There’s an African proverb that says, “When an old man dies, a library burns.” And as much as books contain stories or chronicles of times long past, objects crafted by human hands do too, carrying tales that grow more interesting as the items are handed off from one person to another.
For 86-year-old Bill Lesterhouse, whose humble antique shop in Mattawan has been operating for more than 50 years and contains a treasure trove of items from all over the world, preserving these stories has been his overriding motivation to keep his shop doors open. In preserving creations manifested by minds long gone, he helps customers, in a very real, tactile way, feel the past. His own mind, though, is still very much here, a rich catalog of the stories wedded to the chairs and paintings and so many other items in his care.
“Things like this will never be made again,” he says.
Sometimes his shop, William Lesterhouse Antiques, is open, sometimes not. Its hours are arbitrary. And that’s OK by Lesterhouse, because these days he’s not seeking to make a buck the way he once did. This is not a thrift shop. Crossing the threshold feels like entering a sanctuary.
Lesterhouse, a Kalamazoo native, got his first brush with the antique world when he was a young boy. His uncle Charles Marston was an antique show promoter in the 1950s for Hobbies magazine at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. Marston imparted Lesterhouse with his knowledge about several fine antiques, ushering his nephew into a world he would live in for the rest of his life, becoming one of this region’s quintessential antique dealers and appraisers.
“I saw all of these beautiful things. I just had to start collecting,” he says.
In 1953, the year Lesterhouse graduated from high school and with various antiques beginning to clog his family’s home, his father was growing impatient with what began as his son’s hobby and morphed into an obsession.
“He told me, ‘Bill, you gotta start selling some of this junk,’” Lesterhouse recalls.
So the younger Lesterhouse set up his first shop in his parents’ garage, selling to whoever would come take a look at his wares. He made enough money that summer to build an addition onto the garage, before moving into the house next door that his family owned and where his shop called Ye Old House Antiques operated for years to come.
In 1969, he purchased a building at 24020 Front St. in Mattawan for his shop. The ground floor was a general store, the upstairs a Masonic Lodge. “It (the shop) was the first new thing to come here in a long time,” he recalls. “Mattawan was such a sleepy little town back then.”
Age and nostalgia
Step inside the shop and you’ll step back in time. Maybe to the turn of the last century, but probably much further back than that.
The soft, warm, sparkly light of a crystal chandelier fills a room still filled with the aroma of a recently extinguished wood fire. In this gentle illumination, one can make out some cobwebs here, a few dust-frosted glasses there. Classical music plays from a vintage radio near the front door. The serious faces of a lawyer and his wife stare out from mid-1700s paintings. And the air is filled with that impossible-to-replicate smell of age and nostalgia.
About all that is missing here is a cat dozing on a windowsill or on the well-worn couch where Lesterhouse does a little napping himself.
Many of the items in Lesterhouse’s shop were procured at antique shows, estate sales, flea markets and other outlets as far away as the East Coast or as close as a few miles down Red Arrow Highway. There was no eBay, no online registry of antiques to peruse, bid on and buy when he was doing the lion’s share of his acquiring. He had to hustle.
“I had to know what the hell I was doing,” he says. “It’s amazing how things come your way when you do this.”
The shop’s upper level, which is off-limits to customers, is Lesterhouse’s humble residence, where a simple recliner, no-nonsense fold-out chairs and a table, and bowls full of fake lemons placed here and there look out of place amid all the pricelessness.
Never married and with no children, Lesterhouse is thinking about where all of his items will go after he dies. Storing them is out of the question, he says, because “that’s a great way to get them damaged. I have to try to sell.”
Chicago representatives from Sotheby’s, the well-known auction house, are soon to set foot in Lesterhouse’s shop, to admire and assess the value of his items. He smiles and huffs a little when asked if he knows the cumulative value of the hundreds upon hundreds of items in his possession.
“I’m interested to see what they come up with,” he says a bit sheepishly, “because the value of a lot my items is impossible to define.”
The least expensive item in the whole shop by far is the half-empty gallon bottle of 5 O’Clock Vodka sitting by the microwave.
“Or maybe the most valuable,” quips his friend Anne Rather, who was visiting on a recent afternoon.
