In 1973, I was a senior at U-M, heading off to grad school at UCLA. My dorm room at Baits Housing, high on a hill overlooking North Campus, was filled with mementos and metaphysical charms: tissue paper flowers, stuffed animals, a hanging wall tapestry, crystal wind chimes, rocks, socks, and posters of Paul Newman. College may have offered a rite of passage, but I wasn’t eager to let go of any of my favorite friends.
Yet, the future beckoned, as it always does. The time had come to pack it all up and start a new adventure.
Enter: The Treasure Mart.
Ann Arbor’s finest consignment resale shop welcomed me and my “treasures” with open arms. I paid the $3 annual membership fee and opened my first account. I would get 65 percent of anything that sold. Every thirty days, prices on my items would drop by 10 percent. If they didn’t sell after six months, they’d be donated to charity.
Owner Demaris Cash sat way back in the corner of the office and looked over everything brought in for consignment. With eagle eyes and a sensibility for sales, this white-haired little lady accepted 99 percent of what people brought in, knowing that one person’s trash is another’s treasure.
Founded by Cash and her friend Grace Bigby in 1960, The Treasure Mart sold collectibles, decorations, dining room sets, Franciscan Desert Rose china and blue Delft pottery, jewelry, paintings, song books, dog houses, rakes, pans for Bundt cakes; anything that anyone ever bought, inherited, received as a gift, or made with their own hands. Just walking through the aisles was like going back in time: antique RCA radios, player piano rolls, Norman Rockwell prints, grandfather clocks, fossil rocks, historic Saturday Evening Post and Life magazines.
Elaine Johns, Cash’s daughter, sat by her mother’s side and learned the business from the ground up. Both ladies were always ready to tell customers about the history of their crafts or credenzas. In the early years they used encyclopedias to pinpoint the era and value of Chippendale chairs; later they researched antique shops. In recent years, Johns, who took over after her mother’s death in 2001, consulted online sources to find every item’s true value along with a supportive staff of diligent researchers and price checkers.
After I took all my dorm room companions to The Treasure Mart, I headed for Hollywood, enjoying four years of celebrities, sunshine and sandy beaches. Then I moved back to Ann Arbor and renewed my membership at the Treasure Mart–my faithful friend, personal art museum, and touch of Tiffany’s all rolled into one.
One of my favorite finds was a Waterford crystal chandelier with the highest price tag I’d ever seen there, $2,000. I’ll never forget those 1,000 prisms, flashes of colors, so elegantly hanging from the ceiling and about to grace someone’s foyer or dining room with magnificence. How I wished I could buy it, but where would I put it? My first house, a 1,000-square-foot ranch, had neither a foyer nor dining room.
I lived in that house eighteen years, then unloaded most of those memories back to The Treasure Mart as I started over in my second home. And, once again, began to fill it with a wide assortment of wonderful finds. A “new” couch, pair of chairs, wall sconces, and a painting signed by Renoir (I still wonder if it could be authentic), plus many more historic and decorative treasures.
I have only two regrets, items I took to the shop and wish I had back. One, a fourteen-karat gold serpentine necklace, was worth more than the $75 (less 35 percent) that I earned when it sold (quickly). Gold was selling for more than $1,500 an ounce when I parted with that necklace. Plus, I would’ve enjoyed wearing it.
The other was a fireplace grate that held four cardboard logs, with an orange lightbulb and an aluminum wheel that spun round and round to simulate flames. This treasure was purchased in the 1950s by my dad who wanted to give his family some fun with the look and feel of a fireplace in our modest Detroit home. When I was convalescing on the couch after I had my tonsils out, its “roaring” fire and beautiful rustic logs helped me heal and recover.
Now, almost half a century after my first visit to Treasure Mart, I’m downsizing to move back to a smaller house. Last year, I began to gather up most of my current crop of treasures and take them back to resell. Throughout my life, The Treasure Mart’s familiarity and friendship was always there for me, making every move and life transition easier.
When Johns announced last January that she was selling The Treasure Mart due to health issues, I was devastated along with the rest of the town. We didn’t want to lose Elaine and her sacred shop. Everyone hoped that someone would come to the rescue and keep it going. We’re still hoping.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the store had to close its doors. In June a letter was emailed to every member to come get their items or they would be reduced by 50 percent in two weeks. Whatever remained would be donated to charity.
Recently, I went to pay my final respects. Once again, I was about to start another chapter of my life, but this time without my dear Treasure Mart. I would have to find new treasures on my own. Or perhaps the universe was nudging me to travel lighter from now on.
Walking down the aisles one last time, I still marveled at a sparkly necklace in the jewelry case and two gorgeous 1940s mahogany nightstands. But the store felt ghostly. No more overflowing counters, crowded with furniture, dishes, colored bottles, and clown figurines. This building from the 1860s was about to sashay into another era; but as what? For whom? And, why?
I lingered, trying to find one last treasure I could take home and savor, as the final chapter of the best novel I had the good fortune to be a character in wound down. Time to close the book once and for all. Will there be a sequel? There has to be.
The Treasure Mart was a shining star, a cherished friend of everyone who passed through. She helped me part with treasures too good to toss, providing a place to share them with others, bringing joy for a pittance.
Farewell old girl, it’s been a privilege and an honor to have known you for so many years. You shall live in my heart forever. What a treasure you were and will always be.