Tim Torrey is an unlikely matchmaker.
The retired Coast Guard cook with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts lights up when he talks about making love connections. But he’s not finding people their soul mates, he’s finding them things — the sort of things that revive childhood memories, complete a treasured collection or finish off a tastefully decorated room.
He’s been in the antique business for more than 16 years and says he loves every minute.
“It’s just very exciting to see these things that still exist and bring them here and show them to people,” said Torrey, who owns The Old Creamery Antique Mall in Ellsworth.
He describes his profession as a historical show-and-tell in which the items eventually find their way to new homes. He just hopes he gets to hang onto them for a little while first.
On a spring afternoon, Torrey showed off two boxes of recently acquired glass Christmas ornaments from the 1950s. The boxes of jewel-toned pieces still bore the original price — 60 cents.
While the decorations are not exceptionally valuable (although certainly worth more than 60 cents), they are a lasting remnant of happy times gone by.
“So many of these were thrown out or broken,” Torrey said, reverently running his hand over the glass bulbs.
Next, he brings out a Civil War belt buckle found in the attic of a Deer Isle estate. He recalls his excitement upon making the discovery in a gun case made by the homeowner’s ancestor.
He said years of experience have taught him the value of looking closely.
“One thing you learn in this business is ugly is sometimes awesome,” Torrey said.
He nearly passed up on a grimy light fixture while cleaning out a local home, but changed his mind at the last minute. The piece turned out to be a highly collectible Pairpoint puffy lamp.
A handmade carving of an Inuit whaling boat was a more recent find.
Torrey’s passion for antiques began with a five-year stint as caretaker of the Woodlawn Museum, often referred to as the Black House by locals. The 180-acre Federal-style Ellsworth estate was built by Col. John Black between 1824 and 1827.
Torrey said he was amazed by the museum’s furnishings, which have beautifully withstood the test of time — right down to the hand-sewn linens on the beds.
His cousin Margaret Falvey got him hooked on the antique-dealing business. Falvey ran a shop on Water Street and Torrey opened a booth in the space. He later took a booth at the Old Creamery. When the previous owners decided to sell, he took the plunge.
Torrey renovated the basement of the former ice cream plant, doubling the retail space. Several vendors rent space in the more-than-6,000-square-foot building.
Most of Torrey’s stock comes from area estates. Many Maine homes have been occupied by the same family for generations, but the youngest generations have often moved on. When an older family member dies, the heirs need help sorting through their loved ones’ belongings and clearing the home for sale.
It can be fascinating sifting through possessions accumulated over decades.
“People who lived through the Depression era, they saved everything,” right down to used flour sacks, Torrey explained.
He spends time researching each item he brings into his shop in order to share its story with customers. He enlists area experts for help identifying items he’s not familiar with.
“My cousin’s advice was that ‘You can’t know everything, so try to know one thing very well,’” Torrey said. “Her thing was jewelry.”
Torrey’s favorite subject is furniture. He is also passionate about the work of local potter Denis Vibert and carries many of the late Sullivan ceramist’s pieces in his shop.
When he comes across antiques with a strong connection to Ellsworth history, he donates them to local historians or the historical society.
Customer experience is key at the Old Creamery. There’s free coffee, a public restroom and local delivery. Vacationers can have their purchases shipped.
“I have great customers,” Torrey said. “I always try to take care of the local people.”
One of the best parts of the job is hearing browsers exclaim over items they remember from their own childhoods.
“They know they had it, but they don’t know where it went to,” he said.
Sometimes a customer will discover dishware in a long-sought after pattern needed to complete or replace a family set.
Visiting an antique shop is a different experience than shopping for antiques online, Torrey said.
“Here you can see them and feel them before you buy them,” he said.
There’s also a greater chance of stumbling across something that you never knew you needed until you saw it.
“I love hooking people up,” Torrey said. “It’s fun.”
The Old Creamery is located at 13 Hancock St. in Ellsworth. It’s open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (207) 667-0522 or visit http://www.oldcreameryantiquemall.com/.