Published: March 23, 2021
The last time Antiques and The Arts Weekly encountered Carroll Swam of South York, Penn., he was seen walking toward the exit of the spring 2018 Greater York Antiques Show with a small instrument case tucked under his arm. Naturally, we had to ask him to show us what was inside – a Gibson late 1920s-era banjo mandolin that he was adding to his collection of acoustic stringed instruments. Swam is not just a bluegrass music fan; he and his wife, Linda Sarubin, run the Gatchellville Store in New Park, Penn., filled with antiques, vintage musical instruments and tools.
Your store is described as an antiques store the way antiques stores used to be. Can you elaborate?
Years ago antiques shops tended to be owner-operated where the customer could actually talk to the dealer, instead of a mall setting with many dealers who may or not be on hand. We do not do consignments. (We have enough trouble keeping track of our own things!) We like to think that we are carrying on the tradition of personalized service and tales swapped over the potbelly stove.
The store has a bit of a history, no?
The Gatchellville Store has quite a history. Some sort of store has been in this location since sometime before 1850. Matthew McCall bought it in 1865 just after leaving the Union Army. He operated the store until the late 1800s. Advertising from the 1870s shows a wide variety of merchandise, including clothing, china, fancy shoes, horse feed and, of course, groceries. In some ways, our simple country store was quite fancy, selling Wedgwood Queensware, French perfume and hand-printed wallpaper. Another owner was there until 1918 when the Theophel family purchased it. The Theophels operated it until 1949 when they shut down the general store to go into the poultry business. The building today looks much like it did in 1890 when McCall was here. His name is still etched in glass above the front door of the store, just as it was more than 100 years ago. I know that Linda often comments that, when she is writing up a sale, she looks up at McCall’s name on the door and wonders what he would think of how the world has changed since he owned the store…how we do business with a modern thing called a cell phone, with a modern thing called the internet. Linda is convinced that she hears footsteps of the previous shopkeepers upstairs when she is in the store late at night, but so far I have not experienced that.
When did you and Linda start your enterprise, and what was the impetus to create the business?
We bought the property, which includes the store, our house, a barn and a few other buildings, in 2002, when we were newly engaged and looking for a place to set up our married life. I was looking for a house in the country, and she was looking for a house in the city. Linda had always been a city girl, but when she saw this property she agreed that it was meant for us. Parts of the building hadn’t been used in more than 50 years. We had to pry the basement door open. Linda has been an antiques dealer her whole life-she had a business in downtown Baltimore on Baltimore’s Antique Row. And I had always bought and sold from my old barn in my previous home. At first we thought we would just use the store for storage – it is in a rather remote part of York County – but one day we ran a couple of ads and opened up. We never in a million years thought that we could have a successful retail business in such a remote location, but we have been pleasantly surprised with our loyal following. We found people enjoyed coming to our part of the world and business grew.
What was the effect of the past year’s Covid-19 lockdown on the business?
We are not open over the winter and, of course, we did not open in April as we would normally. Later in the summer we opened briefly with extreme restrictions. Just Sundays from 11 am to 2 pm. Even though we were only open a few hours each weekend, we managed to do business. We set up an outdoor seating area with umbrellas where customers could relax and be socially distant – both for much-needed socializing, and to make sure there were not too many people in the store at one time. When Covid rates went higher we closed down again. Linda is in charge of our social media presence (another thing that we think Mathew McCall would be laughing at) and we have an active following for the store on both Facebook and Instagram. Because of online selling, our business has actually flourished this past year. I miss having the store open. There’s nothing like showing a customer around and meeting his needs in person, but we hope to be open again soon…starting in April or May.
Do you participate as a dealer at shows or is all of your business run through the store?
We do a handful of shows each year in addition to the store. Of course, all of last year’s shows were canceled and we don’t know what the coming year has in store for us. We do the Antiques at Kimberton Show twice a year, The Bloomsburg Antiques Show, the Penn Dry Goods Show and we have set up at Brimfield. Linda specializes in antique buttons, textiles, sewing items and antique clothing…so she has participated in several textile and needle arts shows. And I am a vintage car nut, so we always set up at the annual Antique Automobile Show in Hershey each year. I sell antique auto ephemera, and Linda sells vintage clothing that people buy to wear to their car meets.
