When love comes in Texas, it frequently involves scuffed cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats—or at least that's what the songs on the rental car's radio promised. In my case, the affair unfolded a little differently: I was looking for the type of liaison that starts in a dusty antiques store and is consummated with a credit card.
Here's how the romance began. My friend Ted lets drop one day that I would just adore his hometown, Fredericksburg, in Texas Hill Country. Ted claims the area is becoming a magnet for antiques and collectibles and the people who love them. I file this away under "New Places to Go Shopping Someday," until a few months later, when my friend Karen tells me she's planning a vacation in Texas's Big Bend National Park, near the Mexican border. I persuade her to leave a couple of days early and drive me (hey—it's only a few hundred miles out of her way) to this antiquing promised land.
And thus I find myself in Hill Country, about 70 miles from both San Antonio and Austin (the three form a rough triangle), visiting hamlets straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Karen and I set up camp in Ted's Fredericksburg, a 19th-century German town whose gray limestone buildings, once butcher shops and bakeries, now provide quarters for businesses with names like the Gilded Lily and Blue Goose Plantation. Fredericksburg's 1846 main drag was cut extra wide, store owners tell me, to accommodate a team of oxen turning around. On Saturdays, the broad Mayberryesque boulevard is filled with stylish women from the big city who are in the market for exquisite antimacassars and hand-painted linen presses.
Whatever would Fredericksburg's oxen-driving founders make of their town these days, bursting as it is with Provençal fainting couches and Parisian vanity tables?For the fact is, though these shops usually have at least some indigenous merchandise—cattle skulls to lend your living room a Georgia O'Keeffe ambience; velvet armchairs sprouting long horns—they also frequently display, incongruously enough, a wealth of French country antiques. Fredericksburg is a veritable Marché de Clignancourt deep in the heart of Texas.
At Homestead, an enormous, multiroomed furniture emporium, the shabby-chic aesthetic has been embraced with a vengeance: 19th-century botanical prints and shredded tapestries accessorize innumerable refectory tables and court chairs. If there's a Texas twist, it's the scale. Dining suites and settees seem destined for a castle or, come to think of it, the vast spreads you can sometimes see in the distance beyond the elaborate wrought-iron ranch gates of Hill Country.
Of course, Fredericksburg does have furniture for more modest dwellings. At Bolton & Bolton, I fall for a Victorian lady's writing desk ($1,495) with a well-worn blotter and nicked painted tiles. Across the street, in what was once the Fredericksburg National Bank, Showcase Antiques has collectibles as delicate as an antler chair is chunky. My eyes lock onto a circa-1927 Tiffany Favrile glass vase marked $2,300.
Believe it or not, I'm actually considering the Tiffany vase. I retreat to think about it next door at Dooley's 5-10-25, where the window bears a sign informing passers-by that Blue Waltz cologne, apparently a local favorite, is back in stock. You never know how much you miss something until it's been snatched away; the humble Dooley's, in business since 1923, reminds me of the five-and-ten in my hometown, a store I visited practically every day when I was growing up. I leave Dooley's with a $2.98 bottle of Blue Waltz in my hand and a lump in my throat. (Although the lumpy throat is quickly replaced by a wrinkled nose—Blue Waltz is clearly an acquired taste.)
The next morning I'm up early, ready to explore the surrounding hill towns—all of them, according to Ted, groaning with multi-dealer antiques malls selling Salvation Army sofas and solid gold dresser sets. Our trip takes us on wildflower-bordered highways, notable for their lack of billboards.
Our first stop is Kerrville, about a half-hour southwest of Fredericksburg, where the Sunrise Antique Mall, in a restored 19th-century building, presents cases of merchandise that speak of a genteel Texas past: sterling silver monogrammed napkin rings; beaded evening purses that might have graced the arm of a debutante capable of executing that famous Southern curtsy. (Head to the floor, please.) Upstairs, the goods have a more rural flair—a lamp's tin shade is punctured with pinholes in the shape of the Lone Star State ($175); that same design is rendered in spotted axis-deer fur on oversized pillows.
