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Mary Randolph Carter

The Joy of Junk


America is awash in “stuff.” And, in a restless nation whose people are always seeking the latest trend, that stuff soon becomes oh, so yesterday. It loses its place in our homes and is often cast forth into vast collectibles market.

Often, it is junk, but as any devoted viewer of Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers knows, hidden in the detritus of America life are real treasures.

For some, the hunt is an obsession. Among those for whom the discovery of cast-off gems is a crusade is Mary Randolph Carter. “Carter,” as she is familiarly known, has worked for Ralph Lauren for almost three decades and writes a monthly collecting column for Country Living Magazine. In her spare time, she has churned out a number of books about the art of discovering collectibles that speak to the soul, the latest of which, The Joy of Junk, has just hit bookstore shelves.

Carter will appear Thursday, November 15th, at 6PM at the White Hart Inn as part of the Speaker Series sponsored by Oblong Books in collaboration with the Inn and the Scoville Memorial Library. Carter and her long-time friend, Joan Osofsky of Hammertown, will engage in a discussion of their shared passion for collecting—how to hunt and how to decorate with found items—before Carter holds a book signing. An RSVP is required to attend the event by clicking on the link below.

In a telephone interview from her Millerton retreat, Carter said that her first decade and a half with the Ralph Lauren organization meshed nicely with her passion for junk. “When I travel, I hunt down places,” she reported. “I was much more obsessive when I was younger—for the first 17 years of my work life at Ralph Lauren I was on the road a lot and the crews I worked with knew where my heart was. Everyone has a passion for something, and I think it adds a layer to your life and experience to try to ferret out what you love.”

Among the discoveries that “make her heart beat” are paintings. “I probably have 1,000 paintings on my walls in New York,” she said. “I’ve always been enamored of primitive art.”

These are not long-lost masterpieces but rather quirky, colorful works by her “junk masters.” “I’ve got one in New York that I bought here in Millerton. It shows a breakfast table with tiny pieces of bacon and huge eggs. The perspective is so messed up.” But she loves its uniqueness.

Her post-college move to New York from her native Virginia came at the dawn of Americana and quilts. “They had a handmade, primitive quality I liked. Over time, my interest evolved into trying to find my own folk art, things where you see the lens of the individual.

In her book, she calls on other collectors such as Mike Wolfe, star of American Pickers. “I did a chapter on his home base, Antique Archaeology, which is a quasi-museum of things he has found on the road. He had a really wonderful object that had belonged to an itinerant musician, like a one-man band. I really wanted to buy it but it was not for sale.”

But it turned out there was, indeed, a price. Wolfe was willing to part with it but only if Carter dressed up in the musician’s suit, hat and bandana. “There’s a little picture in the book,” Carter said. “It’s kind of a beautiful sculptural object. As time has gone by, I look for more quirky objects.”

Also sharing their love of collecting in the book, are designer Bunny Williams and John Roselli, who have an extensive property in Falls Village. “I wanted to show the diversity of collectors,” Carter said. “People wouldn’t put me and Bunny and Mike Wolfe in the same category but we are always looking for something with a certain personality and quirkiness.”

So, what does Carter look for these days? “I love things that are imperfectly perfect, colors that have a patina.” Her book is awash with the colors in her’s and others’ collections. “Every collector has their palette,” she asserts, adding she likes to paint her walls white as a foundation for her paintings.

“I’ve always been fascinated with color,” she continued. “I have people in the book who are drawn to color. I have a friend who lives in an old Sears Roebuck house. She painted the house turquoise as her canvas. And she created the World-Famous Crochet Museum, which she painted lime green and filled with amazing crocheted items.”

Filling a house with “found treasures” can require the acquiescence of those who live with the collector. Carter has been lucky in her choice of a mate, Howard Berg, and in the tolerance of her sons. “He bought into the package that is me 47 years ago,” she said. “All he ever asked for was one comfortable chair, maybe a sofa. I finally found him a comfortable chair and the dog took it over. My mother always told me it was easy to marry a rich man but harder to find a selfless one. I found one.”

Still, she is aware of the need to consider others when collecting. “If you are passionate about anything—old books, paintings, anything it might be—you can have blinders on and not see there is no comfortable place to sit. It’s an important thing to consider. Does my family appreciate my esthetic and the way I created our home? Maybe not when they were growing up.

“When we were out driving and we’d all spot a yard sale, my sons would put their hands over my eyes and say, ‘Dad step on it,’” she continued. “But they have learned to appreciate it. That’s been wonderful.”

Carter returns to her “junking” roots in The Joy of Junk. “Young people in particular are looking for something unique and personal to create their own signature style,” she said. “I wanted to remind everyone that it is out there, to offer lessons from a wizened and wise junker.”

A special bonus in her book is her Junker’s Guide, a compendium of her favorite coast-to-coast junking haunts including the classic fields of Brimfield and The Rose Bowl.