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Antiques & Collectibles: Time stands still at Merchant General Store

Posted: Friday, November 1, 2013 4:32 pm | Updated: 4:32 pm, Fri Nov 1, 2013.

How many of you remember going to the corner store, or the one and only store in your city that probably carried everything from fabric to spices in bins and tins to candy in jars?


Well, sit back grab a coffee while we take a journey into a general store of yesteryear. The Merchant General Store, in Black River Falls, Wis., is in an historic 1912 store building, at 216 Main Street. The store was built by Edward Locken for a shoe store, Locken Shoe Store. Present owners are Darren and Trish Durman.

"The inspiration for our store came from my love and fascination since a young boy of American history and old things in general, especially old architecture of houses and buildings," Darren said. "I loved to explore in old houses and buildings, especially vacant and abandoned ones, and collect little treasures I would find with visions, even at age 11, of stepping back in time and running my own old general store like I had seen watching the Little House on the Prairie.

"My dream came true in 2002 when my wife, Trish, and I started with the store," he said.

Walking into The Merchant General Store is exactly like a step back in time to the early 1900s. Vintage to antique items decorate the walls, hang from the ceiling and surround you every step of the way. Keep in mind that country store items such as counters, dry good bins and large pieces are rare to find. They are in high demand in their original state and as a complete store display in tip-top condition. Those that have survived are hunted down by collectors.

Darren well knows this. "We had just a couple of items, like some old advertising pieces, display cases and shelves that were in the store, as the building had went through modernization periods where things disappeared," he said. "We had to find most of our items to recreate the store. We were fortunate, though, to have found many pieces that were from the store, like our 1912 cash register and shelving units. These pieces were found through private connections, where we also found many local historical pieces that were in other nearby stores in town or the surrounding area. Other pieces we found through various ways, as through auctions and even eBay."

subhead: Always on the hunt

Antique shops, thrift stores, flea-markets, garage and estate sales or whenever the Durmans are on their vacation outings, they are always in search of hidden antique items for the store.

"I am always looking for various unique pieces that fit in the store and to continue the goal to complete the general store decor," Darren said. " love pieces where I know the history, or where it might have come from, and share that history with our guests visiting the store."

If you collect tins — tobacco, spice, coffee or biscuit — you'll almost certainly find something to enhance your collection at the Merchant General Store.

"The younger generations seem to be fascinated with the old time store and items," Darren said. "We do sell items and see a great interest in collecting old advertising pieces, whether it is signs or tins, crates, boxes, containers, bottles or any other unique cool pieces such as candy, postal, egg or basic general kitchen scales and other old store pieces."

Older and rare tins with unique graphics, once commonly found in general country stores, are usually more valuable, and some demand prices into the thousands of dollars, depending on condition.

subhead: Copied containers

But beware of reproductions! Over the last 20 years, quite a few companies have taken advantage of the nostalgia craze by packaging their products in what they call "anniversary" containers that are copies of earlier containers. Reproductions can sometimes be quite difficult to tell apart from the originals, but thinner metal, brighter paint, zip codes, copyright renewal dates, and UPC (Universal Product Code) barcodes are all giveaways.

"As for reproductions there are many out there, especially with the tins and containers," Darren said, "but they are pretty easy to detect if one analyzes them some. You can tell by the look as to age or normal wear, quality of the reproductions are not as good and even graphics are poorly done compared to the old. Also look for markings such manufacturer and such that will help determine whether it is real or not. In most cases the new is pretty obvious."

If old, vintage and antique country stores with hardwood floors and more are your love, come and relax, play some checkers, sip on a glass bottle of Coca-Cola or one of their many old time flavors, and listen to old-time tunes. Time stands still at the Merchant General Store.

Sandy Erdman is a Winona freelance writer, antique dealer, speaker on antiques and collectibles and workshop appraiser. If you have an antique shop, make a hobby of collecting, make or restore antiques or collectibles and you want to share in this column, contact Sandy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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