,” she says. “They feel they have a history with these things.” And if they don’t, Katie is happy to relate an item’s history.

 “The best part of the business is meeting all the people,” she enthuses. “Everything else is just a bonus.”

Another local vintage purveyor whose shop predated the trend by over a decade is Roxanne Storms, and she too, enthuses about her customers. Storms’ Albany clothing shop, Special FX, was open from 1984 to 2004, and was a destination for musicians, especially punks and rockers, from New York City to Saratoga. “I meet so many musicians from the ’80s who tell me they still have my clothes in their collections,” she says. In 2012, Storms opened an online etsy shop called Special FX of Albany, and she did so partly to meet requests from old customers. What’s hottest at her shop, she reports, is ’60s bohemia, as in maxi-wrap skirts and peasant blouses, though every niche imaginable is doing well, including the timeless rocker style.

More recent shops specializing in various aspects of vintage, especially the craze for all-things mid-century, include Artcentric and Dang! That’s Cherry, in Troy, and Patricia’s Room in Schenectady.

Aunt Katie, unassailable kitchen queen, has an infectious, share-the-wealth attitude to the newer vintage shopkeepers: “There’s plenty for everybody,” she says happily.