Antiques create a time machine at the Smith Company in Cornish
Steve Smith recently sat in the center of his sprawling Cornish antiques store, next to his large wood stove that he fired up to take the chill off another Maine winter day. As if on a throne, he rested comfortably in an antique barber chair.
In the heart of Cornish, the Smith Company on Route 25 contains scores of Maine antiques of every shape, size, and color, dating back to the early- and mid-1800s. Steve’s love of all things old led him to open this business 24 years ago. It is housed in a building that was once a Ford dealership where Model T and Model A cars were sold. For those who seek unique pieces of Maine history and culture, the Smith Company has a lot to offer.
“Here we prefer to pull back the curtain” on all aspects of the past, said Steve, 72, considering his large antique collection and inventory. Every item—such as wooden skis, old Coca Cola-branded products, farm tools, vintage milk bottles, and business signs—harkens back to a bygone era in Maine’s history.
Long before anyone ever heard of Amazon or Facebook Marketplace, smart phones, or the Internet, Mainers purchased items from their local general stores, family-owned department stores or the Sears Catalogue and hung onto their purchases, often for life.
When Steve was growing up in nearby Kezer Falls, his father worked for a local heating oil company. Steve remembers going with this dad on service calls. He discovered at an early age how much he loved finding out antique toys, old wood stoves, tools, clocks, and signs inside many of those older homes. His love for antiques and the bridge to the past they represent never left him, not even when he was drafted into the Army in 1969 and sent to Vietnam. Shortly before leaving, he married his high school sweetheart.
He served with the Ninth Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta with an artillery company. “When I came home from Vietnam in 1970, I didn’t have a job.”
He took over an old service station and ran it for 22 years. Steve still leases it for storage for his antiques that he is constantly buying and selling. He later purchased a piece of land up the street and constructed a convenience store and car wash where a Big Apple store sits now. He also went into the heating oil business. “I had five trucks on the road at one time in Maine and New Hampshire,” Steve recalled. He said he later sold the business 20 years ago.
Steve and his wife Mona of 53 years and counting raised their son Jeremy and their daughter April. Time goes so fast now it’s scary,” Steve said. As Steve neared retirement age, he decided he wanted to open a different type of business that would allow him to fulfill his love of antiques and slow down time a little bit. He purchased The Smith Company building in 1996 and finally had a place where he could sell the many antiques he had collected over the years.
“With this business, if I’m an hour late in the morning no one cares. If I close an hour early, no one cares. It’s laid back,” Steve reflects.
Steve jokes that he probably needs help to deal with his obsession to collect antiques. “It’s probably a sickness. I’ve been to the doctor, and there is no pill for it.”
Over the years, Steve has made a decent living selling pieces of his antique collection to tourists and Mainers alike. “It makes money, but not a lot of money.” Part of being laid back is looking at a business “not to get rich, but to make a living and be comfortable.”
He never gets tired of seeing how customers react when they spy an item that takes them back to their childhood or when they encounter the sheer volume of his wares. “People will often say, ‘I’ve never seen so much stuff! Where do we start?’” What he often reminds them is that “the stuff” they see here is not available for sale in regular present-day, mass-market stores.
Barbara Starr, a Boston area resident who has a summer home in nearby Freedom, New Hampshire, discovered that fact firsthand when she found a Barbie thermos just like the one she had in her school lunchbox. She makes it a point to browse in Steve’s store whenever she finds herself in Cornish. “There is always something new when you come in here,” Barbara observed.
Typically, Steve will see as many as 300 to 400 people come to his store each day during the height of the summer tourism season. They are so impressed with the sheer depth of his inventory.
“I’ve had thousands of people tell me I should charge admission” because they feel it is like a museum of Maine life. The collection in Steve’s store shows a time when the rhythm of the world beat at a slower pace, and people celebrated the simple things in life.
It is quite understandable that some people might feel that Steve’s store is like a museum. Every item once belonged to a Maine homeowner or business and was part of the ebb and flow of everyday life back in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and so on. On one wall is a 1910 Western Electric phone, an original landline, selling for $385. Customers can turn the crank on the right side of the phone and put the receiver up to their left ear and speak into the phone, to an operator who has long since placed her final call.
Nearby is old Texaco fire engine toy that surely brought a smile to some little boy’s face one Christmas morning in 1948. There are plenty of radios that once broadcast everything from FDR’s famous fireside chats during the Great Depression to whimsical Fibber McGee and Molly.
Rows of old oil cans, boxes of laundry detergent, food items, clocks, pots and pans, baseball bats, walking sticks, posters, and memorabilia—all these objects and more enable customers to feel like they stepped through a time portal to another time, when the world was a less complicated place.
One of Steve’s favorite items is a large, rotating, octagonal wooden cabinet with 89 drawers. It was once used in a hardware store in North Windham, where the drawers contained hundreds of parts, nuts, bolts, screws, and fixtures. Its price was $5,950, and Steve admits that he would have a hard time letting it go.
“I’ve always had a problem getting attached to things,” Steve said. It used to be, “If I liked it at all, I wouldn’t sell it. I had to change that.”
He gets a lot of satisfaction knowing that his customers value the antiques in his store as much as he does. “It makes me feel good that the person buying it really enjoyed it, and I know it will be around for a while,” Steve said.
If Steve has his way, he will also be around for a long time. “You’re either into it or you’re not into it. I plan on doing this for a long time, yes.”
One of his customers interjected, “Until you’re 100, right, Steve?”