Visit to Another World: Balcony Row Antiques (Holly, MI)
Let's start with the town itself. Holly, Michigan, has several distinct features, some of which mesh together nicely, others take more of a leap.
Let's restart by casting the widest net: Holly is home to a huge month-long Renaissance Festival held nearby close to the State Park. This is a high-level production with daily true-to-life jousting matches featuring everything but gore. Armored knights are knocked off racing horses. Stuntmen and WWF types populate the actors who are masters of medieval fighting arts. Daily live falconry exhibits happen next to the jousting. Hundreds of "players" stroll the grounds re-enacting at a high level, both free agents and those involved in the show. Dozens of booths show crafts being made and/or sold. The smells of leather, roast meat and beer are in the air. Other booths get you even more into the carnival spirit, such as "throw tomatos at the jester." Archery and axes come into play as well. Old-time faire-rides. Fun for all. If you visit the Faire I suppose you'll be too tired afterward to visit Holly so I mention it only as background and as its own separate destination. I would think it's a nationally ranked quality of Ren Fair. Come early and your day will disappear. I personally like the colors, layers and voluptuary. :)
The State Park itself is famous for its beauty and its trails. It's a mt-bike mecca that I've heard about but never ridden. There's a "ski bump" lift-served ski hill nearby.
Let's now go into town. It's a well-preserved small town near Fenton. Actually, let's wander wider again: Fenton is home to "Guns Galore," a great gun shop. It also has a nice little old-fashioned downtown, with quaint bookstore, arcitectural/relic hardware store, and 2 or 3 nicer restaurants and cafes all on one side of one block.
Back to Holly: I like to key off of the Holly Hotel. It's a well-preserved restaurant (no inn) with tablecloths and waiters in aprons, zinc bar and ceiling fans. Nice, quiet, simple. Higher-end food with restraint and dignity yet also low-key. It also surprised me years ago with its "all wines $18" list. Googling them now I see they still do something like this, saying they were an innovator in fair-market wine pricing. There's a comedy club in the basement. They try. It seems like a place that makes an effort. I've been impressed. Serving food for 3 centuries. http://www.hollyhotel.com.
Then there are 3 initial antique shops to savor: A little bargain shop in a park near the railroad tracks. In Battle Alley (historic plaque is a must-read) there's an antique mall set up like a little town inside with narrow brick walk and two storeys. Lots to explore there. On Main Street there's a large antique shop with dozens of booths, including one with an interesting range of sporting goods (including Herter bows and many BB guns).
Finally, we arrive at our star attraction.
I've enjoyed visiting it for over 10 years now. I notice that it doesn't have any online presence. There's one little mention of it at a geocaching site, of all places. I did mention it in a print issue of OYB years ago, but I figured it was time for some better coverage.
I'll start as if I were you, unaware of it, as I was when once I noticed a corner door of what seemed like it might be a shop, which was across the street from the bargain shop in the park, a block toward the tracks from the Hotel. The window is dark. The display windows look neglected. There's no apparent name. But I pushed the door and it opened.
Now, I warn you that by me telling you about this place I'm spoiling it for you somewhat. It's best if you just walk in and discover it all for yourself. Let it be a mysterious surprise. Thankfully these photos are blurry, perhaps more evocative than detailed. (I took some video, too, which I'll upload to YouTube.) But if you insist, I'll show you around...
Inside it's dark and cool. It looks like a museum, hung in tapestries and fine wood furnishings and paneling, paintings on easels. An elderly lady might emerge from a side room to greet you. I walked in further to a room on the left and found more high-level antiques on display. I wandered through more rooms, and more rooms. I saw a set of iron grate doors and peeked through a dirty window into a lush courtyard with a bubbling fountain. I walked through narrow, low-ceilinged hallways lined with books and hardwood paneling with little hidden speakers playing classical music. I went into a room of medieval paneling and church doors. I found a couple small siderooms -- one dedicated to Napoleania, another roped off of Lincolniana, a room of Civil War books and relics, a wall of African books and relics. Then I turned a corner and found myself on a brick walkway in a lamplit part of some 1800's town. ...And there was a cave entrance with rock paintings inside. I walked in. It glowed with firelight. I followed the narrow passage around a bend...
