Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Hammer Comes Down on Agnew

Workmen remove the last of the seed bins as dusk settles^

There was something undeniably right about the auction. Maybe it was the Mennonite bidders in the second row, looking for an old fashioned bargain. Perhaps it was the quiet, unassuming couple from Natural Bridge far back in the corner of the 100-year-old building who eventually forked over $551,000 for it—generally considered a good bit more than Agnew Seed Stores was worth. Could have been the overalls, the palpable excitement, the mother and baby on the front row, the press of media, the presence of auction superstar Ken Farmer.

Probably, though, it was the simple authenticity of a genuine American antique, one that still has a good bit of life in it, despite the buckets sitting on the floor of the second story, collecting rain water.

The store was built a little more than 100 years ago in the middle of Roanoke City Market before it had earned the historic designation and it had never been anything but a seed store, never wanted to be anything else. Now it might become a boutique or a restaurant or a living space or something else entirely, but it won’t likely be what it was ever again. Kirk Miller said he didn’t know what he would do with it. Tina, his wife, nodded.

The store’s first life is over, but let’s not spend time mourning. Agnew is entirely too graceful, too rural-realistic, too practical for that.

Everything ends and Agnew had a good run. I always liked the musty smell, one that never changed, never diminished, was never especially pleasant. This was unusual and distinctive, old and never to be confused with the K-Mart Garden shop.

The stoneware jars in the corner and the iron skillets on the shelves, the large-brimmed straw gardening hats and bins of top-rank seeds were bought by people who used them, wore them out and came back 50 years later asking why they didn’t last forever.

The customers were a mixture of tourists, curiosity-seekers, practical gardeners, religious fundamentalists who don’t like electricity and backyard gardeners who covet the feel of solid things like shovels that last and wheel barrows that are heavy. The owners were Garrison Keillor people, salt of the earth. One had a deep, dark secret and last year he killed himself, leading to the sale most of us never thought would come. In our lifetime anyway.

But there it was. The auctioneer warned that the clock would start, signalling the eminent end of the sale, any second now. He pleaded for more money, exorted, threatened, scolded bidders to come up with $5,000 more, $10,000 more. Don’t insult the old store. It’s got a lot of life, it needs love. Pay more for it. But $551,000 was enough and when the clock ran out, Tina and Kirk Miller didn’t even smile. They just looked at each other, a little anxiously, I thought. And Ken Farmer took his antiques road show and left them to their thoughts for a few seconds until the reporters swarmed them.

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