In the classic poem Song of Myself, Walt Whitman laments the selfish and pitiable condition of humans and extols the virtues of animals, creatures he deems “placid and self-contained,” generally content with the simple life: “Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.”
We can safely assume, then, that Walt would be thoroughly disgusted with modern times, as we have become a society bent on accumulating, collecting, and amassing. But unless you’re an Egyptian king, you can’t take it with you.
And so was born the estate sale.
Lest you think an estate sale is nothing more than a garage sale moved indoors, let’s discuss terminology. A true “estate sale,” most in the business agree, is the result of a death. Possessions of the departed are then sold, arranged either by an heir or, in the event of no family remaining, a bank or trust. Some families conduct their own sales, while many hire professional estate liquidators.
A glance at the classifieds reveals dozens of “estate sales.” But beware: some are actually garage sales or estate moving sales. During a recent visit to a sale on Swiss Avenue, I chatted with a liquidation employee who agreed that “the term is abused.” It simply sounds better and draws more customers.
So why do my husband and I spend practically every Saturday armed with marked and circled classifieds, the trusty Mapsco and a full tank of gas? Two reasons: the lure of the unknown and the voyeuristic pleasure of it all.
Going to a true estate sale is akin to rooting around in Crazy Aunt Edna’s attic — there’s no telling what you’re going to come across. As estate sale junkies, we have learned to approach sales with limited expectations of finding exactly what we’re in the market for: hubby, a known bibliophile, haunts the bookshelves; I seek out antique pieces to furnish my restored 1917 kitchen.
But the search — the journey — is part of the fun.
Most liquidators — the folks running the show — will share the story behind the sale with a little nosy prodding. At one neighborhood sale, we were told that the estate had been that of a retired physician from Baylor Hospital. Boxes of clamps, scissors, scalpels, and other old surgical tools filled the upstairs. Yellowed charts of human anatomy hung on the walls and medical texts filled with gory photos of diseased organs spilled out of bookcases.
But the good doctor indulged in other interests.
Downstairs in a workroom area, we found several antique printing presses, the letters from the last job still in place. And nearby shelves were filled to capacity with dusty, obsolete electronic devices: reel-to-reel tape recorders, radios with vacuum tubes, short wave radios, and other objects unidentifiable to this techno-challenged browser.
Another sale we stumbled upon was at the home of a well-known travel writer for a local newspaper. We noticed that the downstairs area overflowed with exotic pieces from other countries — an African fertility idol, an Inuit tribal mask, German pottery, a gold Buddha. Upstairs were rooms crammed with crumbling maps, dozens of Frommer’s guidebooks, posters from festivals all over the world, and zip-lock bags holding numerous small hotel soaps, many labeled from lodgings in Switzerland, Japan, and New England. Vicarious living, anyone?
At an unassuming little house in Lakewood recently, we were quite vividly reminded that the exterior of a house reveals no secrets about its contents. We were delighted to find the estate of a former drama teacher who had collected posters from Broadway shows, fliers from local productions (“Our Town! Woodrow Wilson High 1967!”), hundreds of vinyl LPs (show tunes, of course), and flamboyant formals with bright boas. Most memorable, though, was in the top of the closet: a most amazing collection of Mardi Gras masks, resplendent with purple, gold, and green feathers. Not puny Zorro masks, mind you, but tall, dramatic things any Cajun would be proud to wear on Bourbon Street.
While the Lakewood house held unexpected treasures, we were once again reminded a few weekends later not to judge a book by its cover. We ventured into an iffy neighborhood and pulled up to park in front of a little Craftsman-style cottage with a sagging porch and peeling paint, at the same time giving each other the “I-don’t-think-so” look. We could not have been more wrong and now fondly recall this as our most memorable estate sale.
The house was frozen in time: 1918, to be specific. A gracious great-niece shared the story: her dear, departed Aunt Ruth was born in the house — “That middle bedroom right there” — inherited it when her parents died, and made nary a change or improvement.
Wallpaper peeled and foundations sagged, but the place had character. It had been a kit house, mail-ordered from the Sears Wish Book, delivered by train in pieces and assembled on the spot. The original front door plate was still stamped with the Sears logo.
Miss Ruth was a mighty interesting woman. The beauty of estate sales is that they allow you to spread your creative wings and fill in the blanks of a person’s life, having only his or her earthly possessions as clues. I picked up a pocket-sized black book and found it stamped “1947 Diary.” January 5: “Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Isaac Stern, violinist”; August 4: “Carnegie Hall, Arthur Rubenstein.” Ruth was quite the movie buff as well, noting apparently every film she saw that year … Rebecca, Show Boat, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Farmer’s Daughter. The middle room, a.k.a. Ruth’s birthplace, was packed with boxes of wooden spools, rick-rack and lace, and dozens of yellowing Vogue patterns illustrated with Joan Crawford look-alikes, their shoulders very padded and their heels very spiky. Girlie-girl hats of felt and black velvet, as well as elegant opera-length gloves of white leather, harkened to a simpler, more formal era.
