Do out-of-towners know a secret about Bakersfield that we don't?
On a recent weekday, Pat Russo, assistant property master for a Showtime series, was eyeing an assortment of flasks and cigarette cases in a downtown antique shop. He was up from Los Angeles for the day to procure props for a 1930s Los Angeles set. That day his haul included ash trays and cigarette lighters as well as razors and various bottles for a locker room scene.
"We come for the selection of stuff," Russo said, adding that prices for the items he found in Bakersfield were so reasonable it was more economical to buy them than rent them from a prop vendor in Los Angeles.
In case you didn't know it, Bakersfield is a vintage treasure trove. More than a dozen shops in the downtown area sell vintage, antique and collectibles and the selection, according to thrift seekers, is unparalleled to what you'd find in bigger cities. In fact, shop owners say Bakersfield is a draw for many from Southern California and the coast because the selection is so large and the prices are right.
"I think we have a very rich culture of antiques and antique malls," said Jeran McConnel, who has lived in the Oleander neighborhood for 20 years and runs the lifestyle blog Oleander + Palm. "Usually the number one question I get on my blog about my home is, 'Where did you get that?'"
The answer nearly every time is one of our downtown antique shops. And, in most cases, she got it for a pittance.
Pieces that have a previous life
McConnel primarily 'thrifts,' as she calls it, for items to place around her home. She likes her home to feel approachable and decorates with items that are durable, inexpensive and unique.
"'Oh, I have that pillow, too. It’s from Target.' That’s my least favorite thing to hear from anybody," she said.
"I don’t think anybody wants their home to look like anybody’s. Like with your clothing, you want a voice and personal style."
Pieces that have history and had a previous life outside have a special beauty and uniqueness, she said. She likes old crocks, baskets, things made of brass or pewter and etched glass.
"When everything's brand new and shiny ... there’s something lifeless about it," she said.
McConnel said her favorite spots to frequent are the large antique malls downtown, like the Five and Dime Antique Mall inside Woolworth's, Timeless Furnishings, and Merry Go Round Antique Mall. Each houses a collection of vendors, many of which showcase highly-curated products in a specific design scheme, like shabby chic or farmhouse, or specialize in old farm artifacts or glassware. The best ones consistently have new stuff, she said.
Some stores specialize in certain types of inventory, like vintage clothing or items from a certain time period. The 19th Street Antique Mall on the corner of 19th and L streets, for example, recently moved away from random antiques to collectible pop culture items from recent decades. The shelves are loaded with everything from Care Bears and Hello Kitty to WWE wrestling figures, board games, stuffed animals and action figures.
A twenty-something man checking out at the counter there recently was buying a couple Simpsons figures — a gift for a friend who loves "The Simpsons" — and a board game called Masterpiece, which he described as a lesser-known Parker Brothers game that he played as a kid.
In Your Wildest Dreams on the corner of 19th and Q streets carries a huge selection of second-hand clothes, shoes and jewelry but also has a back area with antique and vintage items, as well as an outdoor area with used patio furniture and potted plants.
The Vintage Home Antique Gallery, just east of Woolworth's, advertises a "Man Cave" section on a chalkboard outside its entrance. The display at the back of the store featured old oil company signs, old Coleman coolers and fishing paraphernalia.
"There’s a nice cluster of stores and you don’t have to go far to get from one to another, which makes it conducive to shoppers and makes it fun," said David Lyman, the manager of Visit Bakersfield, the local tourism bureau.
"There’s always a new store that pops up but there’s the stalwarts that have been here a number of years," he said. "I would presume that’s a testament to their staying power and the popularity of their products."
Browsing and hunting is just part of the experience but certainly not all.
If you buy something at the Great American Antiques Mall, owner Scott Grey will ring up your purchase on an old-fashioned, hand-cranked cash register, making its clink-clank noises. And lunch at the Woolworth's counter is always an experience, for locals and out-of-towners alike.
Shopping may not be everyone's thing but there's something different about these stores that appeals to almost everyone.
"Whether people think they’re antiquers or not, they totally are because as soon as you get them in there it conjures up all this nostalgia, like, 'My grandma had this,' or they see something from their childhood that brings back a memory. It’s instantly a good feeling to go to an antique store," said McConnel.
There's plenty to see and do in the area, as well. New restaurants and cafes have popped up in the area, like Cafe Smitten, Angry Barnyard and Dott x Ott, and the Bakersfield Museum of Art and Mill Creek Park are nearby.
The antique shops are a great place to take out-of-town guests of all ages, and kids have a special affinity for them, as well, considering the abundance of old toys and books and collectible items for sale.
McConnel said her young daughter loves to shop for dollhouse furniture at one of the stores and even asked to go thrifting after school on Friday.
"If you have an idea of things you like ... give yourself a little room for possibility," McConnel said. "You will find something good."