Nevada antiques dealer finds home for pieces of state’s past

Updated November 4, 2018 - 11:35 pm

GENOA — Antiques dealer Ron Bommarito leaned back on a wooden chair outside his old curiosity shop and talked about an enduring lifelong passion: his tireless efforts to find and collect valuable treasures of yesteryear. And the quirky stories behind them.

Just the other day, he was out scrounging, or “antique picking,” talking to old-timers across central Nevada — people who responded to his postings left on country bulletin boards — about which family keepsakes they’d be willing to part with.

At age 70, he’s a restless wanderer, gumshoe, negotiator, voracious collector, self-taught historian and, to top it all off, genuine glad-hander.

And when he sees something he wants, he strikes — like the rattlers that populate Northern Nevada’s high-desert in the shadow of the eastern Sierra.

On this day, the pickings were slim, but Bommarito still whipped out his wallet to buy a vintage road sign, some hard-worn cowboy spurs, miner’s candlesticks from the 1870s and an ancient bronze doorstop fashioned in the shape of a dog.

He calls them the trophies of his hunt — not just the antiques but the patiently told yarns and tall tales of how they were used and preserved. And unlike a museum curator who reaped the benefits of some family’s generosity, Bommarito knows the hard work it takes to seek out and find all those owner-storytellers in the first place.

“I like hearing the stories firsthand,” he said. “Most everything I own, I can pick up and say, ‘I got this from Old Joe and this is the story I remember about it.’ Of course, they might be all lies, but they’re good old lies you got from some crusty old-timers, some real Western characters. Tons of them have passed away.”

Long before such shows as “American Pickers” became popular TV fare, Bommarito and other antique scroungers from his generation were knocking on the doors of old-timers to size up their wares. Bommarito has amassed a sprawling private collection of Nevada history, some of it offered for sale in one of the state’s oldest antique stores. He calls it the Genoa Museum and Archives.

“He’s got so much Nevada history,” said Mike Holland, a fellow collector who spent decades picking by Bommarito’s side. “I enjoy going to his shop to watch the reactions of some of his customers. “You need a flashlight in there. It’s dark.”

‘Mystique and authenticity’

More than just any antique bazaar, Bommarito’s emporium of fine old things is equal parts antique jungle, musty pharaoh’s tomb and crazy hoarder’s lair. Bommarito bought the shop in this historic frontier town about 13 miles south of Carson City in 1969 and spent nearly a half-century filling the stone-and-wooden building with piles of historic Western bric-a-brac that teeter unsteadily like dusty houses of cards.

Customers must pick their way along one narrow aisle that loops past the main display case, behind which the owner perches like a sphinx ready to answer the occasional question, an old relic in camouflage-colored clothes who blends in with his artifacts. He knows one unguarded elbow could cause items worth anywhere from just a few bucks to many thousands to topple to the floor.

But the proprietor insists that’s just how any antique store worth its salt should be.

He also manages a hard-to-reach back area with even more stuff, now closed off because the proprietor can’t keep an eye on it, and other out buildings where he keeps his vast and yet-to-be cataloged collection.

“There’s a mystique and authenticity to the place,” he said. “This is what an old antique store looked like when I was a kid.”

And he has no time for yuppies who roll in from the city looking for pretty baubles with neatly written price tags. His store, he said, is for the legitimate antique explorer.

As he sat outside entertaining guests, two women shoppers walked across the porch’s creaking floorboards, past an 1885 spring wagon on display, and tentatively approached the open door, as though fearful of the contents quietly lurking inside.

“You can go in,” Bommarito told them. “But be careful. Don’t kill yourself.”

They take a few steps inside the darkened shop and return within seconds.

“You all right?” Bommarito asked cheerily.

“It’s a little overwhelming, I have to say,” one woman said.

The proprietor watched them slink off toward the bar next door. “This store isn’t for everyone,” he whispered. “Myself, I get along most with the people who get it.”

Bommarito isn’t just a collector; like many of his clients, he’s also a storyteller.

His family owned ranches in both St. Helena, California, and Northern Nevada, and he spent the summers of his youth in both places. He and other boys collected Civil War weapons, and his friend’s father often took them to hock shop hideaways in San Francisco to buy guns and swords.

His first foray into antiques commerce came when he told a stranger about how he’d found some Old West wagons in an abandoned ranch near St. Helena.

“He bought the wheels from me,” he recalled, “even though they weren’t mine to sell.”

