In the Trade
Wherever they’ve lived for the last 50 years, Marna and Steve Tulin have had an antiques shop at home: first in their Upper West Side Manhattan brownstone (which they bought for $27,000 in 1966), then in their basement in suburban Larchmont in Westchester County, New York, and for the last 25 years in their barn-sided Vermont garage.
Steve and Marna Tulin in their shop.
A corner of the shop with its functioning 1912 stove.
The couple operates Champlin Hill Antiques in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont, at the top of the eponymous hill, which by Green Mountain standards is not all that high, but which is about as vertical as it could be without causing your car to slide backward as you drive up it. And that’s on a dry day. Steve noted that navigating the road in winter can be “an adventure.”
Steve and Marna have never relied on their shops to support them. “We’re both professionals,” Steve said. He’s a lawyer, and she’s a psychotherapist. Both have deep roots in New York City’s Jewish social welfare and philanthropic community. But they belong to a generation for which “antiquing” and “refinishing” were part of a comfortable, fulfilling life.
What makes the Champlin Hill inventory particularly interesting is that it’s stocked with so many of the same things you would have found in local antiques shops back in the 1960s and early ’70s. It’s like a time capsule. If you wanted to create a movie set depicting an antiques shop’s interior from that period, you could walk into the Tulins’ shop and scoop it all up. In how many other shops these days, for example, are you going to find—all in one place—stoneware jugs made into lamps, random pieces of pewter, stripped rocking chairs, and refinished cottage chests (along with a true rarity in today’s market: a cottage chest that retains its original Victorian decoration and carved walnut pulls)?
And there’s actually documentary proof of how constant the couple’s taste has been. In its popular “Best Bets” feature of May 31, 1971, New York Magazine featured Marna sitting in her brownstone shop at 141 West 94th Street—it was called Townhouse Antiques—surrounded by the same type of things she still carries. “We turned the downstairs front room into an antiques shop,” Marna said. The magazine pointed out that, at Tulin’s shop, “compared with what’s doing on the Bleecker Street strip [the downtown antiques hotbed of the time], prices are not overwhelming.” The Boston rocker in the picture was $125. And her prices still aren’t overwhelming. The stripped arrow-back rocker in the shop today is $185, and a neat Adirondack twig bench is $95.
Three pieces of Quimper. The plate at left rear is $40. Marna, who has handled a lot of Quimper over the years, said, “I think it’s a unique pattern. I’ve never seen it before.” The small plate, either an ashtray or a spoon rest, is $20. The figural plate, which has a small chip, is priced at $85.
Three pieces of pewter. The half-liter measure with impressed inspection punches is $55; the plate with “E. Maderin 1831 F M” on the rim is $90; and the flagon is $85.
Steve said this is a cobbler’s stretcher. It’s $45.
Refinished cupboard, $300. The crockery within it is priced between $10 and $75.
There continues to be a market for such material, Steve said. When we visited in November 2018, the couple had just returned from doing a show in nearby Burlington. Steve noted that they hadn’t sold any furniture there, but that was unusual: “We usually sell a couple of pieces at least.”
The Tulins exhibit at three shows a year—two in Burlington and one in St. Albans. They keep their shop open on weekends and by appointment, and they have space at the Champlain Valley Antique Center in Shelburne. “We can get about a dozen pieces in the space,” Steve said. “It’s about twelve by fifteen feet.”
As you may have surmised by now, Steve and Marna are not likely to be the youngest folks at most gatherings. Suffice it to say that Steve was working the rewrite desk at United Press International when news of the Normandy invasion came over the wires. Steve recalled being awakened that night: “The copyboy called me at two a.m. and said, ‘You’d better get your ass down here. Something big is going on.’”
Like other young couples of the period, Steve said, “Along the way we acquired a taste for antiques.” Rides out into the countryside looking for antiques were a popular pastime in those days when there were still lots of antiques shops around. The couple particularly liked visiting Warren Kimble’s shop out near the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey, “and another guy in Windham, New York. They had good prices,” Steve said, adding that Kimble, known for his faux-naïve “folk” art, “is now one of the most famous artists in Vermont.”
