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Shopping with a sleuth who wrote the book

By Jennifer Wolcott Feature writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 2000


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.

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"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.

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."