Tell us about your stringed acoustic instrument collection. What’s in it? Oldest or most interesting example?
I have been interested in vintage stringed instruments for a long time. I have guitars, mandolins, fiddles, banjos, ukuleles and some unusual instruments – almost anything with strings. I even have some bass fiddles. A couple of violins date back around 200 years. Many of the older instruments are from the late Nineteenth Century or early Twentieth Century. One of my favorites is a 1918 Gibson F4 mandolin. It is a beauty and produces a very special vintage tone. It came to me with a detailed history of its original owner. That is unusual for an older instrument. Usually, they have been passed through many hands over the years. Another interesting instrument is a Kay upright bass that has been personalized with big letters…”Charlie.” It was one of those purchases that was really laughable. We stopped at a music store on our way home from Brimfield with a very packed van. (Funny how you always seems to come home with more than you started with – even if you actually sell a lot.) I just swung into this music store…Linda sat in the car for three minutes, and I came out with this huge bass. On a hot summer day, after driving for six hours, we had to unpack the whole van and then repack it. This bass turned out to have quite a history and I amazingly found an old photo of it, in action, along with its original owner, Charlie.
How many instruments do you play?
I can make a little music on pretty much all of them, but my main instrument is guitar.
How did you come to appreciate bluegrass music?
Several events influenced me musically. When I was very young, my dad played the guitar. His guitar broke and he stopped playing, but I always remembered it. One evening he took me to the barber shop in New Freedom. I was probably about 4 or 5. I got my haircut and then we sat down in chairs in the barbershop. To my surprise, several men pulled out instruments and started playing. I was so impressed. The music was old-time country not too different from bluegrass. Later I started listening to all kinds of music on a little Philco radio we had. I would dial in sounds from all over and I was drawn to early country and bluegrass music as well as blues and some primitive rock and roll.
Do you have a band? If so, what is it called and where do you play when live music makes a comeback?
I have performed in a number of bands through the years. I play in a band called Bluestone; we have been working for more than 25 years. We play all sorts of jobs: concerts, outdoor festivals, weddings, fairs, private parties, carnivals and wherever we are wanted. We even played at Governor Wolf’s inaugural ball! We have tried to have music days at the store several times each year, with the front lawn filled with musicians and tables filled with pies. Hopefully, we will return to that tradition when Covid settles down.
A collector friend recently told me that the vintage guitar market seems to have picked up again, with prices zooming upwards. If you own nothing but old Martins, are you in good shape?
I think collecting vintage instruments is like many other fields of collecting, such as art, coins, furniture or folk art. Collect what you love – what you have a passion for, and do not have too many expectations of monetary gain. As for vintage guitars, it is always fun to search, and good guitars are a joy to play and to hear. There does seem to be widespread interest in the market and old Martins are bringing good money. Who knows how the market will trend? Will music of the future still feature guitars? I hope so. As present day collectors grow older what will happen? I’m very encouraged by the many younger musicians who are coming into our store these days. Some are looking for beginning instruments at a lower price point. That’s understandable. But there are many young musicians now, who are upgrading to better instruments that will stand the test of time and will be their trademark instruments. My best guitar, a 1946 Martin, I purchased more than 50 years ago. I think there will continue to be a strong market for high-quality instruments for the foreseeable future, so I will continue to buy and sell instruments that appeal to me.
Does your wife Linda have a collecting specialty as well?
Oh my! Linda has a number of interests. She has been buying and selling antique buttons for years. She was lucky to be able to inherit the bulk of “new old stock” inventory from a button store in downtown Baltimore that had been in business since the late 1800s. I would say that we have one of the largest selections of antique and vintage buttons that you can find anywhere. She sells them to customers all over the world. She also likes Bakelite jewelry, books, ephemera, vintage clothing, and she often says she looks for anything that might be found in an elderly lady’s top dresser drawer 100 years ago.
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