photography by Evarist O'Neill
You’ve probably seen those whimsical bumper stickers boldly proclaiming, “I brake for yard sales,” right? Well, that’s me. I also brake for estate sales, auctions, thrift stores, consignment shops, and flea markets — anytime, anywhere there’s the promise of an undiscovered treasure.
Inspired by the hit PBS television show, Market Warriors, which features four zealous treasure hunters unearthing antiques and collectibles at flea markets around the country, I took my own passion on the road this past April, traveling to the storied Round Top Antiques Fair in Round Top, Texas.
Located almost exactly halfway between Austin and Houston in east Texas, Round Top is the smallest incorporated town in the state (with a population of less than a hundred), but it casts a huge shadow in the world of antiques in America. Hosting one of the country’s top fairs twice annually, Round Top is an antique collector’s dream come true. The only thing that matches this experience, in my opinion, is the famous Brimfield antiques fair up East, held three times a year in central Massachusetts. And given the fact that a car is almost a must for long-distance antique shopping, Round Top is a lot closer to Memphis than New England.
Martha Stewart Living magazine ran an article this past March on Round Top, calling it “a dizzying maze,” and a fair of “epic proportion — and fun.” To be clear, the event known collectively as “Round Top” is an extravaganza taking place over the course of ten days or so, twice a year (once in the spring and once in the fall), made up of multiple, separate shows put together in free-standing barns, homes, fields, and front porches, and strung out for miles and miles along Highway 237 through Round Top and other nearby towns. I was given a figure of 3,500 vendors for each event, which I cannot confirm, but doesn’t seem impossible to believe.
To be sure, Round Top can be overwhelming, but maps are freely available, and before you jump in, I suggest you first ride around to get the lay of the land and make sense of all that the area has to offer. Dealers come to Round Top from all over the country (last spring, I bought a piece of porcelain from a vendor from upstate New York, for instance), and their wares range from extremely high-end Continental antiques to colorful collectibles to all sorts of everyday junk that can, with imagination, be refinished, refurbished, or repurposed. In other words treasures, trash, and everything in between.
Shoppers will find mounds of linens and silver plate pieces, hordes of industrial salvage and vintage advertising items, and piles of rustic, country-style furniture and artifacts. The Marburger Farm Antique Show with over 350 dealers on 43 acres is upscale, and one of the most eagerly anticipated individual events. Then there is the Big Red Barn, an iconic and much-loved venue at Round Top. Other large, popular shows include La Bahia, the Arbor, and Blue Hills. Most shows are free, though a few do charge modest admission fees.
I am told the fall event in Round Top is the mirror image of the spring one, although the weather is definitely different and, farther south than Memphis, September and October can still be hot, hot, hot. To beat the heat, buyers can be seen walking around with “to go” cups of margaritas and tubes of sunscreen.
The dates for the opening of the various shows for this fall’s Round Top Antiques Fair vary over the period between September 20th and October 6th. You can check out the details at the local Chamber of Commerce’s website roundtop.org, and press the tab on antique shows.
Now back to the spring fair last April and my adventures, to give you a tiny taste of what Round Top is all about. My husband and I met up with our friends Missy Melville (an antiques dealer from Dallas) and Pam Randon from New Canaan, Connecticut, as well as Eileen Adams and Cyndy Taylor from Memphis. Pam was looking to score some antique chairs for her eighteenth-century home, while Eileen and Cyndy were buying for their two booths — one in Sheffield Antiques Mall in Collierville and the newer one in Market Central on Cooper (both named T’DA Antiques and Accessories.) The weather was off and on rainy, and everyone wore their rubber Wellington boots to brave the mud and carried water bottles and large bags.
The overall vibe in Round Top is akin to one gigantic sorority party with hundreds of women — and of course some men — descending on the area, talking and laughing, bargaining and buying in the midst of acres of antiques and miles and miles of traffic. Simply heaven for some of us!
I can assure regular Memphis readers that the Mid-South definitely has a presence at Round Top. If you can believe this coincidence, my Connecticut friend Pam Randon bought gorgeous nineteenth-century Chippendale-style chairs at the Marburger show from Brownsville, Tennessee, dealers Kitty and Tony Ables. The couple have many friends in Memphis including antiques journalist Karla Klein Albertson, and of course Stanton Thomas of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. As Tony put it, “A real West Tennessee mafia is usually on hand in Round Top!”
And to go one step further, it just so happens that Tony and Kitty had originally bought the chairs from one of Memphis’ premier dealers, Linda Felts. While at the Marburger show we also stopped in to visit our good friend, Anthony Shaw, from Memphis, the owner of A. Shaw Antiques & Jewelry in Chickasaw Oaks who had an elegant large booth there. Additionally, Memphis’ own Tom Fortner had a beautiful booth at the Big Red Barn that was loaded with fine antiques.
Accommodations can be a bit difficult in the Round Top area, though with a bit of digging visitors can find some inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and even private homes in a variety of price ranges. At the top level, Shabby Chic founder/designer Rachel Ashwell has a 46-acre inn composed of restored cottages called The Prairie — extravagant, yes, but looks to be extraordinary.
Failing all that, the town of Brenham, just 22 miles away to the north, has many of the familiar chain motels we know and feel comfortable with, not to mention a historic old-town square. Restaurants in the Round Top neighborhood book up very early, particularly the most popular ones such as Royers Round Top Cafe (an institution in the area famous for its iconic “Eat Mo Pie” neon sign) and JW’s Steakhouse in nearby Carmine.
I also recommend that you take time out from your shopping frenzy to get off the main roads and tour the Round Top countryside, a lovely part of the world on the eastern edge of the Texas hill country. In April, the rain had made the landscape lush, and the Lone Star State’s scenery was at its best, with world-renowned blue bonnets carpeting the vistas in every direction off to the horizon. We discovered creeks and rivers (we crossed the Colorado and the Brazos, sometimes more than once), cottonwood trees, countless cattle ranches with interesting names like the “Polish Ponderosa,” and several historic small towns.
If you are not pulling a U-Haul full of newfound treasures — or even if you are! — it is ideal to make a small vacation out of the Round Top experience. For example, my husband and I drove southwest through Texarkana on the way down and on the way back we drove home via a more southern route with stops in Houston, Galveston, and Baton Rouge, to vary the trip. We could write whole stories about those fascinating destinations.
No matter how you go, or when you go, my advice is to head for Round Top and a huge Texas-style experience. Happy hunting!
Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts & lifestyle editor of Memphis magazine.