Jeff Garbs enjoys nostalgia. It’s not a desire for any specific time period, but a general appreciation of the ephemera, furnishings and assorted gems or oddities of the past. It’s perfect for someone in his business. He scours flea markets, estate sales, run-down thrift shops and side- of-the-road giveaway tents to find those diamonds in the rough that can be resold for a reasonable chunk of change.
Garbs, who works as a self-proclaimed wheeler-dealer at South congress avenue institution Uncommon Objects, didn’t always know what direction his life was headed, but he always had an eye for funky, offbeat items that would have broader appeal. “If you had asked me when I was 12 what I was going to do, this would not be it at all,” he said. “I would have said I was going to be an accountant.”
When Garbs worked at the popular purveyor of Tex-Mex known as Chuy’s in the late 1980s, his supervisors would give him a trailer and some cash and he’d drive all over the city hunting for items to decorate the restaurants with. Uncommon objects had, at that point, just opened into a larger space, and the owners knew Garbs through mutual friends and offered him a space in the store.
At the time, he was living with his wife in their first apartment and they’d been checking out a number of different garage sales for decorating finds. In addition, Garbs ’ mother was an antique dealer, so in a way his wheeler-dealer tendencies are innate. While hunting for his own stuff, he’d find extra items–a 60s-style lamp or a slightly shabby side table, for instance–which he just couldn’t leave behind.
Garbs, who grew up in the small gulf coast city of Vidor, which had a reputation as being a haven for the Ku Klux Klan, has an older brother and a younger sister. His parents divorced when he was 15, and although he’s not close to either of his siblings, he has recently been trying to reconnect with his mother. “I think I had to find myself first,” he said, displaying an easy candor that was evident throughout the conversation.
Back in the store’s early days, South Congress Avenue wasn’t the hip, tourist-friendly boulevard it’s become. Women would not walk around alone at night, and the area was rife with all sorts of sketchy behavior and bad vibes. Of course, business owners–such as Uncommon Objects owner Steve Wiman and hotelier Liz Lambert, to name just two– turned the neighborhood around. Garbs fondly recalled the old days and noted how far he’s come, having grown along with the area. “I used to think $300 a week was amazing,”
He said. “Now if I don’t get that in a day, I start to panic.” Garbs took a detour in the late 90s to, of all places, Miami, where he fell into a position styling shoots for renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber. His break from the capital city was needed after he and his wife divorced. The two had married when Garbs was only 19. His latent discovery of his attraction to men was the catalyst for their split, which was highly charged and very difficult for both of them. They’d been seeing separate therapists, but Garbs eventually came out to his therapist and admitted his attraction to men as well as women. With his wife, “It was very emotional, we both cried and we stayed friends for awhile,” said Garbs. “Then she got bitter and said I stole her youth.”
His then-wife pretty much gave him an ultimatum, so he decided to leave the city for a bit. “I just kind of snuck into that job as a stylist,” Garbs said, noting that he moved back to Austin in 1998.
After staying in Austin for a few years, he moved to Galveston in 2002. He was still there when the fierce winds and storm surge of Hurricane Ike ravaged the small coastal community on September 13, 2008. Although for the most part he enjoyed living there, Garbs said that the average age of the gay male population there was much older. Even so, he returns to Galveston once a month to go to the flea market in Winnie.
Eventually, when he returned to Austin two years ago, a space at Uncommon Objects opened up and he took it. Later, several spaces next to it became available and finally, a space in the store’s back room. Garbs ’ finds are slowly but surely taking over a big chunk of the shop, which has as its tag line: Raw materials for creative living.
“It’s come around full circle,” Garbs said, explaining how he got from where he started, went off-track and then got back to a great place. “Everything I knew about Austin [before] was partying.” now, Garbs can consistently be found either working at Uncommon objects or, if not there, out on the prowl for newfound goods.
“When I divorced Nicole and came out of the closet, I pretty much kicked the door down,” Garbs said, noting that he was 30 years old when they divorced. “I’m really grateful for her; she was my best friend, but there were so many lies there. My life would have been totally different if I had never married her.”
“It takes a lot of queers to make an antique mall,” Garbs said, laughing. “We all have different styles though.”
Garbs is hard to pin down when asked about his own style and how he likes to decorate his place. “I love American modern, Eames and stuff like that,” he said. Then he confessed, “But I always end up hanging a disco ball in my kitchen or collecting plaster meat or something like that. I really just can’t grow up.”
Nevertheless, over the years there have been particular finds that Garbs can’t part with. Those include a life-size poster of Marilyn Monroe that was a radio promotion from 1953 in its original tube (from a dealer in Port Arthur that cost more to frame than buy); a World War II-era hula girl lamp where the girl actually dances (purchased in Galveston for $5); and an early Eames Zenith rocking chair (that was initially in such bad shape that he couldn’t sit in it).
If you ever see someone driving a loaded-down 2006 Chevy Silverado around town or elsewhere in Texas, you’ll know you’ve spotted Garbs. Other than checking out flea markets and garage sales and Salvation Army stores, Garbs regularly goes to Round Top, one of the largest flea markets in the country that takes place outside of La grange, Texas.
Even so, despite all the traveling and relocating, this king of the treasured discovery is at home and at peace in Austin. He will still travel far, however, if you’re his customer and you want something that he does not yet have. He’ll track it down and bring it back. “All the antique stores in this town scratch each other’s backs,” he said. “If I don’t have something you’re looking for, I’ll tell you where you can get it. It’s a good sense of family.”
The tipping point came when Garbs had really gotten a good, long look at himself. He couldn’t see himself achieving his goals or going anywhere and he knew he had to turn things around. “I can’t beat myself up for what I’ve done; you have to learn from it. I was going nowhere fast,” Garbs said. “I knew what to do and something just clicked. I don’t drink like I used to anymore.”
Even though he’s flirted with the idea of opening his own store or going solo in some way, he’s content with what he has now. “I really feel like it’s moving in the direction of growing within the store because I don’t have to deal with all the things that Steve (Wiman, the owner) has to deal with.”
Garbs is looking forward to getting more involved in volunteering with one of the city’s numerous nonprofits. Being back in Austin and having made the choice to change his life has given Garbs a chance to get to know people in new ways and form stronger bonds. “It’s nice knowing I could do, and I did do it.”