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At Banana Tree, Antique Grows on Bergin

Alexandria store brings Oriental ornaments from across the millennia.

Suzi Carter was wandering down King Street one day and noticed a store window decorated with statues of unusual gods.

“I don’t know why I had never seen it before,” she said. “I walked in and was enchanted. I love antiques and regularly visit many of the shops in Old Town. This is different though. There is a little bit of everything, from the truly exotic to the quirky to the practical. And I got a copy of a book that I have really enjoyed.”

Carter found the Banana Tree, an antique store catering to shoppers looking for antiques thousands, not just hundreds, of years old. The store is crowded with teak furniture, which stands next to statues of ancient gods. There are beads from other centuries and even other millennia.

“The majahapit beads are made of clay and are 200-300 years old,” said Bob Bergin, Banana Tree’s proprietor. “The Ban Ching beads, on the other hand, are thousands of years old. Farmers find them in their fields in Thailand and we sell them to collectors or those who want to use them in exotic jewelry. There’s something for every taste.”

Bergin is a former Foreign Service officer who traveled extensively in Southeast Asia. He left the Foreign Service, but still wanted to use his knowledge of the Far East and his love of art and antiquities to begin another career.

“My wife and I always wanted to have a store in Alexandria but when we started the business, there was simply nothing available,” Bergin said. The couple began their business in Fredericksburg and moved to their current King Street location when the storefront became available.

“One of the things about running a store like this is that you have to buy things that are going to appeal to lots of different types of customers,” Bergin said. “That was maybe the hardest thing to learn.”

He and his wife bought Thai, Indonesian, Cambodian and Burmese antiques on their own, and their instinct was to look for pieces they wanted for the store. “We still do that, mostly,” Bergin said. “But we have learned to select things based on what is selling too.”

MOST FURNITURE in Banana Tree is teak, because “that’s what was available in Southeast Asia in the past,” Bergin said. “It is durable and easy to obtain.”

Tables and chairs represent both the English and Dutch colonial influences of the region are comfortable and beautifully proportioned. But it is the objets d’art that draw the eye. The stone gods range in price from the hundreds of dollars to $20,000.

“I have always wanted to own a really good statue of Buddha but I have never known where I would put it,” said Chris Cameron, a resident of Alexandria who knows Banana Tree’s merchandise. “The statues look almost museum quality and deserve a proper display. For now, I guess I will stick to the beads.”

Many of the statues portray the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha. “Apparently Ganesha was being a difficult child one day and wasn’t responding to his father’s admonitions to behave,” Bergin said.

Ganesha’s father was an impulsive parent, and so his punishment wasn’t well thought out: he snatched off Ganesha’s head, and threw it away, Bergin said. “Mom was none too pleased to see her headless child and told her husband to fix it. He took the head of the first animal he saw and attached it to Ganesha’s body. Unfortunately for Ganesha, that animal was an elephant.”

BERGIN BUYS SOME items for specific customers, but he has his limits. “What if it’s not the exact thing that the customer wanted? What if it’s the wrong color? There are so many things that can go wrong that I really try to look for things that many people will like,” he said.

He and his wife are the store’s only purchasers, taking two or three trips to Southeast Asia each year. “We have gotten to know many of the craftsmen and dealers in the Thai countryside and they trust us and we trust them,” he said. “Also, we still have friends throughout that part of the world and we enjoy seeing them.”

Bergin’s interest in Southeast Asia and China is not limited to art and antiquities. He has researched and written many articles on the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots who flew for the Chinese before the United States entered World War II. He has also interviewed and written about Chinese pilots.

“I have always been fascinated by airplanes,” he said. “Since I cannot fly myself, I write about those pioneers in the field.”

He also writes fiction – at least one book. “Stone Gods and Wooden Elephants,” the book that Carter purchased when she was in the shop, was Bergin’s first novel.

The book tells the story of antique dealers who find a Khmer site in Cambodia that is too good to be true, and details the mystery, intrigue and adventure that follow. “It’s not about any one person that I know, but the main characters have traits of many people that I know,” he said.

“I couldn’t put it down,” Carter said. “It’s written like an old-time adventure story that is set in places I’ve only dreamed of visiting and that talks about precious antiques as if you could really own them.”

At the Banana Tree, those very antiques are available.