A working nickelodeon, below, and old seltzer bottles are among the thousands of items that lure shoppers back in time at the Antique Center of Red Bank. Dozens more photos can be seen at redbankgreen‘s Flickr page. (Photo by Alexis Orlacchio. Click to enlarge)


Looking at it, shoppers at the Antique Center of Red Bank might not guess the glossy oak casing of the 117-year-old Regina Upright Nickelodeon was once caked with numerous layers of paint that had chipped and peeled over its lifetime. Standing near the front of the dimly lit emporium, light gleams off its intricate carvings.

The restored music box again flawlessly performs the task it was built for: insert a nickel into the side slot, and watch a music disc slowly rotate behind a glass pane, producing a melody of delicate chimes. Taped to its window is a small, handwritten note that reads, “Not for sale.”

“It’s too special,” said store owner Guy Johnson, who found the player at a garage sale in Shrewsbury. It had been sitting in the owners’ basement before they decided to sell it, “and thank God they did,” he said.

But while Johnson may have saved the Regina, whether Red Bank’s vaunted antiques district can be saved is an open question. About a year ago, the home of Monmouth Antiques Shoppes, across West Front Street from the Antique Center, was knocked down  to make room for the MW West Side Lofts, a residential and retail project now under construction. That left a huge hole not only in the space it had long occupied, but in an antiques district that vendors have struggled to keep going.

If Smith-Corona’s not your type, you’ll find something to like. Dozens more photos can be seen at redbankgreen‘s Flickr page. (Photos by Alexis Orlacchio. Click to enlarge)

“I was not happy” about the loss, Johnson said. Though Monmouth Antiques has since reopened in Asbury Park, “one third of [Red Bank’s] antique district got torn down” for the MW project, he said. In addition, the antiquing business has suffered from general economic weakness.

“A lot of people that shop for antiques have spare money,” said vendor Peter Serrano. “With the economy the way it is, especially after Sandy hit, people need food, people need clothing and a roof over their head. Those are priorities.”

“It’s gone down quite a bit,” Johnson said of business activity.

But the Antiques Center soldiers on. Housed in a giant red building at the intersection of West Front Street and Bridge Avenue, it practically groans with atmosphere. Various crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling; bookshelves are cluttered with tiny figurines and boxes stuffed with vinyl records. With worn wood floors that creak with every step, the aisles provide a maze of history. Glass displays arrayed throughout center sit side-by-side, carefully stocked with old-fashioned cameras and tea sets. Necklaces and bracelets are draped closely together over jewelry stands.

“It’s recycling the old,” said Johnson.

The center operates as sort of collective, with dozens of vendors. If the owner of a booth is not present, neighboring vendors can take care of a sale. A recurring refrain among the vendors is that the lasting character of antiques separates them from modern items.

“It’s not like the stuff that you buy at IKEA that will break and you have to throw it away,” said Johnson. “You can pass it down to future generations.”

Johnson, who collects vintage toy motorcycles and tin wind-up toys in addition to music boxes, took ownership of the Antique Center in 1980, after the death of his mother, Nan Johnson, who started the business in 1964. Johnson said his mother kind of fell into the antiquing business by accident. She would frequent garage sales and auctions in the midst of decorating their Lincroft home. When she realized she had bought too much stuff, she started to sell it, Johnson recalls.

Along the way, the center grew into a second building, at 195 West Front Street, and now hosts about 100 vendors between the two locations.

Serrano said antiquing takes a lot of work. He suggests conducting research or investing in an appraiser before selling an ‘antique.’ “Something might be old, but that doesn’t mean it’s an antique,” he said.

“It’s a learning process,” he said. “Guy inherited the business from his mother, and he’s still learning stuff. There’s so much to know about the items.”

Serrano, a vendor who also designs the front display window of the shop when not at his full-time job at the post office, has numerous vintage clothing stands, which he has neatly organized like his own personal boutique. Luxurious furs have been pressed or dry-cleaned before being put on display, hanging neatly in their designated slots.

“Most dealers will bring in one new piece every week,” said Serrano, “So no matter where you’re walking you’ll see something new. And then you’ll see stuff that’s been sitting here forever.”

Peggy L (she withheld her last name) has rented a booth at the center for the past five years, but has been collecting antiques for twice as long.

“It started out as a hobby, but then I got too much stuff,” she laughed. “And you want to know something? It’s the same with everybody here. That’s how the whole thing starts out.”

Among the items in Peggy’s booth are figural brass bells, which she said are her specialty, and lamp fixtures that her husband has rewired and restored. In a few weeks, she plans to bring in cuckoo clocks that her husband is currently repairing.

Among the center’s regular shoppers is a woman Johnson said comes in a couple times a year to buy costume jewelry. “She remodels the jewelry into her own designs and sells them.” Johnson said one couple flies in from Japan twice a year.

Antique shopper Dana Notarnicola, who collects kitchenware, home décor and jewelry, said she enjoys antiquing because she does not like things to look too modern or uniform.

“I received a lot of Swarovski crystal as wedding gifts,” said Notarnicola, of Atlantic Highlands. “But when Sandy hit, I didn’t care about them. I was worried about my antiques, the one-of-a-kind things that I can’t replace.”

Although Johnson realizes antiquing may not be at its peak popularity, he said he does not believe it will ever die.

“People like to collect stuff, it’s part of human nature,” said Johnson. “As long as there are things out there that sparkle, we’ll collect it.”