Eclectic, rare, creepy, vintage, mystic...and sweetheart? All of these have been used on The Printer's Cabinet & Curiosities Facebook Page by customers to either describe the shoppe’s owner, or his gaggle of rather off the wall finds. A tiny storefront in the small industrial town of Oil City (an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh’s city centre) is where you will find a curiously curated collection hand picked and delivered by self-proclaimed weirdo, Nicholas Hess.
We couldn't be more excited to explore the treasures The Printer's Cabinet & Curiosities is bringing to Sunday's Flea. Chosen especially for us, these items range from mercury glass pumpkins and industrial hardware, to an ethically killed and cleaned Pennsylvania black bear skull.
Click on photo above for more images.
Nicholas's interest is not limited to merely locating fantastical items, he scouts out stories whenever possible, meeting with and investigating locations and the people behind the items too. His travels take him from a country farmhouse to the forgotten storage spots only an expert would think to explore at estate sales.
We couldn't wait to learn more about Nicholas and how he got started in the Curiosity business.
Your business name is quite unique. Where does the Printer's Cabinet come from?
It’s funny actually...the original name I toyed with was “The Indian in the Cupboard,” being that my shoppe is directly across the street from the city’s public library. I thought it would be clever, naming it after a book. Not to mention, my store itself is only about 225 square feet, so a far cry from any warehouse space full of antiques. However, that idea was scrapped in favor of The Printer’s Cabinet after I spotted a real-life printer’s cabinet in my mother’s rural Pennsylvania garage. It had been sitting there patiently waiting to be refinished for 5 years or so, yet it looked so stately in all its grimy glory. An English Writing graduate myself, I almost became ‘the printer’ in the name’s title, offering up curios to those curious enough to come inside. And let’s be honest, what’s smaller than a cabinet? An hour later, a store name had been born.
We are all about the neighborhood over here. Oil City is a small PA town, and as a storefront owner you must be involved in local life. How has your shop added to the main street?
People seem to have made my store a new local hangout. It’s great, because within a stone’s throw of my place is a coffee shop, appliance store, book nook, Y.M.C.A. and movie rental joint. So all these people on their way to other places will stop quickly and say ‘hello,’ or pop in for a quick look on their way to work out or to read a book. It’s like small town personified. Thomas Kinkade couldn’t have done a better job of painting this quintessential American city. And I love my customers, because they range from the housewife and plumber, to Goth girl and hipster. No one is refused or looked at strange, because it’s the objects that are the attention-getters. And I have always said from the very start, that every town has an antique store, but not every town has a curiosity shoppe.
What are your favorite types of spots to discover treasures?
As any purveyor of fine goods will tell you, their locations for discovering such amazing treats are a tried and true secret they’ll guard to the death. But oftentimes, I must admit, the most bizarre objects seem to simply find me. While scouring a flea market, I may stumble upon the most elegant clock that once graced the grand parlor of a funeral home or while at an estate sale, a Victorian piece of mourning jewelry will be discovered nestled within a music box on a dresser, tightly wrapped in discolored tissue paper; something that has been protecting it for all these years. For instance, just last week I went to pick in a scrapper’s garage (you know, the burly guys who buy metal and make a quick buck by selling it for money based on weight) and there was this box of Victorian lace, perfectly preserved, just sitting on the top of the pile...like a little antique angel set it there for me to find just before I came. It’s days like these that keep me going, always trying to find the next little treasure.
Is it difficult to part with a favorite discovery? Have you ever heard back from customers about how they used an item you sold to them?
Oh, you found my weak spot! Yes, it’s very difficult to let some of these precious things go. And usually the more rare an item is, the bigger my love affair becomes. I mean, you’re out there in dirty attics, sifting through piles of junk to find the one piece of crusty gold you can take home, so of course it’s love at first sight. Multiple loves at first sight I should say. I guess I could be on that show “Sister Wives,” except it could be called “All my Antiques that I am in Love With at the Same Time.”
Haha But seriously, what I have slowly realized is all these towns have their own amazing finds, so there (hopefully) won’t be a shortage of ever finding neat, old things. Thus, I have limited myself to only the things that truly mean something, perhaps a gift from a fellow collector, or an item that really makes me light up. Selling it to the customer then becomes the easy part, because then I see the excitement in their eyes at the possibility of a new lease on life for something I saved. And they always come back with pictures to show me how it has been repurposed or restored to its former glory. That’s the real money in this job.
What is the creepiest or oddest discovery you've found so far?
That’s tough, but I do love the 1920’s School of Embalming graduate certificates/school photos I found awhile back. They have been in my personal collection for several months, but you may just see them at the flea this weekend if I can bear to see them go. Also, finding, buying and then selling two antique gravestones was also incredibly weird and oddly refreshing.
How did you get started in the business?
I’ve always liked old things, ever since my mother and grandmother took me around to estate sales when I was younger. And our house has always been full of antiques, specifically from the Massachusetts area, so there was an appreciation for quality vintage items from a young age. However, I didn’t get the idea to open my own store until I traveled for several years outside of this country. There were all these tiny, independent little shops, squashed between big buildings doing important things.
I loved them and I found myself frequenting these places more than the “big box” cookie-cutter type stores. T-shirts, coffee, books, antiques, they just had a certain romance to them. So when I returned home (broke and ready for a new adventure) I decided to think about doing a pop-up shop. Originally, this idea was planned for Pittsburgh, a place I had lived and worked in for six years. But the funds weren’t there and it seemed too risky to start out with, so I decided on my hometown of Oil City. It’s a decision I have yet to regret. Yes, it’s a lot of work and there is many a sleepless night, but I think anything good is worth doing to your fullest potential.
Sure, I may transplant someday to a bigger city or perhaps even travel again, but for now I know I am happy to be in a little cabinet, surrounded by bizarre finds that all make me smile in some way or another. And selling them is just the icing on the cake.