Marna and Steve both grew up in homes with antiques. “My mother and grandparents were over in Europe just before World War One and bought a large amount of Spanish, Italian, and French furniture,” Steve said.
Steve’s father, Shad Polier—with whom Steve worked for 15 years—was a leading New York attorney in the field of child welfare. His mother, renowned juvenile justice advocate Justine Wise Polier, was the first female judge in New York state above the magistrate level, serving in what became Family Court (and she was Eleanor Roosevelt’s counsel in the Office of Civil Defense during World War II).
Refinished arrow-back rocker, $185.
Large bellows made into a coffee table. It looks sort of like a Modernist piece that someone like Nakashima might have designed, but at $265 it’s a lot cheaper.
Slate checkerboard with set of slate checkers, $75.
Interesting twig bench from the Adirondacks, $95.
Marna’s uncle—she was raised by her aunt and uncle—was a columnist for the renowned Jewish Daily Forward. “He used to take me around the Lower East Side to pick out good fruits and veggies,” she recalled.
Steve’s grandmother founded Louise Wise Services, an adoption and child-care agency, in 1916. The family interest in child welfare has continued throughout the couple’s marriage. Marna, who has served as board chairman at Louise Wise Services, said, “When Steve was doing a lot of work for child welfare, I would read his cases and set up what we needed for foster care. I would find a program that needed funding, and Steve had all these wonderful connections to fundraising.” For 50 years Steve has been general counsel to the Marion E. Kenworthy-Sarah H. Swift Foundation, which makes grants to child welfare organizations.
Today Steve and Marna sponsor the annual Fall Community Education series at the Burlington-based Howard Center. The series mounts talks, panel discussions, and films centering on family problems. Recent programs have featured Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold; a documentary on forced psychiatric treatment; and a panel discussion on vaping and e-cigarettes.
Marna decided to open her Manhattan shop with a friend in 1967. She had planned to cut back her full-time work in order to spend more time with her young children. Steve said, “I told her she’d have cabin fever within a month. She did.” Opening the in-home shop solved the problem: she was home for the kids, but she also had a business.
Marna closed the shop in 1972 when the Tulins decided to move to Westchester. Gentrification would eventually overwhelm the Upper West Side, but when the couple lived there it was still a neighborhood where school kids could be robbed of their lunch money.
They had a basement shop in their Larchmont home for the entire two decades they lived there. Steve said, “The code forbade it; the mortgage forbade it, but we paid no attention. We’d run an ad in the paper to sell stuff.”
By the early 1990s, with their kids grown and the time of life approaching when they might scale back their careers, the couple decided it was time to ditch the suburbs and spend more time pursuing antiques. “Steve always liked to work with his hands, to fix things up and refinish,” Marna said. Steve agreed: “We don’t care if there’s fourteen coats of modern paint on something. I like to see what’s underneath.”
The question was: where to move?
The Tulins already had a camp on an island in Lake Placid, New York, that was built by Steve’s great-grandparents. “We still have the furniture that my great-grandmother ordered from the Stickley catalog in 1908,” Steve said. He added that he and Marna “had serious debates about where to live in the country. I wanted to go back to the Adirondacks.” He had spent all of his summers there as a kid and worked as a lumberjack when he was young. “I felt more at home in Lake Placid than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.”
But Marna didn’t like the idea of living in the Adirondacks full time. “I said I’d curl up and die there,” she said. The cold, to say nothing of the isolation of a frozen lake (or, alternatively, the need to buy a winter house on the Lake Placid mainland), did not appeal to her.
Of course, one might ask, isn’t North Ferrisburgh, Vermont, also cold? Not nearly as cold as Lake Placid, Steve said. “We’re at two hundred feet above sea level here; Lake Placid is two thousand feet.”
