Toll Gate Revival: rewinding time in Lawrenceville
February 8, 2016
I visited Toll Gate Revival for the first time in January 2016. The vintage shop had barely been open three months, yet seemed to be at capacity concerning inventory. My attention drifted around an old Atlantic gasoline pump, a steel stencil-cutter manufactured in St. Louis, the head of a taxidermied moose wearing Santa’s hat. Though my consciousness reminded me of the contrary, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d roamed the store a hundred times.
To be clear, déjà vu was not at play here — but owner Seth Hunter’s marketing strategy was. In the year leading up to his October 2015 launch in Lawrenceville, Hunter conducted business from a North Side studio, meanwhile establishing the reputation that’s cultivated his 15,000-and-counting Instagram followers to date. “It wasn’t an actual storefront with hours or anything, but I had a presence,” he says.
Effects of our internet age aside, my unforeseen wave of nostalgia is almost certainly a byproduct of the shop’s physical makeup. Collected from abandoned properties or purchased from auctions, flea markets, and estate sales in the Pittsburgh tri-state area, every lost good and found ware in Hunter’s haven tells a story. And while they may not be stories you’ve heard before, they’ll make you feel at home nonetheless.
If 95 percent of attic discoveries are useless odds and ends, this place is pieced together by every remaining five percent — the unassuming treasures and sacred heirlooms of yesteryear. By Hunter’s design, Toll Gate Revival is a careful reflection of the industrial goldmine that defined our former steel city in the early 1900s. “The time period I’m really drawn to is between 1910 and 1950, when Pittsburgh was just this industrial mecca,” he explains. “I like the quality of how things were made back then, so that’s what I try to collect.”
Nearby, a cherry-painted cooler bearing a faded script catches my eye. “Drink Coca-Cola,” it tells me. The piece is weathered, but functional. “I found this in an old bar. Before that, it belonged to a couple who owned a general store in the 1940s. It still works, too.” Hunter rattles off the details fluently, as if he’d pulled them from some electronic archive detailing the past lives of every object in the room. Somewhat surprisingly, he doesn’t identify as an antique dealer — though he certainly has a niche. “These are not traditional antiques by any means,” says the Washington, Pa. native. “They’re honestly more of a reflection of my personal style. This is how I would decorate my apartment. Kind of eclectic, but definitely more industrial and rustic, which also reflects Pittsburgh.”
Extensive research and countless hours devoted to scouting combined, Hunter rotates his collection as often as possible — though there are exceptions. He takes a seat on a “30- to 40-year-old” leather couch sporting a unique tag: $NFS. “This is the only thing in the shop that’s not for sale,” he admits. “It’s got ‘the look.’ I haven’t been able to let go of it yet.”
We don’t think anyone’s complaining. In fact, they’re doing quite the opposite. Since settling down in Lower Lawrenceville, Hunter is no stranger to local press — or good press, at that. Turns out there’s not much to dislike about an energetic entrepreneur doing what he truly loves for a living.
Of course, posting up in one of Pittsburgh’s most heavily trafficked neighborhoods surely accelerated his success. On choosing a location for his store, the proprietor says the decision was obvious. “I was looking for a place with a lot of foot traffic; that was already an established retail destination. Everybody here just complements my stuff really well. It’s my [ideal] demographic.”
Having recently moved back to Lawrenceville (following six years in Washington County and one in Beechview), Hunter says he never expected the once-dilapidated neighborhood to become the lifestyle hub it is today. “Once I opened the shop, I kind of fell in love with Lawrenceville. Seven years ago, it was nothing like it is now. It’s pretty cool to see [the revitalization], and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”
Photography: Tara Bennett
+ In partnership with a Pittsburgh-based retailer, Toll Gate Revival stocks a small assortment of American-made apparel, accessories, and home decor:
+ Handcrafted by local woodworker John Malecki, these industrial-style tables accompany many reclaimed pieces in the shop.