The rickety wooden floors pop and squeak under the weight of my footsteps. The dull hum and soft glow of display lights creates a warm and inviting ambiance. The air is filled with a bouquet of earthy notes, hints of acidity, a tang of linseed oil and vanilla, over an underlying mossy dankness. Those unmistakable smells are not that of a well-aged Merlot, but that of the Civil War relics shops that I frequented in my youth. Shops that might as well be listed as “endangered”, right alongside the Civil War battlefields whose history they so beautifully bring alive.
Changing Landscape of Civil War Artifact Collecting
One thing in life is, and will always be constant; change. And change has―well―changed the hobby of Civil War artifact collecting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude who decries change, insisting that everything was better “back in my day”, as not all change has been bad. For instance, with so many collectors and dealers operating online, collectors now have the ability to research, locate, and purchase just about any artifact they fancy. It’s made the hobby more accessible to more people, and has attracted a younger, much needed demographic to the hobby. And due to the sheer volume of artifacts offered for sale online, it helps govern what dealers charge for their wares. All of those things are good―good for the collector and dealer, good for the hobby, and good for the history it helps preserve.
That change however, has brought about the slow demise of the Civil War relic shop. Facing the rising costs of operating a brick-and-mortar establishment, and the time commitment a shopkeeper must make to operating it, many have made the decision to shutter their doors in favor of an online store. And while I understand it from a business perspective, as a collector, it hurts!
Nostalgia of Civil War Relics Shops
Chances are, the sounds and smells that I previously described will evoke a bit of happiness and nostalgia for many reading this article. They do for me. But it’s not just the sights, sounds, and smells that make visiting a Civil War shop so special and memorable, it’s the chance to hold history in your hands and talk with someone who shares the same interests as you. Someone that “gets” what makes you tick. Someone that won’t look at you crazy for ogling at a rusted piece of iron, or even paying a few hundred dollars to own it!
In my youth, Civil War shops were the destination for collectible trade publications, for help identifying and learning about artifacts, and in their own right, were impressive museums of American History―a museum in which you could take home one of the exhibits without being arrested!
On December 31, 2017, after 40-years of continuous operation, my all-time favorite shop closed its doors to the public for the last time. Operated by my good friend Larry Hicklen, Yesteryear Civil War Relics was one of, if not the longest operating shops around. I’m happy for Larry; and for the record, he’s not going anywhere. He’ll still continue to attend Civil War shows and operate his online store, Middle Tennessee Civil War Relics. I’m merely noting the fact that his shop is just one of a series of shops to shutter its doors to the public. With its closing, to my knowledge, that only leaves about 20 or so full-time Civil War relic shops left standing.
Visit Before It’s Too Late
I’ll leave you with this. If you ever come across a Civil War relics shop with an “open” sign hanging from its door, I encourage you to step inside, take in the sights and smells, meet a new friend, ask a lot of questions, and take something home with you. Because chances are, it may be the last time you’ll be able to enjoy such an experience.