“These are cowboy pipes.”
Grayslake resident Jim Tamraz points to a display case filled with ornately carved pipes resting in their carrying cases. Unlike the cob pipes more typically associated with the wild west, these pipes are portable works of art carved from amber. Cowboys, Tamraz explains, were avid smokers, ranging from the common nicotine fix to the occasional dabble with opium. His pipe was one of the cowboy’s most valuable possessions.
“The last thing a cowboy would give up after his saddle and his horse and his gun was his pipe,” Tamraz says.
Passion practically radiates off the Vietnam veteran as he moves away from the pipes and darts off to the next artifact – a pair of stone dice that allegedly came from a Chicago prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
By trade, Tamraz is an acclaimed author and historian, however the items he showcases on June 10 aren’t on display in an art gallery or on exhibit at a museum. These are all items he was selling at the Grayslake antique market at the Lake County Fairgrounds.
“They say do what you know and I know this stuff,” he says, swinging his arms wide to encompass his booth of military and western memorabilia.
For Tamraz, the monthly antique market is both a way to share his passion for history with others and to fund his annual fishing trips, to Kentucky, Canada or Alaska.
“I learn so much,” he says. “That’s why I do this. And the customers, a lot of them are extremely intelligent. I’m always in awe; I walk about with at least 100 bits of new info. It’s really awesome.”
Tamraz’s booth is just one of many filling the 100,000 square-foot building. Organized by Bob Zurko, this is a family production that has been going on for nearly half a century.
A former school teacher, Zurko transformed his own passion for antiquing – specifically antique toys – into a market for fellow antiquarians to buy and sell their own collections. That was 47 years ago. Today it is a thriving market that draws both vendors and sellers to the fairgrounds the second Saturday of every month.
“It’s in your blood,” Zurko says of antiquing. “The fun is in the hunt.”
Besides the thrill of stumbling across the newest addition to his own collection, Zurko says he also loves the people of antique markets: “It’s a very eclectic [group]; it’s a mix of everybody and everything. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.”
Zurko is aided by his three sons to run the market today, all of whom have built careers for themselves in other fields while returning to the family business every month to lend a hand – and maybe do a little shopping themselves during breaks.
“We kinda all help on the weekend,” says Zurko’s son Tim. “It actually keeps us working together, we stay together. It’s sort of a bonding thing.”
While a great many casual customers drift up and down the aisles, pausing to peruse a stack of vinyl records or eyeball an antique typewriter, there are an equal number of avid collectors on the hunt, not only for a new antique but for “sleepers” – people who may not realize the true value of an item they’ve displayed on their tables.
Zurko adds that in this business, “knowledge is power.”
On the other side of the table, vendors remain quick on their feet. As one vendor pointed out, they “have to know what the customer wants and how he feels.”
While some vendors, like Tamraz, offer a wide variety of items to draw in prospective customers, others work within a very niche market.
Katherine Costantino lives in Grayslake and has been a vendor at the Zurko’s antique market for 20 years. Her booth literally glows from the antique chandeliers she’s strung up from the roof of her easy-up tent.
Her induction into the world of antiques began when she found herself with more chandeliers than places to hang them in her home. Today she is a regular at the Grayslake antique market, buying and selling her beautiful chandeliers.
The Zurko’s market draws vendors from beyond the borders of Lake County as well.
Robert Hanson has collected coins since his was five years old. His fledgling collection turned into a hobby and, when he was 40, Hanson left the banking industry to transform his hobby into a full-time career.
“It started with coins since coins are older than most antiques,” Hanson explains. “We just got into antiques by going to auctions.”
Hanson and his wife Caren sit behind two long tables filled with large glass display cases. One display case is filled with U.S. dollar bills. Some bills look like ones most people would find folded in their wallets or slipped into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, while others are so large, they seem like props – gag money that couldn’t possibly be real. As Hanson explains, however, these large bills – nearly twice the size of our modern day currency – were very much real in a different time.
“Most of the U.S. currency used to be a larger size,” he says. “In 1928, they went with the smaller size and it’s been this size ever since, all of our currency.”
He points to a section of the display case with a unique collection of bills. Instead of the familiar faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, these bills are adorned with faces of Indian chiefs and even bison.
“And all of this is from the Civil War,” he adds. “This is Confederate [money] from banks that are all obsolete now. But look at the beautiful designs that these have. The bison, the Indian chief, and these are gold certificates. I wish our money today looked something like these.”
A dilemma the antique world is currently facing, Hanson says, is a decreased interest from the next generation to take the reins and continue preserving and passing down the history inherent in antiques and collectibles.
“The rare coins are sort of slowing down a little simply because there aren’t enough new people coming into [the hobby] to collect,” he says. “But any time we see a young child, boy or girl, interested, we try to foster their curiosity because if we don’t, there’s no future in the hobby.”
For the Hansons, Grayslake is just one stop on their circuit of antique shows and markets. Hanson says they travel throughout Wisconsin and Illinois to about 30 shows a year, where they encounter all types of collectors, from the hobbyist searching for that final coin to complete a set to the career numismatist eager to purchase, then flip, a collection.
“My favorite customer is someone who has their own business generally because they’re not afraid to make a decision, they’re not risk-averse,” he says. “Some of them usually have money and they like to take a chance. But I try to get enough young people interested with the concept that this is something of interest.”
Regardless of what these vendors are selling (or buying), they all share a common passion for the histories behind these unique items and are all eager to share these stories with the people who wander into their booths.
“[Antiques] are absolute, tremendous fun,” Zurko says. “If you love what you do, it’s not really work. It’s what you enjoy.”