ADAMSTOWN, Pa. -- This self-proclaimed ''Antiques Capital USA" was thrust into the spotlight a decade and a half ago when a lucky buyer hit the jackpot. Hidden behind a picture frame was an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.
''He paid like $5 for the frame," recalled Brian Block, manager of Renninger's Antique Market. Actually, the buyer paid only $4 and in 1991 he sold the Declaration copy through
''When the Declaration was authenticated by Sotheby's, the buyer said he bought the frame at one of the biggest open-air markets along Route 272," Block said, describing every seller's nightmare of letting ''the big find" slip away.
Otherwise known as ''The Antique Strip" -- or, to regulars, as simply ''The Strip" -- the 7-mile stretch of Route 272 boasts roughly 3,000 antiques dealers selling from about 25 shops. On any given weekend, people pore over the merchandise looking for the next big find, the perfect objet d'art for the mantel, or at the very least, a bargain to brag about.
It all began in 1962 when a few local dealers set up at Shupp's Grove, a former farm a mile off 272 that had been used as a picnic grove and as a site for outdoor concerts by touring acts out of Nashville.
''Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl played here," said Marilyn Gehman, current owner of the antiques operation. ''People would sit on the hood of their cars or sit in their cars when it rained."
Timing was right for merchandise to begin changing hands. Gehman described a scene that could make today's collectors weak at the knees.
''Everyone was getting more modern things," she said. ''Families would empty out their barns and attics and bring their old stuff in on pickup trucks." At the same time, city dwellers and decorators began to prize country primitives and rural antiques.
It didn't hurt that the big glade, shaded by tall trees, was such a pleasant place for buyers and sellers alike.
''By the early '70s, it was booming, with up to 700 dealers," Gehman said. These days, the dealer count is about half that, but the institution now boasts amenities such as restrooms with bouquets of fresh flowers and a deli with homemade baked goods. Certain traditions need no improvement: ''Shop in the Shade" declares a sign at the turnoff to the grove.
Adamstown, situated right off the turnpike between Reading and Lancaster in Pennsylvania Dutch country, mostly attracts antiquers from Pennsylvania and neighboring New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. But Gehman spoke fondly of a group of women from California who make an annual pilgrimage, adding that she also gets buyers from Japan and Europe. Japanese collectors especially covet old kitchenware. The days of brimming pickups may be but a fond memory, but Shupp's remains a good place to hunt for farming tools, cast-iron cookware, redware pottery made from local red clay, weavings, hooked rugs, and other items bearing the stamp of local character.
Millard Carroll got into the antiques business when he retired from being a mechanic.
''Mechanical things fascinate me," he said, gesturing at tables spread with tools for shaping and trimming cigars, cast-iron banks, apple peelers, cherry pitters, butter churns, and sausage stuffers.
He pointed to a gasoline-heated iron. ''This is one of the things that the Amish look for," Carroll said.
Shoppers are usually after less practical items at Renninger's. The building, which once housed a farmers market, opened in 1967 as a venue for antiques dealers to continue selling through the winter. But the seasonal business has expanded to a year-round operation of about 300 dealers in everything from baseball trading cards and comic books to regional landscape art and fine furniture. (The Adamstown operation spawned two additional Renninger's markets, one in Kutztown, which opened in 1977, and another in Mount Dora, Fla., which opened in 1987.)
In warm weather at the Adamstown site, there's room for an equal number of vendors to set up on folding tables in the field out back. The sun beats down on the outdoor tables, but collectors are undeterred. Indoors or out, discerning buyers have uncovered some remarkable finds at Renninger's over the years, according to Block. He cites such examples as a Tiffany floor lamp, an Abraham Lincoln campaign button, an original ''Maltese Falcon" movie poster, a Mickey Mouse tube radio, and a Ty Cobb cabinet card. You never know what's waiting at the next table.
Block was only 11 when he began working at the market with his father more than 30 years ago. Whether collecting comes from nature or nurture, Block's got the bug. His own preferences run to old toys and comic books. If he envies the lucky souls who discovered Marvel Mystery Comics No. 1 (fall 1939, the first appearance of Sub-Mariner) and Action Comics No. 1 (June 1938, the first appearance of Superman) at Renninger's, he doesn't let on.
''Most people who collect, collect their childhood," he observed, noting that items from the 1940s through the '70s are currently hot.
Block has heard laments from people about their discarded baseball cards, lunch boxes, and Barbie dolls so many times that he has a ready response.
''That's the process that makes it valuable," he told us. It helps to have a philosophical attitude.
The antiques business seemed to grow naturally. The restaurateur who ran the lunch counter at Renninger's opened an antiques market below his restaurant. Now in a separate building, the Sundays-only Black Angus Antiques Mall boasts more than 500 dealers. Other dealers joined together in cooperatives so they could stay open during the week. Some began to specialize in architectural antiques, for example, or European furniture. The Strip has witnessed changes in taste and fashion and weathered the advent of electronic merchandising.
In fact, earlier this year, the Mad Hatter Antique Mall opened in a former hat factory; by summer it had more than 100 dealers and was open Thursday through Monday. In some ways, any negative impact of eBay has been offset in part by the popularity of the PBS series ''Antiques Roadshow," which validates the collecting impulse.
''People like to have an experience," Block opined. ''I love computers, but if I didn't have my Sunday to talk to 300 people I'd go crazy."
Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, at firstname.lastname@example.org.