Back then, he pocketed the 50 cents his mother gave him for lunch every day and saved $50 to buy a Civil War carbine rifle that today is worth thousands.

At age 15, he took a job in a Gardnerville antique store called The Purple Bottle, taking his pay in old bottles. Eventually, he helped dig up thousands of old whisky and potion bottles discarded by prospectors, making enough money to buy a Corvette while still a teenager.

By then, he had caught the antique collecting bug.

After dropping out of college, he served as a historian in the National Guard and later did a stint as a federal fish and game ranger, using his travels across Northern Nevada’s back country to hunt for antiques.

Part museum, part antique shop

At age 22, he bought the building that would become his antique shop. By then, the old structure was itself an antique. Built in 1866, soon after Nevada became a state, it served miscellaneous uses, including general store and telegraph station.

Now, Bommarito had a place to store his growing collection, which focused on all things Nevada and the Wild West. He quickly developed his own style when buying antiques. “Instead of fooling round and getting just the one thing in my specialty, I’d buy the whole collection and spin off the other stuff.”

Judging by the clutter of his shop, not a lot of stuff got spun off.

He leads a tour of the back storage area, much like a docent at his own private museum.

“Here’s a Mormon diary right here,” he begins, “written in 1847.”

He rummages around his collection, pulling out items and relating their stories. There’s the 1920s flak jacket his grandfather wore when, according to Bommarito, he knew aviator Charles Lindbergh. He pulls out card shavers used by gambling cheats, an old door from the Nevada State prison, a railroad lantern, a cigar store Indian, an 1866 frock coat worn by Moses Tibbs, the second district attorney in Douglas County, as well as a diary kept by a settler who ventured across the Oregon Trail by covered wagon.

There are various military uniforms, sepia-toned photographs, a wooden crossbar that supported one of the Nevada Territory’s first telegraph lines and a guest ledger kept at the old Silver House hotel in Silver City before it burned down in 1876. In the past, he’s sold tattered denim jeans worn by the old-time miners, the last pair for thousands.

“I like to keep the best stuff for myself,” he said.

But don’t call Bommarito a pack rat or a hoarder.

“A pack rat is indiscriminate, and I don’t hoard things,” he said. “But the stuff I do keep is flat-out valuable. It’s good history. You hear people say, ‘I had one of those once.’ Well, chances are, I still have mine.”

He picks up a diary he said was kept by one of Custer’s men.

“I know how hard I worked to find things like this,” Bommarito said. “And in a way it just ticks me off that some guy with money can just walk in and buy it.”

When it comes to buying stuff from sellers, Bommarito offered this self-assessment. “If they’re square with me, I’ll be square with them,” he said. “I’ll tell them what I think something is worth if they ask me.”

But there was the garage sale where he met an old codger selling a shotgun. “I asked him, “Do you have any other old guns?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I got one but I know what it’s worth and I won’t take one penny less.’ ”

The man returned with a Buffalo rifle he said his great-grandfather had twice carried back and forth from Texas, a story Bommarito later corroborated. He paid the asking price for the weapon, which is now worth considerably more.

“If he would have asked me what the gun was worth, I would have been honest,” he said. “But oh no! He already knew the answer to that question.”

Thrill of the hunt

Every now and then, when he gets the itch, he’ll head out for some scrounging in old mining towns such as Austin, Goldfield and Tonopah.

Holland recalled when the pair knocked on the door of a spooky ranch near Fallon, greeted by a nearly naked, white-haired woman.

“Ron and I just looked at each other, and I said, ‘We’re looking for old stuff and you seem to have a lot,’” Holland said. “She said ‘Oh, I don’t have nothin’.” And I said, ‘Can we at least have a look?’”

When she turned on the light, the pair of pickers saw gold: Her walls were filled with Indian baskets she’d been given over the years. They bought most of them.

Bommarito admits he likes the thrill of the hunt as much as the trophy. “This is a sport and I enjoy winning,” he said. “But I’m getting older. I don’t have the killer instincts I had when I was 30.”

In the early 1980s, a Hollywood crew offered Bommarito $5,000 to use his house to film the movie “Honky Tonk Man” starring Clint Eastwood. “That was a lot of money in those days, but he wanted $7,000,” and turned them down, Holland said. “That’s Ron.”

On this afternoon, Bommarito is still rummaging in his backroom, considering prizes and victories past. There’s a bearskin jacket worn by an old stagecoach driver and an original 1860 banner from the Nevada Territory’s first fire department in Virginia City.

“The stuff in here,” he said, “it just goes on and on forever.”

John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com.

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