Every major American city has its nearby rural antique paradise. Manhattan residents escape to the quaint boutiques of the Hamptons. Brimfield, the country's most famous flea market, is an hour and a half from Boston. And Chicagoans head east to New Buffalo, Michigan, where they hop off the interstate and meander up the Red Arrow Highway. Stopping at the antique malls sprinkled among the B and Bs, wineries, and multimillion-dollar "cabins," wellie-clad shoppers paw through enameled saucepans and oversize marquee letters in hopes of replicating ideas spotted in the pages of decor magazines.
My dad grew up in this area, and for a good chunk of the last two decades he spent his free time refinishing furniture salvaged from abandoned barns outside of Grand Rapids, hawking his finds at antique malls for a decent profit. He gave that up when he retired from his job as a librarian a few years ago, relocating to Mishawaka, Indiana, in a no-man's-land of crisscrossing county roads that straddles the state line between Niles, Michigan, and South Bend, Indiana. All the local car dealers and radio stations call it "Michiana." You won't find that name on any map (except as applied to the town of Michiana, Michigan, on Lake Michigan over near New Buffalo), but don't argue with anyone in South Bend: this is Michiana.
A 50-minute drive east from New Buffalo, Michiana offers a stark contrast to the lakeshore's rustic charm. Instead of orchards and sandy beaches, there are Hummer factories (many of them closed now) and swaths of farmland sprouting surburban developments at the corners. It's the kind of place where everything is advertised on cardboard signs nailed to stakes at county road intersections: "Free Puppies," "Make $600/Week / Work From Home," "No Dumping."
It's also the kind of place where thrift stores overprice newer furniture, leaving the vintage stuff hidden in the dimly lit back corners for the savviest pickers to find. It seems that shoppers in Michiana aren't interested in a steel tanker desk for $40. So Michiana's where I go to dig around. (Apparently I'm not the only one. Store owners there have told me of Chicago dealers who pack 15-foot trucks full before heading back to hawk them on Randolph Street or in an Andersonville storefront.)
When I go thrifting in Michiana I usually like to take my dad, who's still baffled by the popularity of Eames chairs and prefers to scrounge for older stuff. But on my most recent trip, he was busy helping my stepsister trade in her Hummer for a Kia Sportage, so I started out solo.
I arrived at 9 AM, an hour before most of the antique stores open, so I hit up some thrift stores: St. Vincent DePaul (2302 S. Bend, South Bend, Indiana, 574-234-6000), the Salvation Army (2009 S. Bend, South Bend, Indiana, 574-273-0157), and Nuway Thrift (3131 S. 11th, Niles, Michigan, 269-684-7665); the last literally straddles the border, the "Wwelcome to Pure Michigan" sign planted firmly in the parking lot. I was greeted by the typical assortment of discarded bowling trophies and threadbare bath mats at all of the stores, but Nuway also had a row of four cane-backed Breuer-esque dining chairs that needed only a hosing off, and Saint Vinny's had a massive selection of dressers, end tables, dining sets, and china cabinets priced from $25-$250, some of them decent antiques that would emerge after stripping and staining. At the Salvation Army I found a 1950s wooden school chair for $2 that wouldn't have lasted ten minutes in a Chicago thrift store.
After killing an hour, I started my tour of antique malls at Picker's Paradise (2809 S. 11th, Niles, Michigan, 269-683-6644). Unassuming on the outside, this mall has a gigantic interior with hundreds of items priced under $25. The entire place feels like an estate sale on steroids. A cabinet I would have expected to run close to $400, for example, turned out to cost $75. The sticker shock can be dangerous, leading you to rush the cash register like the place is on fire. I not only found a Bassett dresser for $120 with matching end table for $35 but also managed to fit them in my Scion.
After two hours I left Picker's, my hands still shaking, and took a short jog down 11th Street to hit up the Michiana Antique Mall (2423 S. 11th, Niles, Michigan, 269-684-7001). Things weren't quite as cheap here, but the more than 100 booths selling stuff up to 75 percent off (common practice in Michiana malls, though the discount isn't as good if you pay with a credit card) still gave me the overwhelming urge to grab fellow shoppers by the shirt collar and yell, "Do you know what people in Chicago would pay for this?" I bought a Seth Thomas wall clock for $25, an industrial desk lamp for $15, and a retro letter holder for $6 and filled a shopping cart with vases, antique toys, and 1950s cocktail glasses. The mall has one dealer dedicated entirely to midcentury furniture (priced in the hundreds, not thousands), but if you're into the 50s modern look you can find pieces sprinkled among the other booths for about a third what you'd pay in Chicago.
My car was already packed so full I had to roll down the windows to fit everything in (in Michiana no one's going to steal a Danish modern end table), but made one more stop, at the Main Street Antique Mall (109 E. Main, Niles, Michigan, 269-684-9393) in downtown Niles. This two-floor shop has hardwood floors and natural lighting and favors the kind of decor you'd expect to find in a Parisian flea market (rustic, charming, repurposed), but despite its upscale feel I found a 1930s croquet set for $75, glass apothecary jars for $10-$15 apiece, and type drawers for $15-$40. There was also a pair of wooden theater seats for $68 that would've fetched three times that on Clark Street and a giant turn-of-the-century Dowagiac post office sorting cabinet for $228. I'm sure that could've commanded close to $1,000 in Chicago (and if I could have figured out a way to strap it onto my car without crushing it like a Coke can, I would have bought it).
From Niles I drove about half an hour back south to Elkhart, Indiana. On my way into town I came across The Same As It Never Was Resale (637 N. Beardsley, Elkhart, Indiana, 574-606-4493) on the first floor of a lonely two-story building at the corner of Beardsley and Michigan. It's the kind of place people like me, forever in search of a Jackson Pollock painting hiding in the corner of a roadside junk store, dream about: merchandise spilling out onto the sidewalk, an unassuming hand-painted sign with a tongue-in-cheek name, and absolutely no Internet presence (so it's impossible to find unless you stumble on it). I threw my car into park and raced inside but was disappointed: everything looked like it had been purchased at La-Z-Boy within the past five years and was priced outrageously. No Pollocks.