Budda garden at Floral Emporium.Photo by Sandra Schulman
Budda garden at Floral Emporium. Photo by Sandra Schulman

Spend a sunny breezy day on Dixie Highway’s Antique Row in West Palm Beach and you will know why top designers, really rich people and just plain folks from all over the US and the world come to this stretch of row Houses, Villas, cottages and warehouses.

The quality and sheer quantity of antique and offbeat stores here is mind boggling. Wear your walking shoes – no flip flops please, this is classy stuff – and duck into as many of these places as you can. Most of them have small or blocked off front windows so don’t let the outside fool you. These stores run straight out to the back and many have lovely patios, gardens or cottages filled with displays back there.

The very first place I went into  – The Floral Emporium – had me feeling like Daisy Buchanan walking into the flower filled cottage to meet the Great Gatsby. I literally gasped at this floor to ceiling burst of petals and fountains and statues. And oh the fragrance – gardenias and orchids and that lovely mossy smell. I’d never even seen some of the flower species they have growing here – fluttery, spiky, color drenched blooms everywhere you look. Enormous pots overflow with arrangements, out back is a greenhouse and Buddha garden and a hanging air fern garden that looks like constellations of planets. A whole lot of love went into this store for a very long time as it has layers of mirrors and décor and flora that has seen a lot of seasons.

The next most fabulous place I strolled into was D. Brett Benson, a store that carries vintage gems and bags and scarves. The proprietress Barbara Smithen escaped New York to help run this extraordinary jewel box, festooned with crocodile purses, silk Hermes scarves and cases and cases of the best brands in the world. Chanel gold jewelry shaped like their trademark gardenia flowers with chains braided through with leather; Gucci bracelets embossed with the G insignia, a whole display case of Bakelite – that colored early plastic so fantastic that it was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 1993 by the American Chemical Society in recognition of its significance as the world’s first synthetic.

The store has a piece by a designer I knew in NY back in the 1980s that I had not thought about in years. Patrick Kelly was a real talent, using colorful oversized buttons as his signature to make bustiers, hearts and words on black dresses. His work was often on the cover of Vogue and he had a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum after his tragic early death in 1990. The store has a red button necklace with his name embedded in the plastic. It was really wonderful to see. Where do they get such unusual and rare things? “Rich old ladies!,” Smithen laughs. “And the usual auction houses and estate sales.”

By this time I was getting hungry so I headed for the place that everyone else does – Belle & Maxwells, the vintage vibe bistro with a garden out back of course. The cheery front has topiary in big pots and chairs that look like limbs from trees. I sat at the counter and perused the menu and daily specials. Curry chicken or lump crab? I’ll save some critters today and had a delish arugula, roasted beet and goat cheese salad with herbal ice tea. The dark wood floors and stained glass hanging from the ceiling give it a cozy, Euro flair. Sweet smiling staff flit around like butterflies. I would have had a drink from the wonderful wine selection but it was only noon and I was working, right?

There are more fun places to eat which I’ll hit up next time – the Rhythm Café and City Diner and Gulfstream Bistro & Seafood Market are other choice bites.

Next stop is the new section of Villas on Antique Row, a more unified strip of cream and yellow buildings that house upscale condos on the upper floors and specialty stores on the ground floors. One of the best is Out of Africa Art Shop run by Neneh Baggiani, who knows every detail of the fantastic hand made items in her store. The exotic looking ivory jewel inlayed platter? “Oh that’s made from camel bone,” she explains. “They have so many camels in North Africa for the desert life that they use the bones when they die to make these beautiful carved pieces.”

Another eye catching set is the wood and grommet chairs covered in zebra hide with the stripey mane of the beast sticking straight up the middle of the chair. Baggiani has a partner in Africa who selects these pieces specially for her. She recently had a designer clean her out of her stock of large Morrocon wall mirrors for a client’s Palm Beach manse.

Brass Scale Antiques has a giggle out loud selection of signs and oddball tabletop décor – my favorite is the stuffed alligator standing on his tail by the door. He holds out a basket of business cards and has a light bulb in his wide open teeth lined mouth. The handsome gent behind the counter told me the gator is a permanent fixture and is about 40 years old. If they do decide to sell him off you’re too late, there is already a waiting list.

Christa’s South Seashells is a mermaid’s dream, overflowing with shells from all over the world, glued into fantastical shapes and chandeliers and chests and sculptures that gleam with the mother of pearl essence.

After 4 hours I had barely made a dent, as the official brochure lists over 35 stores in the district all within walking distance. I picked up some free magazines and peeked into a few more windows to see stuffed peacocks and Roy Lichtenstein paintings. Parking is free on the street and in many of the lots. It’s a world class street, where designer dreams come true, and we’re so lucky to have it.

Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at sandraslink@gmail.com.

Oldies and Goodies: Antique Goes Chic on Antique Row, West Palm Beach. See What to Do, What to Buy & How to Spend a Good Time at West Palm Beach Antique Row