Digging for Treasure

By Daniel Steele

A large red and white building houses some of the oldest and quirkiest antiques from bygone eras within its vast meandering isles. 19th century literature, busts of famous figures and early 1900s phonographs and dolls are only the tip of the iceberg.

Treasures N Junk, located on South San Antonio Avenue, Ontario, is the area’s largest and most diverse antique store. The shop holds its extensive collections in a warehouse filled with items from as early as the 1800s and as new as the 2000s. The antiques range from vintage toys to pocket knives, cabinets to grandfather clocks, records to record players and classic pictures to oil paintings. Visitors are hard-pressed not to walk away with something that catches the eye.

“Other stores go with one theme, we have everything,” said store manager Lamira Edwards. “We buy stuff from the early 1800s to the 1970s.”

As the manager, Edwards does everything from working the front desk to pricing to giving information on items throughout the store. She said she enjoys working the shop and likes to visit other antique and thrift stores herself.

Because the store buys nearly any type of item that comes through its doors, the staff never knows what things people will bring in. Sometimes they receive things as innocuous as a 1950s Coca-Cola advertisement. But every once in a while, they might receive items much more bizarre.

“One day someone brought me a part of a penis statue from a real person,” said Edwards, grimacing.

She elaborated that it was a statue of one made from some sort of mold, but the item alarmed her all the same. She said the customer was very shy and reticent about where it came from or how he acquired it, and she didn’t want to press the question anyway. Edwards had to turn him away. Needless to say, it wasn’t her area of expertise.

As far as popular items go, signs and furniture are some of their best sellers according to Edwards. Throughout the shop, many of the walls display vintage signage, particularly near the entrance. One room is entirely decorated with 50s-60s era toy cars and soda bottles with signs from Coca-Cola, 7-Up, Chevron and various other companies. One hall connecting the main building to another has metal signs and license plates hanging wall to wall.

Customer Manny Vargas looks over the shelves of 50s era toy cars. Photo by Daniel Steele.

Many of the shop’s alcoves have various antique dressers and cabinets from the 20th century all decorated with random items. Some display old editions of books like Robinson Crusoe, curious electronic gadgets, 1950s wood carvings of characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, glass elephant and tiger statues and dusty antique cameras.

One customer, Costco employee Terri Vonds, 53, frequents the shop for furniture and dolls from the early 1900s. Her favorite purchase is a 1930s dresser which she displays some of her dolls on.

“I like the look of old things,” she said. “What I like about old stuff is it’s built well, it’s sturdy.”

Family day care owner Libier Perez, 47, shares Vonds sentiment.

“The old stuff is more durable than the new stuff. Furniture at IKEA is too flimsy and unreliable but the old stuff here lasts a long time.”

Perez often wanders the shop with her young son to find anything interesting or useful. Her favorite things are purses and outdoor tools.

“The best thing I got was an old orange cultivator from the 1930s that I use to cultivate fruit,” she said. “I never go empty-handed.”

The main building is packed with a broad range of antiques, and the building connected next door is just as large. Nearly every item imaginable is hidden within the labyrinthine displays that offer some newer items that the main building does not.

Many things are familiar: a duplicate of the Mona Lisa, a statue of The Thinker, a bust of Plato, stacks of albums from artists such as Cyndi Lauper, Kiss, Ray Charles, Elton John, Rat and the Beatles and Star Wars toys on glass shelves.

But toward the back of the shop, within the lowly lit nooks are other things more foreign. A Middle Eastern style decanter; hourglasses with red, green and orange sand; an 1800s Eastern European book called Zagorcka and oil paintings up to 5 feet tall depicting a Roman guard, an American Indian woman and sinister clowns on a bed of clouds are around every corner. The smell of old rusted metal, leather and wood permeate the air within these sections of the warm, almost muggy building. It’s as if centuries of time gave off its smell all at once.

Mannequins display 19th and 20th century clothing among walls of mirrors and ornaments. Photo by Daniel Steele.

The miasma may be unpleasant to most, but to some it’s a nostalgic reminder of the past. Hair stylist Michelle Dorantes, 50, and her husband, Bob Dorantes, 51, have been collecting antiques for over 30 years.

“We’re drawn to it, drawn to collections,” said Michelle. “You could say it’s kind of a sickness.”

Bob considered her thought before saying, “Yea, you could call it that.”

“As a little girl I’d go to my grandmas and things [here] remind me of that,” Michelle said. “It’s comforting.”

The Dorantes are from Orange County and go antiquing all throughout southern California. They consider Treasures N Junk to be one of the best in the entire area.

“It’s one of the coolest antique stores and has fair prices,” said Bob. “I mean some of the things in here are fascinating and incredibly rare, like look at this.”

Bob turned on a small black flashlight and peered through a glass display, shining the light on an old elaborately carved wooden toy.

“Look at this early 1900s toy. I tell my kids you never see things like this anywhere.”

The antique toy on the left was pointed out by customer Bob Dorantes. Photo by Daniel Steele.

Toys like the one Bob talked about all have their own unique story of how they arrived their, switching hands between owners over the decades.

This aspect is partly what drew floor walker Betsy, 66, to antiquing.

“The stories behind the objects are the most interesting part,” she said. “The passion people have for the objects.”

Betsy got her start working the antique store as a volunteer about 15 years ago where she eventually got paid to work five years in. As the self-described floor walker, she answers questions as she wanders the isles using her general knowledge of the antiques and her more special knowledge of jewelry and fabric.

40 years ago, the store was once a washing machine facility for clothes before it was bought for antiquing. The most recent owners, Chad and his sister Nancy, bought the store from the original owners two years ago.

What once started as a humble collection of antiques now has grown to one of the most colorful homes for treasures and junk.