“I like a little nip right before bed, you know?” Lesterhouse says.
It is perhaps no surprise that Lesterhouse ran around with or at least was personable with many of Kalamazoo’s most prominent residents. Irving Gilmore knew him and “said he was my friend. That was an honor,” Lesterhouse says. The Upjohns, the Strykers, the Austins. He was acquainted with members of all of those families. He is also not shy about the fact he’s got dirt on some folks that would turn heads, but he is too classy to spill the beans.
“Let’s just say I could write a book,” he says.
Kalamazoo resident Susan Brown is one of those who counts herself among Lesterhouse’s circle of friends. She met him shortly after she and her husband, Bob, moved to the area in 1968. A trip to see the antiques in his shop turned into a friendship lasting more than half a century.
“He used to have Friday night “shrub” parties — that was his drink, the Rum Shrub,” she recalls. “I met so many other people that way. He was a fabulous host, loved talking to people, and he knew so much about antiques. Every one of my friends have something in their houses that came from Bill Lesterhouse’s shop.”
When the Browns built a new house in the early 2000s, Susan Brown consulted with Lesterhouse on everything from trim carpentry and paint choices to the stone used on the house’s exterior.
“I love antiques, and I wanted a new house that looked like an old house,” she explains. “Bill got very involved and very interested. For example, I wanted fireplaces in every room, and I wanted old fireplaces, so Bill said, ‘Well, then you need this type of fireplace, and here’s where to look at them.’ He just had tremendous patience. He came over and he helped me the whole time and would never charge me or let me give him money for his time. He loved doing it.”
Everything has a story
In today’s world full of disposable goods, many of the items Lesterhouse has spent a lifetime gathering either won’t be made again or were made to last long enough to become historical. Chances are slim that your Ikea futon is going to be sitting in an antique shop 100 years from now.
If all antique shops really are museums, then Lesterhouse, who has an affinity for 18th-century items, is less of an owner and more of a curator, more of a historian than a collector, the keeper of the backstories that arrived with the physical items themselves. The attention to detail on many of his pieces is objectively stunning, from a box of custom-made rectangular bottles from the 1770s that fit perfectly into their spaces to a mahogany cutlery box with a slanted lid sitting perfectly flush on its base to handmade, intricately sculpted sterling silver candelabras from Italy.
“Everything in here has a story,” he says. “It’s all top-notch.”
The market for the kind of goods Lesterhouse deals in is significantly down, he says. These days, if people are looking for something “old,” they are usually searching for something mid-century or post-modern, he says. A couch, perhaps, or a coffee table, things that he says “were junk in the first place.”
Lesterhouse’s mind is sharp, his wit wry. It’s his body that’s giving out.
He is an old man and freely admits it. To climb up stairs, he grabs the railing as one might a rope, hand over hand, playing tug-of-war with gravity, willing himself to the top. Once there, he reaches for the backs of antique chairs to steady himself as he walks over waves of worn carpet, the floor beneath him creaking, to find his walker or an old chair or a plump antique couch to sit on. There he holds court, regaling and entertaining visitors with stories of an amazing life well-lived, but one he knows has an ending.
About that, he is matter-of-fact.
“I’m ready to die,” he says. “I can’t get around. I can’t drive. It’s like I’m in a prison, a really nice-looking prison.”
Antiques are inanimate objects. A bowl is a bowl. But how about one made in China that’s so rare Lesterhouse doesn’t know which dynasty it is from? A desk is a desk. But what about a desk that was used by Robert Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence? Lesterhouse has both.
Like so much in our world, whether it’s a commodity or a few coins of cryptocurrency or a thousand other things tangible or not, we place a certain value on things based on hundreds of factors. But the primary one is scarcity — how rare something is. And Lesterhouse himself is rare and, in that way, invaluable.
His friends say he is too humble. They recognize his eye for quality and authenticity, facets of himself that developed slowly over time, invaluable qualities that Lesterhouse doesn’t openly admit to. He doesn’t have to. The proof of his abilities surrounds him every day. When he does die, his proverbial library will not burn but will continue on in the hands of others.
“There is so much historical value here, but over there is the most valuable item,” his friend Anne Rather says, pointing to Lesterhouse. “And that’s Bill.”