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Penn Dutchman Antiques Closing After 40 Years, Everything Must Go

By Patty Wetli | November 7, 2014 8:08am
 Penn Dutchman Antiques is closing Dec. 1 and holding a liquidation sale Friday-Sunday.
Penn Dutchman Closing
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LINCOLN SQUARE — If you thought your last move was rough, imagine the task facing Jim Mowery.

After operating Penn Dutchman Antiques at 4912 N. Western Ave. for the past 40 years, Mowery is closing up shop for good on Dec. 1, and between now and then he has something like a million items to pack: buttons, photographs, vinyl records, antique doorknobs, picture frames and more ephemera than a person could catalog in a lifetime.

"What you're seeing here, I've already taken out 200 cases of stuff," said Mowery, 81.

At that, he's barely made a dent in his inventory, which fills 13 rooms and two stories.

"I never threw anything away," said Mowery, a lifelong Chicagoan who graduated from Senn High School.

 This miniature cast-iron stove is a "salesman's special," the pre-Internet version of a product thumbnail.
This miniature cast-iron stove is a "salesman's special," the pre-Internet version of a product thumbnail.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

He's hoping to unload veritable truckloads of merchandise during a liquidation sale from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

Everything must go, but Mowery is particularly keen to sell off tables, chairs, cabinets, vintage light fixtures — anything that can't comfortably fit into a box.

Whatever's left will go into storage, perhaps eventually popping up on Mowery's e-Bay site.

"I have enough stuff for the next 50 years," he said, though whether he'll be able to locate a given item once it's been stowed away remains to be seen.

"I knew where everything was" in the store, he said. "Will I ever be able to find it?"

From shrunken heads to wild boar

Mowery's appreciation for things with a past life dates to his childhood during the Great Depression.

"I was one of nine children," he said. "A lot of the things we got came from church rummage sales."

When Mowery first opened Penn Dutchman (he's Pennsylvania Dutch), his intention was to deal in high-end antique furnishings but when he quickly sold out of his initial lot, he began frequenting estate sales.

"I used to go and buy up the whole house," he recalled.

Eventually he gained a reputation, and sellers began approaching him directly.

"They just ride up to the door with it," Mowery said. "They know I'll buy just about anything."

Among the more unusual items he acquired: a shrunken head (sorry, long gone) and a seven-foot stuffed wild boar.

"There must have been hundreds of people who had their picture taken with that," he said.

What's the strangest thing people might currently stumble across in the shop?

"Me," Mowery said.

Somebody will buy anything

Frequently asked, "Why would you keep that?" Mowery has a simple answer.

"Somebody will buy anything."

Set designers and prop masters, both students and professionals, have been some of his steadiest customers over the years, he said.

"I like to work with young artists," Mowery said. "I have an appreciation for their imagination of what you can make out of things."

In the two years she's been a scout for theater props, Eleanor Kahn estimated she's paid 20 visits to Penn Dutchman looking for items that will add authenticity to a set, particularly period pieces.

"It's great for all the little things — skeleton keys, old prints, chairs, hardware," she said.

On her most recent scavenger hunt, she nabbed a glass jug for one upcoming production — "They need something that makes a sound when you blow on it" — and a G.I. Joe lunchbox for another.

"There is no other place like this," Mowery boasted. "Not with this much variety."

His collection of antique hardware — knobs, hinges, sconces and the like — has made Penn Dutchman a favorite haunt of home remodelers.

"We have that part that you're missing," Mowery said.

Need a replacement caster wheel to match the others on your vintage rolling chair?

Penn Dutchman has 'em, as first-time customer John Gockman discovered on a recent afternoon.

"You can't get this stuff anywhere," said Gockman, himself the son of an antiques collector.

"All the cool stuff in the world is right here," he said. "The old stuff, there's a lot more integrity. Everything today is Mickey Mouse."

And then there are the browsers, like Dita Parkas.

"I'm looking for paintings, for jewelry, things that just catch my eye," Parkas said. "What I like — it's just the abundance."

'I know I'm going to miss it'

Mowery actually sold Penn Dutchman or, more accurately, the building that houses the business, 10 years ago.

A complicated web of financial transactions followed when the original buyer went belly-up, enabling Mowery to stave off his day of reckoning for the better part of a decade.

"Everyone is convinced I won't know what to do with myself," he said. "I know I'm going to miss it."

Though he'll still run his online business, it won't be the same as having daily personal interactions with customers.

Like the guy who walked into the shop searching for fishing rods and wound up a captive audience to Mowery, as the proprietor regaled his visitor with a tale of the first bass he ever hooked as a 9-year-old.

Parkas eavesdropped as she sifted through trays of jewelry.

"You've got so many memories," she told Mowery. "You're a treasure yourself."

"The best part is hearing all his stories," agreed Jazmine Lee, one of Mowery's 27 great-grandchildren (he has 5 children, 11 grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren).

Lee, like her cousins, parents and grandparents before her, grew up in the shop.

"It's cool, it's great, it's scary," she said of Penn Dutchman. "I was always afraid I was going to break something."

A 2013 graduate of Lane Tech, Lee now splits her time between working for Mowery's online business and attending Kendall College, where she's majoring in small business management, a choice guided in part, she said, by the entrepreneurial spirit she inherited from Mowery.

Said Lee of her great-grandfather: "He's eccentric, he's caring — about his business and his employees — he's a bit of a storyteller, but overall an inspiration as a family man."

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