People driving on Route 5 through North Thetford are noticing signs of life at the long-empty general store that houses the Post Office. All manner of interesting furniture, baskets, and other artifacts are filling the space. In fact, there was so much curiosity that the new tenant, Mark Harper, invited the neighbors to an informal open house a couple of months ago.
What they were treated to was a sneak preview of a lifetime’s collection of fine antiques. Mark Harper’s parents were antique dealers, and since 1966 he has been a “picker,” as it is known in the trade, meaning someone who attends estate auctions and goes through old houses and barns when they are being cleaned out. It is literally a treasure hunt, a search for quality antiques that might be hiding among the bric-a-brac and jumble. And Mark is good at it. In over 50 years of picking he has amassed nine storage containers full of antiques. He reminisced that in those early days it was relatively easy to come across something of interest, and the prices were very affordable. By contrast, today’s auction prices are high, and desirable pieces are hard to find. This trend is forcing some antique shops out of business.
It was pure chance that led him to North Thetford. Mark and his partner, Becky Low, were returning from a picking expedition, and Becky insisted that they travel on Rt 5 rather than taking I-91. When they saw the empty store, they pulled over. A retail space where Mark could make his collection available for sale was something they had talked about for twelve years. They contacted the owner and obtained a long-term lease last October, shortly before Mark retired in December. Leasing the space allows them to test the market in this area before committing to purchase the store.
What Mark and Becky hope is that their business will become an area destination for fine quality antiques. Collectors who have seen his offerings comment that they are “fresh,” meaning they have not been seen before or circulated through dealers several times. Even though Rt 5 is by-passed by I-91 and no longer the major north-south highway, antique collectors are renowned for taking the road less traveled in search of new finds. Mark is confident that Rt 5 in North Thetford is no exception.
Mark’s mother specialized in Native American artifacts, and he remembers as a five-year-old accompanying his parents on archaeological digs. They walked abreast in a line, probing the ground using a long stick tipped with a nail. This enabled them to flip over objects on the soil surface for examination without constantly bending. The family lived in Weston, Connecticut, and over the years they acquired so much knowledge that Mark’s father made a map of all the Native American sites in Connecticut for the state. One notable place was the Valley Forge Reservoir, for which Connecticut cut trees and demolished dwellings across 685 acres. When the water level dropped in the summer exposing mud flats and islands, Mark was able to walk out and find all sorts of relics. Any human remains that were found have been repatriated with proper ceremony under the auspices of a medicine man.
As Mark grew older, he focused on American antiques, including a vast collection of mint condition pottery and old bottles, many very rare. Along the way he moved to West Fairlee, where he had a large house that contained his collection. But he discovered that his children had no interest in being in the antique business, and he made the decision to share his lifetime’s accumulation with the public.
He has named his business Fox Hollow Antiques and Trading Post. Along with collecting antiques, Mark is also a lifelong woodsman and worked in Canada as a hunting and fishing guide for years. He has hunted across much of the USA and had the honor of being invited to hunt on a Native American reservation. An enormous bison head and other trophies, including an equally enormous moose head and several fish, bear witness to that life. The addition of “Trading Post” to the business name indicates that he offers furs and taxidermy specimens for sale.
As well as the shop, there is another dream. The couple is actively searching for a place that could become an auction house. The requirements are tricky; there needs to be parking for “50-70 people” and space enough for both the auction and a warehouse. Thinking ahead, Mark has purchased the name “Vermont Auction House.” Becky observed that “people will travel to the middle of nowhere” to go to an auction, even out of state, and that a “good old-fashioned auction” is among the best forms of live entertainment. If this idea becomes a reality, they are hoping to attract the services of auctioneer Herb Gray, formerly of Gray’s Auction in East Thetford. They are also aware that two well-established antique auction businesses operate on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River in this area, so if they are to compete it has to be done right.
When he retired, Mark was told by an old friend, “Don’t just sit on the couch, or you’ll die.” It seems that he has taken this message to heart.