ENCINITAS — It may be small, but Caldwell’s Antiques in Leucadia is filled with a cornucopia of collectibles, antiques and in general, unique stuff.
It’s also been around for more than five decades attracting regulars, locals and many celebrities over the years.
According to son Fred Caldwell, the shop is around 600 square feet and has been in the same location, 1234 N. Coast Hwy. 101, since 1963, the same year his parents started the business.
“We lived in Glendale from 1957 until 1961,” he said. “Dad moved furniture, and people ended up giving him so much of it when they moved, he opened a used furniture store there called House of Values.”
In 1963, when Caldwell’s father Chuck bought the current location, his mother transitioned used furniture into “antiques.”
“Every year, we’d go visit family in Indiana and stop at many of the antique shops along the way. One time we stopped at what we thought was a yard sale and was met by a man with a shotgun who asked what we were doing there,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell took over the management of the shop after his mother, Tyke, passed away in 1981, however, his father still owns it. His father remarried to Connielou in 1982 and both have been involved in the local American Legion for decades.
Caldwell also has his own graphics business, Coast Hwy. 101 Design, based at the same address as the shop.
And while antiques and similar businesses have disappeared from the mainstream, especially in San Diego, Caldwell’s Antiques is still standing its own.
“Owning the property we’re on and being too stubborn to sell it has been the main reason we’re still here. It’s a hard business to run with high rents and North County is getting crazy with those,” he said. “Each antique shop usually has their specialty items. Mine are vintage arcade machines, cool old advertising and weird stuff. We also have the only roadside attraction here on North Coast Hwy. 101 ‘The Strange Thing.’”
Of course, selling antiques and “weird stuff” is a fun business to be in and one that never gets old as there’s always something happening.
“The best parts about running this business are: the history lessons we learn, the occasional extremely rare valuable thing that happens to show up, and finding what people are looking for (he keeps a Rolodex wish list, so he can call people whenever the treasure they’re looking for shows up),” he said.
It’s also great meeting interesting people and being privy to all those strange events that happen regularly. Most of the time, good ones, he said.
“Like one time a lady came by who was looking for ‘Hoosier kitchen cabinets’ (the first such multi-task cabinets kitchens had). I didn’t have any, but I asked her: ‘Have you ever heard of New Castle, Indiana, where those cabinets were first made?’
She said: ‘Are you kidding? I made a special trip there one time to learn more about them and the nicest lady at the historical society told me so much!’ I asked, ‘Was her name Mary Caldwell?’ She surprisingly said: ‘Yes!’ and I said: ‘That’s my grandma.’”
Of course, there have also been many a celeb sighting over the years at Caldwell’s Antiques, and when it happens, Caldwell often gets starstruck.
“Being in business at the same location on a busy highway for 55 years means there have been a lot of celebrities through our door. When film critic Leonard Maltin came in with his wife, I thought, now what’s a question I could ask him? I know: ‘What’s your favorite movie of all time?’ It was ‘Casa Blanca,’” he said.
And there’s the time when Ellen DeGeneres came in one day and asked: “How much is that jukebox outside?”
“I said: ‘It’s $1,100, are you Ellen?’ and without batting an eye she said: ‘Yes! How much is it now?’ I should have said: ‘$1,500, but I’m not as funny.”
And then in 1989, HBO was filming “The Heist” next door at a car lot.
“When Pierce Brosnan came in, my dad followed him in saying: ‘Any movie stars show up yet, Fred?’ I said: ‘Only the star of the movie! Pierce Brosnan, meet my father Chuck!’ They shook hands as dad said slowly: ‘This is the most excitement we’ve had around here in two days.’”
Brosnan laughed and said: “Thank God! I thought you were going to say two years!”
Of course, celebs have been part of the Caldwell’s store experience for a while now.
“When we lived in Glendale, a friend of my folks was a film and TV director named David Butler (who got Shirley Temple in the business directing her first five films). He was currently directing episodes of “Leave It to Beaver.” He thought I looked so much like the Beav, that he wanted to screen test me to be his replacement if the studio wanted to continue the series as Jerry Mathers was a bit old for the part, being a teenager,” he recalled.