OK, so far this was the freakiest antique shop I'd ever been in or could've imagined. Each quiet little room or courtyard transported me further back into some era or another. I was overwhelmed at the display of civility. Now this!
...The winding, narrow cave was full of dioramas depicting the stages of civilization from prehistoric days up to the 1800's. Below each diorama was another display of actual tool artifacts from the periods. I wound around quite a ways, studying maybe 8 scenes then I popped out again into cool shade and classical music. (It turns out these dioramas were bought from the U of M and installed in a specially made room-labyrinth. In the 1930's they were on display at the Field Museum of Chicago.)
I was by this point disoriented and lost. I'd been through a dozen rooms with windows that only looked into other rooms or courtyards. The store must be the size of a city block, and a strange one at that.
In trying to get to the front I then ended up in a farthest, darkest corner. There was a doorway I walked through to another hall and there was a little room with a glowing light off to the side. I peeked in and there, jammed in a 3 foot space between cabinets, was an easy chair with a well-dressed older man reading a book sitting in it. He looked up and asked "May I help you?"
And so I met Mr. Hilty, proprietor.
He's a sizeable, mellow-voiced man who is now 84. Avuncular. Distinguished. He's a Lincoln expert and we had a nice chat about Lincoln's cabinet, pistol calibers and other things. I've only visited with him a few times but he might even be genteel. Possibly Lucious Beebe-esque. He seems a bit bigger than his surroundings -- someone who has cultivated his worldview a bit beyond the norm. He and his wife have traveled the world a few times collecting the things which are in their shop. They used to own a gas station at the biggest intersection in Detroit. When they sold it they started traveling. I finally also met Evelyn and was able to put a name to the lady in her doored-and-windowed office up near the front.
The place is called Balcony Row Antiques and it's not well-covered on the Internet. They said they have no computers and that "we're from the olden days." Although their most recent effort is online.
James Hilty is appreciative of visitors and can answer questions. There appear to be other helpers around from time to time. They may well have the best collection of Lincolniana outside of major museums. The little room dedicated to it is roped off, not for sale. But I assume one can visit items for reference.
They also used to own and then were partners in the Holly Hotel.
But now their labor of love is Garden Park, a mile outside of town. It's an Italian Renaissance styled facility set up in a courtyard arrangement of fountains, gardens and espaliered trees. It's available for hire for events such as weddings. We took a trip out to visit it with Mr. Hilty maybe 10 years ago, before it was open for hire. It's also quite boggling in its lovely civility and uniqueness. In the Mediterranean style there are a couple indoor/outdoor rooms with furniture and carpets but no walls -- probably only set out in summer. There's also an amazing Library of Lincolniana accessible by appointment. http://gardenparkinc.com.
Determining the hours of Balcony Row isn't the easiest. Call ahead. 248.634.1400. I'm thinking there are a couple days a week it's closed.
So that's Holly.
Oh, across the street from the big shop on Main Street is a slot-car racing facility that's buzzing with racing fever some nights. Take a peek. Dozens of racers of all ages might be inside with their tackleboxes of little cars and parts. Cars are expertly whizzing around the complex racetracks set up on tables. ...That's something, too.
I highly recommend you set aside at least an hour for Balcony Row. Visit with perhaps one other friend. Let yourself go. It's like your own private museum experience. ...And if you might have a place for something really special, the wares are for sale. I've bought a few rare books there over the years. If I wanted something really cool and special and truly antique it would be a good place to find it.
And see if you can find Mr. Hilty. Say Hi. Ask a question. It'll be worth your while.
Then repair to the Hotel to let it all sink in. That's what I like to do.