Antique wrought iron gates & fence are just the starting point.
FYI : Idea Emporium was written by freelance writer Laurie Bazemore and submitted to several North Carolina publications. Portions of it appeared in a Siler City, NC newspaper. The piece was selected to appear on The Blogging Unicorn because it accurately describes the experience of visiting the five acre showroom and a typical encounter with the rennaissance proprietor.
IDEA EMPORIUM : The Last Unicorn
As one arrives at The Last Unicorn a great implosion of wrought iron greets you. After all, the sign at the entranceway has warned,”This is it!” As if anticipating the visitor’s disorientation to this wooded nook just east of Chapel Hill, NC,, a second sign reads: “Ask your doctor if iron is right for you!” Nearby, hand painted signs hanging crookedlyfrom trees, call out, “Magnetic North points right here!”; “Please do not salivate on the iron”; and “Premises maintained by nature.”
I have arrived at several wooded acres filled with unique architectural antiques. Before I can muster a proper question or insight, I witness a menagerie of home and garden paraphernalia inhabiting a vast forest of iron. Again, as if on cue, a sign encourages: “We invite you to take a map if you have not been here before. Our style is casual.” Signed : Gaines. The map (shown below) intrigues me, to say the least. At a glance I am presented with choices: the Secret Garden; the Meditation Gazebo; the Ceremonial Tipi; the Unicorn Trail; Narnia Wood; even Reincarnation Forest…….. I walk past a log cabin restored to include Victorian features. It now brims with antiques.
One thing is certain — there are vintage garden gates everywhere… literally everywhere. “Over 200 in stock” an obscure sign reads. “More back here….” another sign entices. Overhead, a gate dangles from a pink hangman’s rope, stating, “How to hang a gate!” “Good Grief!” a nearby sign shouts, again reflecting my own reaction.
Presently, a small, overalls-clad, smiling man who may have boycotted all barbershops, appears out of the unicorn’s woods. According to the sign, I’ve technically arrived in “Chapel Woods, NC”. “Howdy, I’m Gaines,” he welcomes. “Our motto is: ‘We sell ideas!’ Let me know if I can help you.” I try to frame a question while proprietor, Gaines Steer, begins a soft, Southern banter that requires no question. He senses that I’m unaware of some vital information that he’s ready to share. Gaines implies that he may let me in on a few secrets: “Creativity is a learned behavior of a culture of individuals,” notes Gaines. “Most people aren’t aware of their creative potential.”
I learn that Gaines is a former teacher whose hobbies led him to collect and sell artifacts to homeowners and others who share his passion for one-of-a-kind décor. Several themes seem to emerge from his discourse. I listen closely.
“Gaines is willing to have a creativity exchange with peoples,” affirms Jenny Gregory, former head gardener at the well-known Fearrington House in Pittsboro, NC. “There’s a freeness of spirit and delight in life present [at The Last Unicorn]. Gaines’ property encourages one’s deepest creative spirit to come forth.”
As my map endeavors to chart me in the direction of the Unicorn’s Lair, I encounter other customers intent on solving the mystery of this place. Every tree and stone on this five-acre preserve seem to host or prop the lost wares of yesteryear. Reachilng the Olde Log Cabin (noted on map), I step inside. Whatever this cabin is, it is certainly no historic preserve. Period log cabins, I recall, did not include stained glass windows, iron gated decks, nor Victorian gingerbread and stenciled floors. Seems to work with a unicorn’s touch.
Rounding a curve in “Unicorn’s Trail,” I come to a sculpture depicting the Seven Deadly Vices. Seven antique blacksmith vices are displayed, welded in a circle with the name of each vice noted at each post on a slate tablet: “Sloth, Gluttony, Anger, …” Nearby, an amphitheatre hosts an “architectural play in progress.” The staged actors appear in the form of familiar and unfamiliar architectural embellishments — newel posts, friezes, columns, etched doors, and stained glass panels are among the few recognizable stage stars.
Presently, Gaines appears again. His hair continues to misbehave as he resumes a dialogue, without cue from me. Gaines somehow seems to know me. I feel that we must already be friends, yet without having been introduced. Gaines joins in the delight of those customers touring, what could easily be enough wrought iron to please the village blacksmith of old.
Several questions have lingered since my arrival. “So, where do you get your things?” I ask. Gaines laughs heartily. “That is the most frequently asked question.” He giggles. “I wish I had an answer … perhaps I’ll just make one up!” He takes on a serious tone as I successfully locate the key to interviewing him. I mention several themes that I glean from the “press room” located on one of the outbuildings. Suddenly, this man of mirth assumes the role of educator. He fills the air with philosophy and social commentary, two fields clearly tangential to architecture, home décor and antiquedom.
“Big is not better!” Gaines asserts. “Scale and function are more important in design. Too many homes resemble large mausoleums.”
My most burning question finally comes forth — “Gaines, are you the last unicorn?” I actually seem to have thrown him off with this question. His mind works hard, his expression intense and focused.
Gaines responds: “Well, I may be something of a Renaissance man. The unicorn has a magical, mystical connotation that fits my image of how average people can view their homes and gardens through a creative filter. If the unicorn does not exist, why do you suppose it has been so widely depicted for hundreds of years in many cultures? By virtue of its mere proliferation, the unicorn most certainly does exist. And imagination, creativity, and magic are potential ingredients in home décor if people choose to see their environment through the eyes of nature.”
Gaines pauses and looks at me to examine whether I am following his lecture. I sense that he’d like to change the subject. We are interrupted by a little girl asking the price of a metal frog. Gaines answers, “$12.50” and shows her three nearby frogs painted with a patina he refers to as “unicorn juice.” What’s in it? she asks innocently. “Bee’s wax, linseed oil, and turpentine, plus a whiff of unicorn tail,” he answers matter of factly. “Oh!” she responds, obviously satisfied, as she turns and runs down Planter’s Trail to share her new knowledge with her family. Gaines, meanwhile, hands me a sheaf of worn unicorn posters with the names of famous folk who have personally witnessed the unicorn:
“…but in the morning, after sunrise, comes the unicorn and dips his horn into the stream, driving the poison from it so that the good animals can drink there during the day. This I have seen myself.” – John of Hesse, German priest, 1389.
“I have seen in a place … three score and seventeen unicornes and eliphants [sic] all alive at one time,” – Edward Webbe, English adventurer
“So, what is this place really about?” I inquire. Gaines responds, “You’re a writer, aren’t you?” A cautious confirmation. . ” He continues: “Why, if I were a writer, I’d focus on what customers say. Remember, don’t only ask the messenger. The recipient is the only one who can evaluate these ideas for sale !”
For the next two hours, I interview those who pass by the “Seven Deadly Vices.
As my visit ends and I drive away from The Last Unicorn, I’m struck immediately by how my own surroundings are perfectly functional, yet void of beauty – paved roads, stiff mailboxes, clay flower pots from big chain stores … and then I discover that I’m the newest “customer” of The Last Unicorn without even having spent a dime. Gaines Steer has “sold” me a newfound ability to peruse, shop, consider, and yes, even buy. It takes just one visit to his unicorn’s lair to discover for yourself these ideas whose time has come. Really !