That never happened but kept Caldwell excited for a few years hoping it would. Then in 1995, who wanders into the shop but Mathers himself. He had moved into a house on Neptune, Caldwell said.
“We both shared a lot of stories about Mr. Butler and became friends,” he said.
Then one day and only a few days after Mathers had signed the cover of a magazine the whole Cleaver family was on, a friend of Caldwell’s leaned over the counter and said: “I think Wally just walked in.”
“I chuckled expecting to see someone who looked like Wally Cleaver from a galloping horse, but there was Tony Dow in the flesh! So, I had him sign the same magazine cover,” he said.
Around the mid-1990s Caldwell didn’t know who the woman was who sang the entire song “You Make Me Feel So Young” was as she wandered around the shop, until she introduced herself before she left. It was Karen Black.
In the 1960s, his mom sold a candlestick phone to comedian Dick Martin of TV’s “Laugh-In” fame. And comedienne Elaine Boosler came in one day asking for anything with mermaids on it.
“I said, my neighbor has some old fruit crate labels with a tomato headed mermaid on it,” he recalled. She said: “Tomato headed mermaids are big this year!” and she bought it.”
Other visitors include: England Dan & John Ford Coley, Ace Frehley of KISS, Kelly of Leslie and Kelly, Sergio Mendez and former local news anchor Jack White, who bought an authentic Thurston magician poster.
What’s the future?
As for the future forecast of the antique business from Caldwell’s perspective, it will just go with the flow.
“We kind of rise with the tide here with sales, using eBay and Craigslist when things get slow. There’s no rhyme or reason when business is great, it just happens whenever,” he said.
But regular folks shop Caldwell’s, too, not just the rich and famous.
“The average shopper wanders in to find out what kind of shop this is,” Caldwell said. “I ask them to let me know if they find out.”
To keep things interesting and stocked, Caldwell’s obtains newer items by going a few times month to estate sales, garage sales, and “you name it and things call to me that I think will fit in the shop.”
“In the graphics business, I design and sell a lot of local postcards that are a staple item here but do occasional work for the city and design plenty of custom business cards for folks.”
Probably the two funniest things so far he designed included a 40-foot city bus wrapping it with the image of a vintage Woodie car.
“NCTD had me do three different designs and they all went by my shop on North (Highway) 101 several times a day,” he said.
Another thing that’s still popular is the “Kook Calendar” that he makes sometimes that features the best of the costumes placed by guerilla artists on the “Magic Carpet Ride” sculpture in Cardiff.
“About 20 percent of the people who come in are looking for something specific,” he said. “They usually want to get on my wish list when I ask them if they’d like me to contact them whenever an item, they’re looking for turns up. Or, I can usually point them in a direction to another shop that may have what they’re looking for.”
He’s been networking with other antique shops in North County since 1979 when he printed the first Treasure Map listing all the antique shops’ essential information. “And now that I can do full color graphics, I still make them every few years,” he said.
As for what’s the coolest item Caldwell’s has had for sale at the store or the strangest? Probably the coolest item was a toss-up between a rare 1941 Wurlitzer “Peacock” jukebox and a 1902 9-foot Steinway Concert Grand Piano, he said.
“Someone asked Dad once how he got the huge piano into our little shop and he said: ‘We got a running start at the door.’”
Strange is as strange does
However, the strangest item to ever come into Caldwell’s Antiques is still there: “The Strange Thing.”
An old showman brought it in just before the turn of the century.
“We don’t know what it is, we just know it’s strange!” he said. “It costs a quarter to see, but it’s still a 50-cent value. A young couple on their first date saw the signs outside one day and they had to stop to check it out. Two years later, they came back and told me the attraction was such a hit with the lady, ‘She’s always talking about it.’”
So, the man contrived a plan and made new signs for it one day that said: “The Shiniest Thing” and placed a wedding ring inside the showcase with “The Strange Thing,” for when they “happened by” once again on their bikes. And she, said: ‘Yes!’ They’ve been married three years now and have a little girl.’”