The World Through His Eyes
The average flea market is a tricky thing – I'm usually disappointed with them, finding they're often stocked with worn, useless, and overpriced trinkets.
But I love a truly unique artifact – one that acts as a reminder of the past. That’s what draws me to Aria, an unassuming antique shop and time capsule in North Beach. The place is filled with storied and weathered possessions that’ve been gathered from around the world by owner Bill Haskell.
My parents have been frequenting Aria for years, decorating my childhood home in Los Angeles with a never-ending collection of antique novelties.
I never had the pleasure of joining them on their Aria adventures, but would eagerly await their return, spellbound as they revealed their treasures: small letters of each of our initials displayed on our coffee table or miniature puppet figurines hung on our living room wall. Now that I’m finally ready to furnish my own apartment, I’ve embarked on my first solo expedition to the quirky store and am immediately transported into another world.
Aria is a wonderland of curiosities. Large wooden clocks, medical illustrations, and industrial antiques clutter the room. The treasures on display here are steeped in history, representative of the time and meticulous care Bill takes to stock his collection.
Bill tells me he opened this shop 15 years ago to share the unique items he accumulates throughout his extensive European travels. He started by gathering goods at local antique fairs, but after a trip to France 10 years ago, he was hooked on browsing overseas. He bought an apartment in Paris and returns five times a year to scour antique shows.
Hopping between France, Holland, and Belgium, Bill travels wherever the markets take him. At the more remote fairs, he says, farmers will cut down foliage so that collectors can pitch tents and camp out. He enthusiastically boasts about sleeping in graveyards and cow pastures, all for the sake of the hunt. During these spontaneous and extensive periods of scavenging, the store goes on hiatus.
The items in the shop are accompanied by some fascinating backstories. Bill leads me around, introducing me to his merchandise as if he were telling tales about old friends. He pulls his favorite new piece out from behind the front desk: a clear shot glass resembling a candlestick holder. The object seems mundane, but he speaks of it with such enthusiasm that it sounds like he’s describing a diamond necklace.
When I admit that my parents introduced me, a new San Francisco resident, to his store, he searches for a memory of my folks, listing off numerous couples that have passed through his doors, although my parents weren’t among them.
The longer we spend together, the more animated Bill becomes with his descriptions. I ask about an antique carousel horse sitting in the corner, but he enthusiastically diverts my attention to a frame filled with colorful leaves, which he says were embellishments gathered from military hats in 1915. He takes apart an old painted model of an eye, demonstrating how it works. Before he can finish placing the pieces back together, he hands me three delicate paper candy boxes made in the 1850s. My hands are full as he drags me across the room to show me yet another discovery: pages of eighteenth century folios filled with prints of flowers used for natural history research.
Everything seems to inhabit a place back in time – a children’s mannequin from the 1870s; hand-forged keys from the 1800s; globes from the nineteenth century. The store, like Bill, lacks the pretension of most antique shops. Visitors take their pick from an array of old doll heads, large paintbrushes, glass beakers, and hand-painted tiles.
Bill explains that the older North Beach community appreciates Aria’s eclectic charm –which extends to the shop floor. Painted by Bill when he first opened, the ground is shellacked with sheet music and old newspaper clippings. As the textures warp and erode, he paints the floor and fills in the cracks.
And that’s precisely what Aria is all about – perpetually transforming and expanding, a never-ending documentation of a fascinating past that merges into our present. It’s a story that reaches from France to California, from my parents to me, and from Los Angeles to my new apartment in San Francisco.
Go sift through Bill’s bounty at Aria. Don’t be dismayed if there’s a “back in thirty minutes” sign on the door. Just take a walk around the streets of North Beach and check back. It’s worth the wait.