NEW OXFORD, Pa. - In the back of the Center Square Antiques shop, my friend Paula examines a yellow wooden box near an intricately carved birdhouse. She admires the dovetailing that substitutes for nails and guesses that the painted design is original. She points to another feature. "It's got great hinges."

Great hinges? Not something I've thought much about. But I do know one thing: $4,900 for an old box is out of my price range and beyond my comprehension.

I favor contemporary furniture and accessories. When I'm going to shell out hard-earned cash, I want the goods to be shiny and new - no cuts, cracks, or chinks. When something I've bought is peeling or chipped, I return it for a new one.

To me, antiques stores look like junk shops - places that charge astronomical prices for dusty, used stuff.

So when Paula suggested that I spend a weekend antiquing in this little town, home to 500-plus antiques dealers, I told her that she had to come along. Someone was going to have to explain what I was missing.

That's how we ended up in "the little town with the beautiful circle," as the Chamber of Commerce calls it. We drove into the one-horse town, nine miles east of Gettysburg, on a sunny Saturday via a two-lane road and parked in the circle - the town's center.

An orientation walk has us gazing up at the clock tower of the 1887 Emory United Methodist Church and peeking into the windows of the historic 1763 Kuhn Tavern, the oldest building in town. When we reach Center Square Antiques, Paula's heart melts at the sight of two of her loves: antiques and garden supplies. And we haven't even gone inside yet. The grounds are filled with fountains, sculptures, trellises, and large pots.

Paula gushes over the treasure trove. She loves a stone rabbit, among many other things. "It's somewhat realistic, but quirky," she says. "Which I can be."

For a brief moment, I think about pricing a metal trellis and plant holder for my balcony. But it's rusty.

Some people scrape off the rust and repaint, Paula explains. Others leave it as is. "If it's cheap enough, who cares? Some people really love rusty."

Hmm. Where I grew up, surrounded by Danish modern furniture, the only thing rust indicated was time for a tetanus shot.

Inside the shop, we walk among the fine furniture, clocks, and stoneware. Paula points to a folding "tilt" table that she describes as being good for small rooms. She calls a metal-bar structure near the door a towel rack. "It could be," she says. "That's how I see it."

It's clear that, like the young boy in The Sixth Sense, Paula can see things that I can't.

Before I know it, we've spent almost an hour at the shop. Shockingly, I'm not bored. But I'm ready for a rest after our drive. We commandeer a booth at a restaurant called On the Square - despite the fact that it's on a circle. It's almost as perplexing as antiques shopping.

After lunch, we head to Golden Lane Art & Antique Gallery, a three-story antiques "mall" containing goods from hundreds of dealers. Glass cases hold Civil War artifacts, small French papier-mâché soldiers (eight for $695), handcrafted baby shoes from 1896 ($125), and ice-cream scoops.

"It smells musty in here," I tell Paula. "Welcome to antiquing," she replies.

With her help, my vocabulary broadens as we scrutinize items unusual and mundane. Gateleg tables. Plank-bottom chairs. A Hoosier cabinet. Side-by-sides. A cane-bottom high chair. A pie safe.

Pie safe! Heaven forbid that someone should steal the pie - or a slice. Actually, the green cabinet on legs, with shelves and doors with screens, was used to cool pies when you didn't have a screened-in windowsill to rest them on.

Paula murmurs "great" and "lovely" many times as we wander. "The workmanship on this stuff - you can't hold a candle to it unless you're spending a lot of money," she says.

I become enamored with a Victorian side-by-side, an asymmetrical piece with a narrow desk on one side and a glass-front cabinet with shelves on the other. It almost looks new. But where would it fit in my contemporary home stylistically? Putting it in my home would be like wearing a cowboy hat in Center City after returning from a Colorado ranch vacation - something wouldn't be quite right.

I didn't buy anything during our trip, although I was momentarily drawn to a hand coffee grinder. Paula bought a few Depression-glass drinking glasses. She collects the green-glass pieces and was thrilled with her find.

At the cash register, I ask a guy paying $165 for a felt Baltimore Colts pennant whether he's a fan of Baltimore or the Colts. "Pennants," he replies. "Felt pennants."

Geez, my brother had scads of those on his wall when we were growing up. We coulda been rich.

Before we leave town the next day, we chat with Steve McNaughton, one of the innkeepers at Chestnut Hall Bed and Breakfast, which is filled with Victorian antiques. "What is the attraction of rust?" I ask.

"It reminds you of what it was," he explains.

"I'm sorry, I just don't get it."

His throws back his head and laughs heartily. I still have plenty to learn.

Exploring New Oxford

Antiquing

Center Square Antiques

9 Center Square

717-624-7125

Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Golden Lane Art

& Antique Gallery

11 N. Water St.

717-624-3800

Open daily, 10 a.m.

to 5 p.m.

Victor Victorian Antiques

104 W. Golden Lane

717-624-2628

Open daily, 10 a.m.

to 6 p.m.

Collectors' Choice

Antiques Gallery

330 W. Golden Lane

717-624-3440

www.collectorschoice antiques.com

Place to stay

Chestnut Hall

Bed and Breakfast

104 Lincoln Way West

1-888-886-5660

Furnished with Victorian antiques. Rooms $105-$155.

Place to eat

La Fonte

7 Lincoln Way West

717-624-3287

Italian restaurant with pastas and entrees ranging from $9.95 to $21.

More information

New Oxford Antique Dealers Association www.newoxfordantiques.com

- Ellen PerlmanEndText