For Gep Durenberger, Antiquarian

My best-ever boss has passed away.   

I haven’t seen Gep since the 1990s, but we stayed in touch for nearly 30 years.  I with newsy notes about my growing family and professional aspirations; he with letters and postcards in big friendly brown-ink handwriting offering words of praise, encouragement, and tidbits of his own news. A note or letter to Gep was always rewarded with a response. I’ve saved them all.

I graduated from Boston University and was married simultaneously. Then straight back to California, all the while wondering if taking my degree in American Studies out of New England was such a good idea. I found G.R. Durenberger Antiquarian, Inc. by looking through ads in the back of The Magazine Antiques. A smiling photo of Gep, shirt sleeves rolled up, leaning on a French fauteuil—surely that would be a good place for me. I took a chance and sent my resume and cover letter; characteristically, Gep responded.

Durenberger’s was a magical place. Across the street from the San Juan Capistrano mission sat the little adobe cottage with antique windows and a hand painted sign: “G.R. Durenberger, Antiquarian.” It was a locked shop, and yet the friendliest of all places. Inside the little house were several rooms filled with 18th and 19th century French and English antiques. In the winter a crackling fire was stoked all day by one of two furniture “doctors” who cleaned, polished and repaired the antiques. In the courtyard, a low fountain splashed, koi swam, and the sound of mission bells transported.

Before my time, Gep had lived in the back building that both formed the courtyard and dampened the sound of passing trains heading in and out of the San Juan Capistrano Depot. When I was there all the rooms in the back building had become an extension of the shop, with only one exception.  A tiny loft at the top of a steep narrow staircase was reserved as private space for Gep. He would retreat there for an hour or two on most days to write personal notes and letters. A small part of my job was to keep Gep stocked in cream linen “G.R. Durenberger” postcards and brown-ink ball point pens.

Tuesday mornings (our “Monday”) launched with a flurry of activity to ready the shop for business hours. We dusted, arranged flowers freshly cut from Gep’s garden, and generally honed the look of each room. The result was a feeling of effortlessness. A paisley shawl tossed over the back of a chair, fruit piled on a ceramic dish, slightly rumpled down-filled cushions, a whiff of woodsmoke. Nothing looked contrived or precious because ultimately the shop was a reflection of Gep himself—charming, inviting, unselfconscious. 

The clientele at Durenberger’s covered a wide spectrum: collectors, members of wealthy old Southern California families, a bunch of intensely coiffed interior designers, demanding socialites, sullen gentlemen with trophy wives, and the occasional celebrity. (“The kids tell me you’re famous,” said Gep to one such visitor. We winced, then Gep sold her a huge rug that we shipped to her New York apartment.) Drop-ins were rare, but always warmly received. Return customers, on the other hand, wanted to be certain to find Gep in. Those who planned visits were often treated to a jolly tea party featuring a pot of Earl Grey and a plate of Fig Newtons served on 19th century ceramics.  

Durenberger’s was not a place to look for museum quality antiques, and Gep was quick to point out that “fine and rare” (a phrase favored by the antiques trade), could not be used to describe anything in our inventory. But in Gep’s hands the shop in San Juan Capistrano truly was magical, and when he was there the place overflowed with his spirit of kindness, enthusiasm, fun, and generosity. To me, nothing could be more fine or more rare. Godspeed Gep. ✛