Eventually, the couple compromised. “I said I’d move anywhere as long as we were within an hour and a half of Lake Placid,” Steve said. They drew a circle on a map, and the hilltop home they bought was within it. North Ferrisburgh also had the attraction of being close to the thriving progressive hot spot of Burlington, as opposed to the Adirondacks, which are not known for liberal politics.
The Tulins still spend summers at the Lake Placid camp. But they open the North Ferrisburgh shop on weekends. Steve said, “You’ve got to come back anyway to take care of the gardening, and the lawn and raking the leaves.”
The couple pointed out that the Lake Placid camp played a crucial role in their romance. Steve recounted their first meeting: “Marna was represented by my father in a legal matter. She was on vacation. She was in Martha’s Vineyard, and she called my father and said she wasn’t happy about her case. My father said, ‘Come to Lake Placid, and we’ll get it fixed up.’”
Blue-decorated crock used as a lamp, $185.
Seaman’s chest with beckets that have been on for a long time, $255. The crock with blue decoration sitting on it is $70.
Cottage chest with well-preserved decoration and carved walnut pulls, $225.
Steve was not pleased with this turn of events. In fact, he said, “I was pissed.” As far as he was concerned, the annual Lake Placid idyll was not supposed to be disturbed by business concerns. Also, his girlfriend was visiting and he was not eager for additional female company.
He continued: “I’m sitting on the dock with my arm around my girlfriend when the boat comes in, and this apparition in Bermuda shorts and a ponytail steps off the boat. I dropped my arm, and the next day the girlfriend was on a bus back to New York.”
The Tulins moved to their current home in 1993. Marna continued to consult with some of her former patients by phone, and Steve set up his law office above the garage. “It’s the only garage that’s never seen a car,” Marna said.
Whenever their shop is open, the Tulins put a sign out on Route 7 directing people to it. It’s less than a mile away. “We joke that we should be called ‘Off the Beaten Track Antiques,’” Marna said. They’ve been putting that sandwich-board sign out by Route 7 since shortly after they moved to town.
The sign, Steve said, is “our main advertising. It brings in six or seven cars a day on a nice fall Saturday or Sunday.” It also may not be quite legal, but, he added, “We avoid the sign police because we only put it out on Saturday morning and take it down on Sunday evening. I guess they [the sign police, that is] don’t work on weekends.”
Once they were settled in North Ferrisburgh, the Tulins began doing a few shows in addition to those they continue to do. Steve said, “We did Brimfield twice a year from 1994 or ’95 until 2009 or ’10. We did very well there until the last two years. After 2009 the bottom fell out.”
They also exhibited at the annual Springfield, Vermont, show during Vermont Antiques Week for a decade, until, Steve said, “It became too much of a drag. We were getting tired of spending a week [including planning, loading, setting up, exhibiting, breaking down, and unloading at home] and making less than a thousand dollars.”
But the “antiquing” part of the business remained fun. The Tulins have a daughter who lives in North Carolina and, since, as Marna said, “the main part of antiquing was to find stuff,” visiting her presented a great opportunity. Steve said, “We’d start with an empty van and come back with a full one.”
Today, of course, the business has changed, as have the circumstances of their lives, but the Tulins continue to enjoy what they have. They’re in no rush. “We can take time. We get by,” Steve said.
For more information, contact Marna and Steve Tulin, Champlin Hill Antiques, Champlin Hill Road, North Ferrisburgh, VT 05473. The shop is generally open weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by chance or appointment. A call ahead is advised. Phone (802) 425-3383 or cell (802) 999-9062; website (www.champlinhillantiques.com).
Two-piece cupboard with glass doors and a real homemade feel, circa 1890, $475.
Quilt corner. The one on the left, with aqua and pink decoration, measures 82" x 87" and comes with two matching pillow shams. The set is priced at $325. The graphic quilt upper right is $225; and the coverlet lower right, with some wear, is $195.
Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest