Laurie Romanaggi was puzzling over how to style the front window of her 1930s Tudor for the back-to-school season. She was imagining something with a giant foam cooler in the shape of an apple (she had picked one up at an estate sale just that year), alongside a vintage back-to-school banner, maybe some picnic baskets thrown into the mix.
“It’s a very quirky house,” says Romanaggi, the collector behind Magpie Ethel, an Instagram account (@magpieethel) and Etsy store where she sells vintage objects, collectibles, and surplus from her estate sale hauls to 53,000 followers. “Well, it’s not the house, it’s me.”
Romanaggi is the reason the quiet Eastmoreland street where she has lived for almost three decades gets its moments of traffic. There, in an east-facing window, she displays rotating displays of popular holidays (just wait for Christmas: There will be blow-mold Santas). Walkers get longer glimpses into the life of one of the city’s most compelling collectors of vintage. One of my friends told me she cried when she realized she had missed Romanaggi’s epic summer garage sale (usually near Father’s Day), which draws visitors from across the country.
“It’s a lot of spillover—stuff I’ve bought to resell and anything I’m getting rid of from my collections,” she says.
Romanaggi is a collector’s collector, working in categories that are all her own. Vintage holiday is her largest, but she also pursues quirkier items: swans, erasers, dice, false teeth, anatomy posters, drinking straws, honeycomb balls, tiny furniture, curtain tiebacks, science kits, Scotch tape, retail displays, wedding cake toppers, ceramic French bulldogs, lard tins, plastic tableware, ceramic owls (honestly, the list just goes on and on) and all manner of objects you might have seen in singular form at your grandma’s or great- grandma’s house.
If her collecting is compulsive, her styling is highly curated. Tiers of tiny chairs look straight out of a midcentury furniture shop. Curtain tiebacks installed like push pins into a kitchen wall give the feel of a polka dot pattern. The entire effect is the opposite of visual clutter. A calm energy pervades her home, emerging in part from how she has used the cubbies, built-ins, vaulted ceilings, and bump-out windows of the Tudor to corral the objects more meaningfully. She rotates the major collections—especially her holiday objects—about every three weeks.
The estate sale hunt was a routine while raising two children with her husband, Tom. During the week, she volunteered in her kids’ classrooms, always saving her Fridays for estate sales. These days, she checks listings first online (yes, all of the estate sale companies know her) and then heads out for two to three hours to comb through people’s castoffs with her specific filter for quirk, color, vintage and whimsy.
There’s a limit to what she can keep, of course, and it’s dictated by her space. Downstairs, in a bathroom she has redone in 1950s pink, she keeps one of her favorite collections—mothball tins—on a high wall shelf that can only accommodate 11.
“I might be able to fit one more on there,” Romanaggi says, in passing. “But then whatever else I find, I’ll sell.”
This story also appears in Willamette Week’s Home Guide Magazine, Nester, published October 2022.