‘What amazes me is that there’s a collector for everything’

Arthur Rooks still remembers his first forays into the world of vintage treasures. As a little boy growing up in Mississippi, he used to accompany his grandma on her garage sale expeditions. Lots of kids would have balked, but Rooks got hooked.

This content was published on November 10, 2013 - 11:00

“She’d come home from her night shift as a nurse, and I’d be waiting for her on the porch all dressed and ready to go,” Rooks recalls with a smile. Both his mother and his grandmother were collectors; his grandfather was a tinkerer. It was from them that Rooks inherited his appreciation for a beautiful bargain that might shine a bit brighter with some extra effort.

In fact, Rooks became so keen on thrift shopping that as a teen, he skipped Sunday school in favour of the flea market: “Otherwise I’d have missed out on all the best stuff!” He’d stow his purchases with a vendor and then meet his family at church like he was supposed to. After church he actually had their blessing to hit the flea market – where he’d hurry back to have a second look at the wares and pick up his loot.

“I made my first deal at 15, when I sold a table that I had restored myself,” says Rooks, still a touch of pride in his voice. He also sold off his baseball cards, though he doesn’t like to think about what they’d be worth now.

Fast-forward 30 years to the Bürkliplatz flea market in Zurich. Dressed in a baseball cap and a hooded sweatshirt, Rooks meets me at the gazebo at noon – several hours after his first inspection of the stalls. You’d think he might be tired, but the energetic 45-year-old talks a mile-a-minute, making me wish desperately that I’d learned shorthand.

Rooks is the creative director of Quintessentia, an online boutique featuring the spoils of his treasure trawls of flea markets and second-hand shops. Its focus is 20th century design in the categories of furniture, art, lighting, housewares and fashion. He also sources specific items on request.

“I can buy across the board because I’m well-versed in many areas,” Rooks says, noting that he’s currently researching Asian pottery. “I love that I’m always learning something new.”

Serial shopper

Rooks hits Bürkliplatz every Saturday, typically as early as 6am, when the sellers are still setting up.

“My favourite stands are the ones where the dealers go into old households and bring all sorts of fresh stuff,” he says, pointing to one with a hodgepodge of items that is in stark contrast to some of its more refined neighbours. However, he finds that there’s too much clothing on offer – a trend that he’s observed at Swiss flea markets over the years.

Shiny or dull, intact or broken, nice or nasty – somebody is apt to want it, says Rooks. “What amazes me is that there’s a collector for everything!”

Every so often, Rooks goes silent and stops in his tracks. I try to guess what’s caught his eye, but he continually surprises me – especially when the find is a scruffy-looking latch-hook rug in orange, beige and purple. It’s the sort of thing some people wouldn’t even want to touch, but Rooks hefts it enthusiastically and praises the geometric pattern. He’s delighted to learn that it was made by the seller’s long-deceased aunt, who attended art school in Zurich. Although the seller can’t confirm it, Rooks has a hunch that the aunt studied with a prominent instructor.

“How much?” he asks. “Oh, I don’t know. Ten or 15 francs?” the woman suggests rather naively. Rooks eagerly bags it for ten, agreeing to try to restore it. But as we walk away, he confides that he could imagine cutting it up and making pillows with it. Hopefully after a good shampoo, I think to myself.

We also stop to look at old photo albums, which Rooks finds simultaneously fascinating and sad.

“I don’t understand why nobody in the family had any interest in keeping them. But you see this all the time,” he says with a puzzled frown.

Rooks makes two other purchases during our time together. One is a delicate gold and turquoise ladies’ vanity set made of Japanese porcelain that he’s sure would be a hit with his clients. The other is a Haydn piano sonata that was hand-printed during the composer’s time.

“This would make a great hostess gift for someone who plays piano. Or as a decoration – even as a lampshade!” he says.

Swiss business

Born in Chicago, Rooks returned to Illinois to study theatre, literature and engineering at Northwestern University. After graduation, he took an apprenticeship at the opera house in Zurich.

“I wanted some international experience,” Rooks explains. Zurich has been his home for the past 24 years. He describes his four-room apartment as a “cabinet of curiosities” with its eclectic mix of antiques, repurposed found objects and 20th century design pieces. In fact, his home will be featured in the February 2014 issue of Architectural Digest.

Rooks finds that the internet has really altered how people buy, sell, and estimate the value of collectables. For example, some dealers base their prices on a few wildly successful online auction sales, thus pricing themselves above the market.

Although he’s not too shy to negotiate while shopping, Rooks prefers it when items have a price tag. He doesn’t like to think that people ask him for more money just because they think he can afford it. However, he’s also had people assume the very opposite.

“Someone was surprised when I bought a vase for CHF70. She said to me, ‘It’s 70, not seven!’ and I said, ‘I know!’” he reports, chalking it up to racism, perhaps. “Then there was the old lady at a flea market in Basel who blurted out, ‘I never met a [black person] who was interested in art,’” says Rooks, shaking his head.

The odd insult aside, Rooks is happy in Switzerland, where he’s really been able to grow his business thanks to savvy collectors before him. He explains that after the Second World War, a “collecting culture” developed in Switzerland while Germany and France were getting back on their feet.

“That’s why you see such good stuff here. The antique dealers and auction houses must have made a mint,” Rooks says.

Handy man

Later, as we tour the century-old Zürcher Brockenhaus second-hand store, it’s clear that Rooks is a regular. He exchanges pleasantries with the staff and shows me some of the highlights, like a collection of furniture that’s just arrived from a fine old hotel.

When I make an impromptu purchase of a small wooden paravent, Rooks kindly takes charge – first by carrying the awkward item downstairs, and then by rustling up some string to make it more portable. He teases the saleswoman for having inferior supplies, joking that the other shops do better. He’s a real pro – tying it in several places so the wings won’t be flapping as I schlepp the darned thing home.

Indeed, Rooks seems happy to help where he can. For example, he’s just agreed to dog-sit for friends for three months as they settle in with a new baby. And it’s not just any dog – but one on a vegan diet for whom he’ll have to cook! Yet cookery is another one of his passions; Rooks has about 250 cookbooks at home, many of them quite old.

“I flip through them for inspiration. There’s something about cookbooks that I love,” Rooks says, noting that his grandmother was a great cook.

And speaking of paravents, Rooks recently recycled some leftovers to create unique room dividers. He took the covers from retired 1960s office lights and mounted them in wooden frames which he then hinged together.

“I like to see the relationship of how things speak to each other – the juxtaposition,” Rooks says, referring also to the way that he would decorate a room.

“If I can imagine living with something, it’s usually the right decision.”

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