Assoc. Prof. Maureen Stanton visited an antique auction to catch up with a friend, but found a story as well. Several years and a thousand pages of research later, she’s won the Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction for “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques and Collecting.” The book's first chapter is available online
"It was an honor to be nominated, but I never thought I'd win with all of the talented writers in Massachusetts," says Stanton, who earned the award soon after moving back to the state to work in the English department. "It's been a nice homecoming."
Stanton’s book is “a journey through a subculture.” She uses literary journalism – applying literary techniques to nonfiction – to explore the world of antiquing from hasty flea markets to high-end auctions.
Her characters are dealers, collectors, auctioneers and a few reproducers who make money from “making” antiques. The plot follows her college friend, with the pseudonym Curt Avery, as he buys and sells his way up the antiques ladder, always looking for the “retirement piece” to fill his bank account. There are side trips to meet other characters, but following Avery’s progression binds the story together. Stanton and the reader learn bits of history from Avery, helping them appreciate the items as they cheer on his work.
“I’ve always been a re-user. I like vintage clothing and have frequented antique stores, but didn’t really have the history part in mind. Writing the book has made me a huge fan,” Stanton says. “I see an object and want to know more about it and its creator or owner author.”
Stanton shares much of the histories she collected while observing Avery and his peers at work in the book, its extensive appendix and on her website. Readers can pick up tips on the world and insight into its workings through Stanton’s book, but it’s more exploration than a how-to piece.
“I followed the reselling world and caught the whispering behind the scenes,” Stanton says. “Some of the story is about the things we take for granted, like hooked rugs. I took a course and made something half the size of a napkin. It’s tough! But I learned the stories of women designing and making huge rugs, sometimes with a bent nail – you gain a new respect for items when you know their stories.”
The rocky economic timeframe Stanton witnessed during her immersion in the antiques world makes for some engaging societal commentary. As the economy slowed and money became tight for many Americans, spending fell and more people looked to turn a buck from their attic items. The changes are making ripples in the antiques community, but not taking all the fun out of the pursuit.
“People are thinking more about spending and the value of things, and are considering the things that populate their lives,” says Stanton. “It’s an especially interesting time because Baby Boomers are inheriting items from their parents and don’t know what they are. Others do and pick up the items. It’s a fascinating exchange of goods as people spend a lifetime acquiring items to get a full set only to have it dispersed after their death, making it time for someone else to collect them all over again. It’s fun because it’s like the Wild West, almost an unregulated economy.”
Stanton, who grew up in Maine, returned to New England to join the University after spending most of her professional life in the Midwest.
“I’ve done enough wandering and it feels good to be back home,” Stanton says. “I enjoyed the Midwest, but always knew I wasn’t staying there permanently. I’m very glad to be closer to my family and to have a job I really wanted.”
After teaching mostly graduate and advanced students in her previous position, Stanton is teaching personal reflective writing and introduction to creative writing courses. She’s excited to teach the beginnings of writing to students and watch their progression as writers.
“I’m also really enjoying the diversity of students at the University,” says Stanton. “Everyone has such different voices and stories to tell.”
Stanton will use her lifelong interest in writing to help her students share those stories and others through literary journalism and creative non-fiction courses. She’ll use her own story of an earlier career in nonprofits and working as a freelance writer after going back to school to shows students they can make a career from a love of writing and hard work.
“I always wrote in school for papers and in journals, but I didn’t know how to do it as a job until later,” says Stanton. “But now I’ve found how to merge my career and love. Our students can do it, too, with the right skills and support.”
For more information on Stanton's book, including pictures and the stories behind the antiques from her travels, visit her website.