Lovely, sentimental things of old, yes. But if you’re in the market for the bizarre and unexpected, the estate sale is the place to be. Tom Keener, an urban planner and admitted estate sale junkie for 25 years, says his journey began with a desire for bargain books. But it has led him to some strange places. He recalls purchasing many years ago a striking vase, its lid firmly in place. Once at home, he pried off the lid and peered inside, only to see dirt. As he emptied out the “funny-looking dirt” onto his front yard, a small silver plate tumbled out: “Remains of Irma Smith, 1865-1922.” Irma’s final resting place became, alas, Tom’s front lawn.
In another morbid turn, Tom happened into an ordinary-looking home to find an elderly woman busily selling her possessions, presumably to downsize. And at the dining room table sat a human skeleton. With an eye on the door, Tom casually asked the woman about it.
“Oh, that’s just my first husband.”
He had died many years before, it seems, and she had sentimentally buried him in the back yard because she couldn’t bear to “part with him.” Lonely even still, she dug him up after three years. First Husband was not for sale after all, but just out enjoying the company.
Neighborhood antique appraiser Kathy Finch, full-time clinical social worker and part-time estate sale employee, also tells tales of the unexpected. At one of the sales she worked, a customer presented her at the cashier’s table with a used, dirty jock strap. Another hot item at a sale — a conversation piece, anyway — was a box of assorted sex toys. But Kathy says the possessions that speak volumes about the owner are the books.
At a recent sale in Lakewood, a dusty bookshelf held several well-used Bibles, a number of medical references, and a Dale Carnegie collection. But tucked between the PDR and The Power of Positive Thinking was the titillating classic of Victorian erotica, The Pearl. Another memorable collection included lots of Vernon’s Civil Statutes, volumes on history, golf, and … the AA Big Book.
Some items for sale are useful, some just plain fun to have. But others we have seen are a little sad and disturbing. How, we wonder, could anyone sell off wonderful old sepia photographs of Great-Grandma? Or engraved plaques for Man of the Year? One home had for sale several photo albums of vacation trips, each neatly labeled with the subject and date: “Alaskan cruise, inside passage, 1979.” And inside the front cover of a crumbly scrapbook was scrawled “Honeymoon, New Orleans, 1957.” Very patient liquidators, however, have explained to me that at times there are no heirs and the bank selling the possessions certainly has no interest in retaining an image of Uncle William when he was six months old. Funny little side effect of the estate sale: it can serve as a reminder of our own mortality.
Melancholy aside, the estate sale is the safest, most legal means of satisfying the voyeuristic tendencies we all have but hate to admit. As customers, we are allowed to walk uninvited into a stranger’s home, root around through their stuff (respectable and otherwise), and pass judgment on the maintenance and decor of their home. Ironically, my husband and I have found that the sales have given us a healthier perspective on how “the other half” lives. We go inside a Swiss Avenue mansion only to find velvet Elvises and orange shag carpeting, but find simple elegance at small Tudor cottages — another lesson in conclusion-jumping.
Repeat the estate sale mantra: the lure of the unknown, the voyeuristic pleasure … Intrigued? Here are a few tips for the shopper who’s game for a little adventure:
• Start with the classifieds and a Mapsco. But remember to read between the lines. If toys and children’s clothing are listed in the ad, it’s probably a moving sale, not a collection of old and interesting.
• Be aware of discounts. Some sales are Friday, Saturday, Sunday; others are Saturday and Sunday only. The three-day sales begin discounts on Saturday and by Sunday are usually down to half off everything. Two-day sales sometimes mark down on Saturday afternoon, and almost always on Sunday…
• BUT! Learn from my mistakes! If you are in love with that Victorian fainting couch or that first edition Steinbeck (or, in my case, the Perfect Sugar Bowl), don’t wait. It will probably be gone when you come back for the bargain price on Sunday.
• Caveat emptor. If you are shopping for antiques, do not assume that the prices will be better at sales than shops or that the piece is authentic. For big tickets, inspect the piece or bring an expert with you. Shop around and compare prices.
Comedian Fred Allen once said, “I don’t want to own anything that won’t fit into my coffin.” Uncle Walt would have nodded approvingly. Yet for all our desire to follow the “simplify, simplify” philosophy, the estate sale beckons: what’s behind Door Number One? Oh, go ahead.