Weird, Wacky, Wonderful: Touring Oberlin’s Secondhand Stores

Regardless of what you’re looking for — be it a winter coat, a functional end table, a bright purple wig, a Victorian bodice, or a frog-shaped vase — odds are you can find it at one of Oberlin’s independently-owned secondhand stores. Even if you don’t have a pre-planned shopping list, you’ll likely find at least one must-buy item while perusing nooks, crannies, and whimsical displays. 

However, one fact that is nearly certain is that when you walk in the door of one of these shops, you’ll meet a long-time Oberlin resident behind the checkout counter. 

Brent Coward, for instance, owns and curates the Mad Cow Curiosity Shop, which is tucked away behind a blue door and up a flight of stairs on West College Street. Coward grew up in Oberlin — he describes himself as a “third-generation Oberlinian” — and has been operating Mad Cow for four and a half years.

“I want Mad Cow to be warm, welcoming, and fun,” Coward said.  “I want walking in here to be as comfortable as walking into your living room, you know?”

Coward has definitely cultivated that kind of quirky, homey atmosphere in his store. On the day that I spoke with him, he had Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory playing on the in-store TV and an acid jazz playlist blaring through his sound system. 

So, what kinds of things can you buy at Mad Cow? Posters, skateboards, vintage clothing, unusual hats, records, cassette tapes, shoes, and room decor, for starters. Oh, and handmade mid-century Italian spaghetti hair cat figurines, which is something you need to see for yourself — you can find them under the giant wall-mounted fish by the fitting room.

Coward is old-school; he doesn’t do any advertising, and he relies on word-of-mouth to bring people into his store. He described getting to know customers as one of the most rewarding parts of his job.

“I’m very happy to meet people of all walks of life … that’s why I do what I do,” Coward said. “I get to meet awesome people here every day, and I get to know ’em. And that’s what makes this job fun.” 

In the future, Coward would like to transform Mad Cow into more than just a secondhand store. He teased that after-hours movie nights and tarot readings might be on the horizon. 

Laurel Kirtz, who has owned the consignment store All Things Great on South Main Street for the past five years, is less motivated by getting to know customers than Coward, but she cares deeply about making her store service-oriented. She wants to help people, whether they’re people who want to get rid of unneeded items or people looking to beef up their wardrobe. 

“I’m not a moneymaker,” Kirtz said. “My objective isn’t to make money. My objective is to serve people.”

Kirtz calls herself a “professional stuff-handler.” Before owning All Things Great, she worked as a declutterer for twenty years. She enjoys the process of arranging displays and sorting items; she calls it “her obsession” and says it’s one of the most satisfying parts of her job.

All Things Great is mostly stocked with clothes. And — insider scoop — if you’re looking for 40s-style hats, expertly-restored Victorian clothing, or a Xena: Warrior Princess kite, it’s the place to go.

Just slightly off of the main drag of downtown Oberlin is Main Street Antiques, Oberlin’s only antique store. Main Street Antiques is a treasure trove of furniture, collectibles, home decor, and even farming tools. The surrounding area doesn’t get much foot traffic, but the store attracts Oberlin students and residents nonetheless. On the day I visited, I met a group of Oberlin students in search of unique decor. They were excited to show off their purchases, which included but weren’t limited to a jar of buttons, a mirror, a jewelry box, a collection of shot glasses, a butter dish, and doilies. 

College second-year Lila Banker found a set of “ceramic chickens with beautiful fabric legs” that she hasn’t committed to yet, but that she’s considering saving up for.

“This place has so much good stuff — so many little trinkets,” College second-year Sorah Guthrie said. 

Londa Blaine and Deidre Gargasz, both of whom grew up in Oberlin, are two of the 14 vendors that co-own and run Main Street Antiques. They described their friendship as having a “rocky start,” but they said that they’ve grown close after working together for nearly 15 years. 

“[I work with a group of vendors]. It’s a good group of people,” Gargasz said. “We take care of each other. Everybody helps everybody else. … It’s like a family, and that’s wonderful.”

Both Blaine and Gargasz are self-declared “collectors” who enjoy searching for unique items. Blaine sells mostly tools and farm equipment, while Gargasz sells small, decorative items and cookies made from her family recipe — which, according to her, have a bit of a cult following in Oberlin. They also both enjoy the experience of getting to know regulars in the shop, as well as introducing tourists to their town. They expressed that they appreciate the store being frequented by Oberlin students

Each of these stores — Mad Cow, All Things Great, and Main Street Antiques — are full of character. They offer slightly different experiences, but all three are run by people who care deeply about the work they do and the community that they are a part of. So, before rushing to Goodwill, consider paying them a visit.