CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Tucked into a garage behind an old house off a short gravel road and marked by a hand-lettered sign, the location is as funky as the goods inside.
Welcome to Stew's Vintage and Junk.
A stack of old tin ceiling tiles leans against a shelf. Letters in all sizes cut from tin hang from hooks, along with a collection of small chandeliers. Old quilts are rolled up and stuffed in a box, and old dressers, mirrors and chairs await refinishing or repurposing by new owners.
Mason and Ball jars stacked on an old plant stand are actually fragrant soy candles. In one corner, a small meat grinder has been transformed into a lamp with a metal colander shade. On another table, a new-but-vintage-looking metal "breastplate" lamp glows. There are toys and games, burlap-wrapped Styrofoam Christmas tree forms, and kitchen items, as well as accessories, aprons and more.
The vintage commercial coffee grinder is still used to grind beans for the big coffee pot proprietress Emma Steffens fills on the days she's open. Hot apple cider and cookies also are available, and in the afternoons an old popcorn popper fills the garage with a familiar aroma.
It's a starter location for the ambitious and inventive Steffens, 21, but right now it's perfect for displaying and selling the "picked" and reclaimed items she scores at auctions, garage sales, barn sales, on Craig's List and even alongside the road.
"I've been going to auctions and sales with my mom since I was young, and I've always collected all sorts of things. I wanted to open a business and needed something cheap. I found the garage for rent on Craig's List. I imagine the owner pictured some vintage Mustang or other car being stored in it. Then I pitched my idea. It surprised him but he was all for it," says Steffens, an interior design major at Hawkeye Community College.
The Calamus native and her boyfriend, Spencer Hicks, brainstormed names and came up with Stew's Vintage and Junk. "It's random and quirky and speaks to the junk and vintage stuff that's thrown together like a stew," she says.
Steffens dresses the part, too. On this particular day, she's wearing a repurposed vintage nightgown, lacy apron and leggings with boots. Although she doesn't have a budget for advertising, her Facebook page --- www.facebook.com/stewsjunk --- has received plenty of buzz.
"A lot of younger people are buying this kind of stuff, and older people like the nostalgia of it. I love the mix of old with new, vintage lace, the pastel colors, the feeling of old things. I like to mix the rusty with the modern. You can pay $5 for a dresser, put $10 into it and turn it into something special."
She dreams of using her interior design degree to transform client's homes room by room with her finds.
Her taste has evolved in the things she's willing to purchase at auctions and sales, she admits, "but I won't pass up quilts, chandeliers, feed sacks, dressers, mirrors and tin ceiling tiles. I like repurposing things in unexpected ways. Eventually I plan to do barnwood harvest tables and bed frame canopies."
A friend cuts out the tin letters she likes. She wants to keep her prices affordable and she's willing to negotiate on some items. Steffens sells lots of items as props to photographers, and in fact, she shares the garage with an upstairs photo studio.
Venturing into business was the result of her boyfriend's move to the University of Northern Iowa where he plays football. They are the parents of Peyton, a busy and engaging 2-year-old.
"I was a rebel in high school and got pregnant my senior year," Steffens confesses. The couple got serious about life, bought a house, and when Spencer got a second chance to play football, they sold the house, moved here and Steffens went back to school.
She's only open three days a week, and for now, that's enough. Steffens also recently opened a second shop in Calumus that her mom and sister will run (www.facebook.com/stewstwo), and operates booths at Little Prairie Girl in Holland and Junk Asylum in Eldridge.
"People are surprised at my age and energy, but I'm a go-getter. I just think about going to all those auctions as a kid, and now it's my job and I love it."