A few years ago, I used to stand outside at a bus stop in windy, freezing conditions on my way to work, for up to 20 minutes at a time. It’s not much fun when there is nothing to do but wait for a bus and feel the cold. Sometimes I’d listen to music or bring something to read, but it never helped to make the wait any more livable. But now I know what makes standing in the cold lots of fun, to the point that hours seem like minutes: License plates!
There’s a store in Lombardy called Rideau Antiques that I had never heard about prior to last week. My friend Eric, a life-long Ottawa resident, had never seen it before either, but stumbled on it during a weekend outing with his wife. She was cold and her patience was wearing thin, and it was clear to Eric that he’d never have enough time to paw through the thousands of license plates on his own. The solution? Call Jon, tell him about it and come back next weekend.
We were pretty stoked as we drove along highway 15 to get to Lombardy. Eric said we couldn’t miss the place, what with all the stuff outside. We turned onto Rideau Ferry Road and within a mile, an old farmhouse appeared, surrounded by mounds of lanterns, signs, windows, and wagon wheels, many of which were just hanging off the house itself. We turned in, parked, and Eric led me to the stash of plates waiting for us outside.
It was obvious to me why he couldn’t get through them all. There were stacks of them in pigeon-hole shelves made from cinder blocks and plywood. You could pull a stack out and there would be dozens in behind. You’d have to reach way in the back with your whole arm to get at everything. There was an old gum rack just crammed with plates, and an old newspaper rack, also crammed. Clearly, this would take us a couple of hours to go through. We had dressed for the weather-- although it was sunny, it was below freezing and breezy to boot. We used a couple of old wash pails as stools and started sorting through the plates.
Both of us like to add unusual plates to our collections whenever possible, but we both also sell pairs of YOM-clear plates to classic car owners, and this seemed like a great place to dig some out. The trouble was, none of the plates were organized, which meant that matching pairs would be hard to find. We spent over an hour looking single plates over and putting all the nicer plates in a pile. Then, we started organizing the piled plates by year, and alphanumerically within each year. That made it possible to put matching pairs together while weeding out the single plates. There were many years in the stash-- The oldest I saw outside was 1922. Unfortunately, the older plates, having been exposed to the elements, had significant rust, fading, and even perforation. One plate snapped in half on me because it had rusted right through in a strip along the middle.
Two hours went by in a flash, despite our numb fingers from sorting and cold butts from sitting much of the time. We managed to find some passable stuff, and then we went into the store for the next stage of our rummage-fest.
If you’ve never been to this store, picture a farmhouse, with literally tons of farm stuff hanging off the outside of the house, the porch ceiling, and along the verandah. There’s hardly any room to move along the little clearing that leads to the front door. It works like a single-lane bailey bridge where people going the other direction have to wait for you to pass. Duck your head, too, if you’re over six-foot-tall.
We entered the store, and it’s a black hole of antiques. I mean that somewhat literally: A black hole is a collapsed star which has a gravitational field so strong that you’d have to be traveling faster than light to escape (which is why light doesn’t escape, which is why it’s “black”). All the stuff that accumulates on the surface of the black hole is extremely tightly packed together in a very small space-- the density approaches infinity. Well, that’s what this store is like on the inside. You could be as thin as Ichabod Crane and still topple the shelves by turning sideways.
I give Eric credit for finding the indoor plates. I would never have seen them because they’re down by the floor in an aisle that’s as narrow as a tightrope. To get down low enough to see them, I had to face forward in the aisle and reach in from the side. There wasn’t enough room to crouch down while facing inward toward the aisle. I actually had to move some stuff from the floor to make enough room. We passed each other handfuls of plates and had to pile them in tall stacks at our feet in order to reach in and get the next bunch. These plates were of higher quality, condition-wise, and there was a greater variety of provinces and vehicle types. We started a new “pair pile” as before. I was passing a bunch of plates to Eric when he winced and looked down.
“Ow!” he said. “Something just jabbed me in the leg.” I thought maybe it was a rat bite, but it turned out to be a falling hand saw. It took him a minute to find a place where it wouldn’t either fall down again or be stepped on. Then, a few minutes later:
“Ow!” he said again. This time, it was his back, not his leg. I though it was the saw falling on him again, but this time it was an antique screwdriver.
We found quite a few cool plates that we ultimately didn’t take. I found a neat old pair of 1938 truck plates, and some old 1950s Maryland plates. Eric found an uncommon Canada Fisheries plate, bilingual, in nice shape. We went to the cashier’s desk, and the fellow there greeted us pleasantly and gave us a better deal on the plates than we had expected.
“Would you like a box to put them in?” he asked. Yes, please, was our reply. He turned around and opened a cupboard door. There were dozens of rings hanging from the walls and ceiling of the cupboard, each one absolutely brimming with antique keys. He bent down, presumably to pick an empty box up from the floor. Then he disappeared. The cupboard was actually the door to the basement stairs, which were less than two feet wide, what with all the stuff hanging from the walls. He effortlessly navigated the stairs and returned a few seconds later with a box for our plates.
After we paid, we took an extra look around outside and noticed that there was a garage that we hadn’t yet explored. Right at the entrance: Another two boxes of plates! We made short work of them and found another few that were worth buying. We paid for them and hopped into my car. We had spent over three hours at the store, but neither of us had noticed how cold, tired or hungry we had become until after we had left. Our mutual hobby has a way of blinding us to other things, at least temporarily.