The Armchair Traveler
Portabello Market, London
Homescapes, Carmel is known for traveling the world, “so you don’t have to…” but here Thompson Lange shares personal advice for those of us that love to travel, find stuff an’ bring it on back to the ‘States.
“Long before there was a Homescapes, I’d search my travel books to find out where there might be a local market; someplace where I could find a souvenir that didn’t look like it was a souvenir.
“From all of our commercials, you know that we do a lot of traveling, but we encourage people to do the traveling themselves and find the things that they want to bring home as souvenirs. Here in London at Portabello Market, you can find fruits & vegetables, antiques, tchotchkes and collectibles or even used books.
“One of the things that I always do when I’m shopping is I try to get a ‘lay of the land;’ find out what prices are, where everything is. It’s a good idea at a market like this, too, because there’s gonna be a lot of junk as well as stuff you might want to get. So start at one end – if you have the time – work your way, see what prices are. Don’t be afraid to negotiate (although, don’t try that at my store). Maybe you’ll find something really good to take home.
“The nice thing about Portabello Market is that it’s not just a tourist destination; locals come here too for produce and all sorts of other needs. Even eating or to spend a Saturday. So when you’re traveling, take advantage of things like this. Go see the sights; see what locals are seein’ and see what tourists are seein’. There’s a reason why it’s famous.
“So remember, you don’t have to leave the buyin’ to me. You can do an internet search, find a local market and pick up a treasure for yourself.”
By Thompson Lange
Tchotchkes, gee gaws, dust collectors. The bits and pieces littering my bookshelves and table tops may look like clutter to some people and I would find that insulting if it weren’t true. But it’s the clutter of my life, tangible objects linking me to the people, places and times that I can never get back.
I’m not a ‘collector’ though, or a hoarder. I don’t have a thousand beanie babies or stacks of newspapers on every surface. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Mom.) The items I choose to decorate with have only one test to pass: Do they mean something to me when my eye falls on them? Do they trigger a memory?
Now, of course form plus function would be the ideal. I don’t live in a museum after all. The things I bring home have to share limited space with the gadgets that go along with daily life. I may not like the look of the remote(s) but if I hide them from view I’ll never remember where I put them and I’ll get hopelessly frustrated, angry, desperate and then finally determined to buy a new TV. A little of that kind of crazy goes a long way so the remotes stay put.
But sometimes an object is completely useless to the world at large and absolutely necessary to me as a memory trigger of the passages and events of my life. As I’ve traveled I’ve always tried to choose items as keepsakes that will stand the test of time. Clearly the dorm room/first-college-apartment decor of street-corner finds and hand-me-downs couldn’t be ruined with a Balinese carved tusk or a Viennese coal jug, but as time went by and my travels increased I had to focus. What spoke to me? What seemed like it had a spirit? Luckily, only so much can fit in a student’s back-pack, so early on I learned to hone in on the one thing that would be most evocative.
Sure a rug from Turkey was an obvious choice when I was in Turkey, but the silver letter opener from Bermuda? Yet every time I use that thing I think of Hamilton. Of course, the fact that it’s an 18″ dagger that was confiscated at check-in but given back when I disembarked in New York makes it a precious object. And half the fun of collecting on the road is the stories that attach themselves and stick.
The only constant is the filter of one’s own taste. As I’ve moved from house to house, city to city, I’ve always looked for homes with an architectural style that seems suited to the place. In L.A. it was a 1930’s Spanish-Style bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, San Francisco a vine-covered cottage on Lombard Street, New York a pre-war flat.
Every house was different so the decoration was different too. Furniture, wall colors, all the impactful stuff was chosen to make each house unique unto itself and to me. But one constant in the design schemes was the core “baggage” of my life. My souvenirs, my family heirlooms, the gifts from people I love. Those are the items that I decorate with that make me feel at home wherever I may live.
Take for example ‘Old Pete.’ Pete’s not even my souvenir; my grandfather got his stuffed bear at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. But Pete’s been sitting his raggedy behind on my bedside table since I was a kid and whenever I see him I think of my grandfather. Pete, I think, just wonders what ever happened to his other ear.
Taking a moment to get esoteric, there’s a Japanese aesthetic called wabi sabi of which I’m particularly fond. We’ve all heard of the Chinese concept of feng shui and its design precepts for a spiritually harmonious lifestyle. Well wabi sabi boils down to finding beauty in everything, warts, cracks and all. Being prone to warts and cracks myself, I find wabi sabi a comforting and achievable design style. And I’ve spent a lifetime filling my home with examples.
On my last trip to Indonesia after spending a fortune for a sea-container full of furniture, lamps and accessories for my store, the item I chose for myself was something I found in the mud on a riverbank in Ubud, Bali. It’s stone and was covered in moss and might have been a column base or a balustrade at one time, I’m not sure. But it’s a candle-stick on my hearth now.
As they say: One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
Thompson Lange co-owns Homescapes, Carmel in Carmel-by-the Sea and scours the world’s souks, markets and junkyards “so you don’t have to.”