We head over to Ingram, a town that time forgot, a mere five miles west of Kerrville. There, a group of small shops and art galleries back onto the drowsy Guadalupe River. It looks like the Hollywood back lot version of a Western town, but the shopkeepers we meet are too unusual to have come from Central Casting. The star of Ingram is 74-year-old Don Atkinson, the internationally renowned owner of a custom cowboy boot store. "Don's a one-man shop," says his wife, Virginia, who has masses of black hair and wears a deerskin shirt. "He measures your foot and builds your last. You could have the most beautiful boots, but if the last is no good, who can wear 'em?" The boots start at $850, though if you want what Virginia calls "full alligators" it'll set you back $5,000. Whatever you decide, you'll have to wait at least a year; Don is incredibly meticulous, and there's quite a backlog.
We make it to Boerne—another town, like Fredericksburg, where at least 20 antiques stores line the main street—with little time to spare before everything closes. At the pristine Tri-K Antiques, the owner parades around in dungarees that clearly acquired their faded patina the old-fashioned way. His store, with its Mexican-American War artifacts and even an extremely dilapidated 90-year-old saddle, is the antithesis of the faux-antiques shops springing up all around him. Though he offers to give me a good price on the rotting saddle, I cannot for the life of me imagine it in my apartment, a place already bursting with 100 years' worth of castoffs.
Back in Fredericksburg, we follow signs to the Comfort Village Antiques Show & Sale. I love any antiques show, big or small, indoors or out, and all the posters I've seen in Fredericksburg's windows have me eager to open my purse. In the meadow that the show has overtaken, local ladies are selling freshly baked snacks, and what's crowding the dealers' sales tables?Massive Burgundian armoires. Enamel canister sets that say pâtéand poivre. I manage to locate an all-American farm table with a blue-and-white-checked tin top that would sit perfectly on the veranda of my house in the country, if I had a house in the country. I'm sulking about the table when Karen suggests we take a spin in Comfort proper, which Ted had said was the most genuine of the hill towns.
Comfort turns out to have one of the most intact Germanic business districts in Texas. There's a noontime game of dominoes taking place on High Street; we stop for ice cream at an old-time parlor down the block. Comfort even has its own version of Fredericksburg's Dooley's: a huge general store called the Ingenhuett Store, selling everything—hunting licenses, underpants, fishing boots, birthday cards—in an atmosphere that retains much of the flavor it must have had when it opened in 1867.
And then it happens, as I stroll a block or so from Ingenhuett and pop into Montye's West High Street Antiques. Just the way the songs on the radio say, I fall in love. The object of my ardor, a 70-year-old marble-topped nightstand ($450) with curious pressed-tin sides, could have come from a Brassaï photograph of Paris in the thirties. I gaze, I sigh, I stroke its rosy marble top.
All at once it dawns on me: Who says a one-bedroom apartment that already houses four armoires, a massive library cabinet, an overstuffed couch, and about 3,000 old dolls can't open its heart to one tiny little marble-topped nightstand?
LYNN YAEGER is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
Blue Goose Plantation 237 1/2 E. MAIN ST., FREDERICKSBURG; 830/997-6990
Bolton & Bolton 223 E . MAIN ST., FREDERICKSBURG; 830/990-9861
Comfort Village Antiques Show & Sale COMFORT PARK, ON HWY. 27; www.texasantiqueshows.com
Don Atkinson's Custom Boot & Saddle Shop 229C OLD INGRAM LOOP, INGRAM; 830/367-5400
Dooley's 5-10-25 131-133 E. MAIN ST., FREDERICKSBURG; 830/997-3458
Tri-K Antiques 470 S. MAIN ST., BOERNE; 830/249-9386
Homestead 230 E. MAIN ST., FREDERICKSBURG; 830/997-5551
Montye's West High Street Antiques 606 HIGH ST., COMFORT; 830/995-4822
Sunrise Antique Mall 820 WATER ST., KERRVILLE; 830/895-2414