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Shopping Texas Hill Country

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.

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