His life is a museum


The brown and salmon-hued house overlooking Aberdeen seems like a museum. The curator for this collection of sculptures, pottery, paintings and photography is not a stuffy woman with severely pinned hair.

Instead, a smiling man with a well-trimmed mustache, laugh lines creasing around his bright blue eyes, answers the door. Lee Staley has been a Grays Harbor resident for 15 years. But even before moving here from San Fransisco in 1998, he has collected pieces of history. Staley, with his avid love of the past, has stories for every piece he has sold in the past and currently owns.

He and his partner of 32 years, Richard Haunreiter, moved to Aberdeen because they wanted a change of pace. Haunreiter, a Hoquiam native, knew this was the perfect place for just that, Staley said.

That same year, Staley opened Silver Pony Antiques as a way to manage the many collections both had gathered over the years. It also allowed him a chance to meet new people after being part of a close-knit gay community in California.

“When we first moved here, I felt socially out of water,” Staley said. “Once Silver Pony opened, I began to meet more people and I abosultley loved a lot of the regulars.”

One such customer, who quickly became a friend, didn’t hesitate to visit and spend hundreds of dollars if Staley mentioned that bills were becoming difficult to pay.

Interested in the history of the area he moved to, Staley began to collect all things related to Grays Harbor. At one point, he had a small area full of memorabilia he bought or acquired through the years. His favorite was a large photo of Hoquiam from the early 1900s that acted as the centerpiece for the entire collection. A woman brought it in one day to save the piece from her husband who wanted to use it to stabilize their bed.

“It was sad when I finally sold that photograph, but the man who bought it was a local and so crazy about the photo,” he said. “It’s always hard to part with these things, especially when they come to me in such great ways.”

Not only photographers and postcards ended up in Staley’s collection. He also has a collection of glass bottles from back when every cap was put on by hand and each customized for the store or pharmacy it was sold in.

“I think it’s important for us to remember history,” Staley said. “I think American history isn’t as important as it once was, and that’s just sad.”

Staley kept Silver Pony open for eight years before finally closing it down due to health issues.

“I just couldn’t keep up with it anymore,” Staley said. “It was a very big space and it was hard to find good help. If someone was going to stand around, they needed to know the history behind each piece.”

Art is also part of his collection of the old, which has a special place in Staley’s heart because he also enjoys creating it. Numerous high school teachers realized his artistic talent and encouraged the young man to pursue it. Although Staley enjoyed painting, it never really clicked.

“I finally came fully into my own when I was serving in Vietnam and was given a camera to use,” he said. “I think I gravitated toward it because I could show the world my own perspective.”

Although Staley enjoys researching the era of World War II, he was a small part of another war’s history. He purchased the first camera in Vietnam on Christmas Eve. Bob Hope was visiting the troops at the time and a bomb went off in the hotel just down the street from the military shop. Staley had just stepped onto the street when the blast threw him, still clutching boxes full of film and the new camera, against the plate glass window in the front.

After returning to the states, Staley found work as a record buyer for stores around California. His business relationships with record exectutives allowed him to attend concerts for free, including The Who, Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Elvis Presley.

Music and theater are both passions of his, which reflects in the sheet music he has collected for nearly 40 years. He continues to trade and sell both of these using Ebay, which can often cause space problems.

“I’m always shuffling things around in my studio,” he said. “When I’m selling all these movie posters, they take up a lot of space to show and store. Then when I’m back to selling pottery, I have to move everything around again.”

His love of photography blossomed while living in San Francisco and working as a legal aid. With every Friday off, Staley woke up just before the morning light provided the backdrop for photos still in his collection. One photo of an African-American girl looking to the side while riding a metro bus, was part of the Harbor Art Guild fifth anniversary exhibit.

“These photos were my favorite because of the colorful people and neighborhoods they lived in,” Staley said. “I miss San Francisco for that.”

He continues to be part of the local art community through the Harbor Art Guild. Staley served as president in 2011 and is currently vice president. This community has enabled him to keep social without a day job as he doesn’t plan to open the Silver Pony again anytime soon.