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.
A few blocks down the street I reached my original destination: Antiques on Beardsley (816 W. Beardsley, Elkhart, Indiana, 574-523-1955), another packed mall with dealers selling everything from taxidermy to Pyrex mixing bowls, often at 30 to 50 percent discounts. Industrial remnants like beakers, glass insulators, and glove molds were abundant and reasonably priced. I picked up a typewriter table for $29, and one of the superfriendly dealers threw in a free set of terrarium-sized deer figurines before helping me wedge the table into my car. Since I couldn't cram in another paper clip I threw in the towel for the day.
The next day I set out with my dad in his Camry. We started at Elkhart Antique Mall (51772 State Road 19, Elkhart, Indiana, 574-264-1800), another two-floor antique gallery housed in an old office building (one of the upstairs booths is in the former kitchenette). My dad busied himself with musical instruments, old radio equipment, and arcade games from the 1950s (some under $100) while I found the dealer in the farthest corner selling small pieces of midcentury furniture for $20-$30. The mall had plenty of stylish, masculine items, like a hand-carved wooden statue of the Rocketeer for $35. A massive bronze rocking horse appealed to both of us, and feeling the thrifting high, I let my dad talk me into buying it for $100. We were thrilled with the find, neither of us having ever seen anything like it. While fitting it into the car, though, my dad flipped it over to find a "Made in Korea" sticker. In my bargaining frenzy I had dropped my guard and forgotten one of the most important rules of antiquing: always check the label. My dad tried to comfort me by pointing out that at least I could resell it.
We resumed our drive past Elkhart's Family Dollars and Shell stations, and then my dad stunned me by slamming on the brakes and turning sharply into the parking lot of a hidden Salvation Army (1657 Cassopolis, Elkhart, Indiana, 574-262-9292). What was inside wasn't anywhere near as exciting as our entrance (unless you're way into the Pyrex Harvest Wheat pattern), but I did find a vintage typewriter and stand for $90. I was only interested in the table, but the management wouldn't separate the two, so I passed and left with a book on disco dance steps. Dad bought some jean shorts.
The old man pulled a similar stunt at what I thought was a car repair shop but turned out to be Dealmakers Flea Market (2846 Old U.S. 20 West, Elkhart, Indiana, 574-293-6387). The back "shop" area had independent dealers hawking Beanie Babies, knockoff perfumes and velvet panther paintings, but there was one promising dealer up front selling Marwal chalkware busts and vintage metal toolboxes.
We left without buying anything and continued on to Heart's Desire (3030 Old U.S. 20 West, Elkhart, Indiana, 574-294-6096), the place where Michiana locals will all send you for antiques. Billed as the largest antique mall in Indiana, it's got a mazelike interior—complete with a functioning post office and a packed cafe—and sells things like enameled metal buckets filled with wooden apples, handmade soaps, and clever new kitchen gadgets. While I marveled at a booth stocked with classic midcentury pieces, a chapter of the Red Hat Society sauntered through. Decked out in purple, with crimson headgear, these devil-may-care grandmas passed right by four upholstered Eames shell chairs selling for a mere $200 apiece. As the Carpenters lulled the after-breakfast crowd into a shopping stupor, my dad and I cruised the curio cabinets and Transferware patterns, unearthing more A-list objects ignored by the coffee-cake crowd: an antique sideshow poster (World's Strongest Woman!) for $200 and a bank of blue school lockers for $100.
My dad said he was saving the best for last when he took me to Packrat Pat's (3005 Lincoln Way East, Mishawaka, Indiana, 574-259-5609). A seven-mile straight shot down Route 933 from Heart's Desire, Packrat Pat's is like a family secret. No one will actually tell you to stop here. ("You don't want to go there, it's junky.") But if you're breezing through the area and only stop at one place, this should be it.
The building looks like an Old West saloon with a double-wide trailer attached, and a preview of what's inside is stuck to the walls: antique washboards, enamelware bowls, porcelain plates, and old signs. Inside, the place is like a hoarder's house, packed floor to ceiling with antiques. It's a challenge to navigate the towering stacks without knocking into something, but despite the initial impression of chaos, the store is actually quite organized. All the lamp bases ($12-$20) are on one shelf, hundreds of blue-tinted Ball jars ($2) on another. Even the tchotchkes are organized by subject matter: travel, animals, holiday. It's all the work of Pat, whom you'll find stationed behind the counter at the back of the space. She's willing to cut you a deal if you buy in bulk—but the place is crammed so full that there's nowhere to stack your finds as you check out. I could easily have spent half the afternoon digging through boxes in the back.
In fact, I could easily have spent a week in Michiana unearthing vintage leave-behinds—in my 36 hours there I barely scratched the surface. I had to leave half my haul in my dad's garage. After I got home I sold a few of the pieces online, making back the money I'd spent shopping, and two weeks later I went back to my dad's to pick up the rest. Including, of course, that confounded horse. It still hasn't sold, but now that I've removed the "Made in Korea" sticker, it makes a surprisingly regal addition to our mantlescape. I may just keep it.