Shopping with a sleuth who wrote the book

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Terry Kovel had barely entered the antiques market when she spotted her first purchase. "Oh my, what do you want for these books?" she asked the saleswoman just inside the front door.

"That'll be $1," she responded, unaware that one of the books that Mrs. Kovel had scooped off the floor was a first edition of her own book.

Kovel and her husband, Ralph, wrote "Kovels Antiques & Collectibles Price List" in 1968 and have updated it many times since. Serious collectors wouldn't think of visiting an antique shop or flea market without this handy reference guide, which lists the current value of more than 50,000 items from old cereal boxes to Louis XV armoires.

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A first edition of this collectors' classic, one of the first commercial books compiled on computer, is now worth about $80.

Kovel was off to a fine start. She had flown into town for her college reunion, and, as usual, she had allowed plenty of time for her favorite passion. She visits at least one antique or thrift shop each day, and she wasn't about to change that routine. Before mingling under tents with her classmates, she chose to poke around the five-story Cambridge Antique Market, chock-full of consigned furniture, jewelry, silver, china, vintage clothing, textiles, toys, and more. Three of us got to tag along.

"As a collector, you develop tunnel vision," she told us, still amazed by her discovery at the door. To learn this, start out looking for one particular kind of antique or collectible. After a bit of practice, add more. At the top of her current wish list are datable American textiles, doll patterns, and 20th-century American furniture. She doesn't even glance at display cases of diamonds and sapphires. "I tune out jewelry," she says.

Ralph, her husband of 50 years, is also a compulsive collector, says Kovel, whose conservative look - Dorothy Hamill haircut, navy suit, and flat, sensible shoes - is offset by a trio of whimsical silver beetle pins on her lapel. That's where the similarities end, she adds, chuckling as she recalls a couple of her husband's recent purchases - a pair of bookends in the shape of plastic skis and a large garden gnome he just had to have. Kovel's friend Sandy chimes in: "Ralph's taste is eclectic, childlike, and playful. Terry's is more 'decoratory' and traditional."

To which Kovel adds with a smile, "The secret to a happy marriage is to put up with each other's quirky tastes."

Quirky tastes - or anything else - don't seem to get in the way of the Kovels' highly successful partnership. In addition to having worked side by side on almost 80 books, they collaborate on a monthly newsletter, an online site, and a nationally syndicated newspaper column. They also write magazine articles and appear regularly on radio and television.

Over the years, they have seen trends come and go. Hot right now, says Kovel, is baseball memorabilia, art pottery, twig-style furniture, and anything from the '50s. "The yuppies who grew up then are now well off and nostalgic. They scoop up whatever reminds them of their childhood."

Almost anything is collectible, she says, adding that she has even seen a collection of dirt. And a Smithsonian exhibit on weird collections didn't surprise her a bit. "I'd seen every one of those before," she says, adding that collectors are the "ultimate individualists."

Online auction sites are a magnet for collectors of all kinds, Kovel says, adding that one has to be careful of fraud when shopping this way. She buys online only when she's looking for a specific item or a "whatsit," the name used on her HGTV series for an unidentifiable item. Otherwise, she much prefers shops to sites. "I enjoy the pleasure of the hunt," she says with a gleam in her eye.

No doubt about that. As Kovel browses through every inch of the market's five floors with a ruler in her purse and a magnifying glass hanging from a chain around her neck, she is clearly in her element. Every so often she lets out a yelp, alerting us to a kitschy lunchbox, a bad refinishing job, or a two-year-old biscuit can covered with a Sockeye Salmon label - the only reproduction in the whole place, she says. Her enthusiasm rubs off, and before we know it, we are setting down our recent finds to pose for pictures in vintage hats, gloves, and shawls.

The Kovels' two grown children are well acquainted with their parents' love of the hunt. As kids, when their friends were out playing kick the can, they were scouring yard sales. Now the Kovels' daughter lives in Miami, and her ultramodern home, according to her mother, is "full of the weirdest furniture you ever saw," such as a baseball-shaped chair and a colorful Memphis couch. Their son, an advertising executive in Los Angeles, is a minimalist. "He lives in a big gray box," she says, "and he never unpacks the stuff we send him."

When asked to describe her own home outside Cleveland, she gasps, "Oh my gosh, it's so eclectic!" Matter-of-factly, she sums up the style of each room: "The basement is a general store. The library is Egyptian Revival Victorian, the bedroom just Victorian Revival, the office, which used to be a six-car garage, is now Mission style...."

Kovel stops herself mid-sentence to wonder aloud where in their home she'll put the Chinese painting that has just caught her eye. Quickly dismissing the thought, she asks the saleswoman to add it to her growing pile at the counter.

She then turns to us and says with a you-heard-it-here-first tone, "Never walk away from something you love. Don't worry about where you'll put it or how you'll get it home."

As the morning goes on, we have a hunch that the Chinese painting, the plastic, pre-Disney Mickey Mouse, and the ceramic figurines for her daughter are just the beginning of Kovel's reunion-weekend acquisitions. Tomorrow's another day. And Boston's Charles Street, where she and her husband first got started collecting, is just a few minutes away. Those old college friends just might have to wait.

Or perhaps they'd like to tag along.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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