There are moments in the estate sale biz when you find yourself thoroughly outflanked by the likes of the professional. When you realize that for some people, estate sale carousing is a serious undertaking, it’s a man’s bread-and-butter, it puts the kids through college, pays the mortgage, and keeps one in beer and skittles, etc., etc.

I was surprised as all hell to run into the mother of all collectors’ sales, in Spring Lake Park, and that a rare Friday evening sale, advertising antiques, turned out to have virtually no collectors at all. This was a busy weekend, where we saw virtually every type of sale imaginable–seven total with Mayor Mike Haeg and ESC guest star Holly Petersen, including two collectors’ sales, two shoes off sales, two warehouse sales, and a damnable Craigslist sale that I would beware of in the future. But we came away with a bonanza of sorts.

On Friday, the Mayor and I headed north, to Spring Lake Park, and found that the Star-Tribune classified ad, the one whose lead was “Vtge Games & Toys”, brought out the collectors from every corner of this damn state. We arrived at 10:00, only to stand and stare in disbelief for a full forty-five minutes as a parade of agitated collectors marched in and out carrying boxes and boxes full of some of the craziest games and models we’ve seen. Peeking out of one box was what looked like a Dr. Seuss model from the 1960s, various board games I’ve never heard of, and there were stacks of electric racing sets, including a Detroit Edition Motor City Speedway–and I was saddened to think that no one today would bother to make a game that celebrates Michigan’s largest city.

So we waited and waited, along with a good twenty to thirty others, outside this little post-war bungalow in the middle of nowhere. To be a part of the lucky parade of box holders, you would have to pay close attention to the ad, which read “#’s @ 8:30 Friday” (why they wasted a valuable character with the incorrect apostrophe is beyond me.) That means that to get in early, before everyone else, you show up at 8:30 (earlier if you want to be at the front of the line that exists before the line), get a piece of paper with a number on it, and then, when the doors open at 9, they let in the first twenty or so, and after a few of those leave, the next five, etc. until the numbers are gone. And then the schmucks like Mike and I get in, after a long wait.

Honestly, though, Mike and I wouldn’t have been in the market for much of that shit. “Those racetracks are literally gold, dude,” Mike said, though I’m sure he wasn’t any more interested in them then I was, and besides, they probably were priced pretty high at the sale. We’re not collectors or resellers, so the numbers game is for people who are bit more, shall we say, aggressive.

Apparently the lady of the house, Leota, loved her TV, since she had one of those tiny satellite dishes on a post right smack in the middle of her front yard, and another, giant 80s satellite pointing to the heavens in her backyard. Reading Leota’s obituary, and finally plumbing the depths of her house, you came to see that she was the type of Grandma any kid would want. Her story was touching–she was married in her twenties to a man, they had a kid, then that guy died. At age 35, she married again (this was in 1950), and had another kid. Those kids had grandkids, and man, they must’ve loved to play at her house.

Toys, comics, musical instruments, a plethora of movies (and of course, the satellite TV.) Unfortunately for us buyers, most of the magazines and comics and other stuff stank like her mildewy basement. But you go upstairs, to the attic that clearly served as the pad for the kids and later grandkids, and you see all sorts of fun shit–the kind of viewmasters that also had audio accompaniment, of a show called “Lancelot Link”, with spy monkeys or some other such fun. There were records, Mike found a folder full of the kid’s drawings of his favorite bands, and on the wall, a garish acrylic oil painting of KISS on a bright blue background.

If I had to hazard a guess, Leota was the type of good woman who loved her family, but even more than that, really dug being around them. Judging from the tons of books, and the strange framed portrait of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, I’m guessing she wanted her kids to use their imaginations to find answers, and make their own kind of fun–probably she told her son to write to the office of the PM with some question or another, and this was in the response. She encouraged them to play, to really play, cooked great meals, and told them to draw, paint, run, eat, and bang those drums like nothing else. According to her obituary, one of her great joys was listening to her son’s band play in the basement. “Play us a song!” she was reported to have shouted down to him. I can imagine her cooking away, jamming to “Rock and Roll All Nite” as she whipped up some hot meal.

The Spring Lake Park sale, then, is a lesson in how to have fun as a family, something Mike doesn’t need to be reminded of, as it seems he lives this lesson every day. It’s also a lesson in buying a dehumidifier for your basement, so your shit doesn’t get ruined by mold. I bought two Look magazines which I threw away almost immediately (Mike gave up on a cool stack of Popular Mechanics that stunk as soon as he was upstairs, so he set ‘em aside) and a set of ceramic tea bag holders that creeped me out and prompted the Mayor to make a blue comment regarding teabagging. He walked out with a pair of old coffee cans to use to make a ‘canjo’ (a banjo from the can, natch), an Indian bead set “for my little squaw” (Autumn, his daughter), and a card game, “Flags of the United Nations.” Inside the coffee can were a number of Shell Oil “Mr. President” coins, featuring the likeness of our founding fathers.

The cost of this sale was also losing my favorite pair of gloves in the maze of detritus. There was no going back. They were either gone, or someone else bought ‘em.

Mr. Haeg and I found ourselves at a strange little apartment/condo in New Brighton, a fairly clean sale (though we didn’t have to take our shoes off), a sort-of retirement place that Mike described as “looking as if it belonged in Amsterdam”. It was five floors, jammed into a slim footprint. Lots of shag carpeting, and a garage that doubled as a guy’s workshop. Retirees with knee problems wouldn’t want to maneuver all those stairs, so who lived here? Who knows, as there was no obit.

There was also not much there, save for some weird tools, like the electric eraser (see left–and if anyone knows what the hell this is, let me know.) Mike walked away with a nice set of drill bits, and a b— s— grinder, a little wood and metal toy that does nothing but move around, grinding bullshit I guess.

That was it for Mike and I, but that evening, beginning at four, was a St. Louis Park sale near Trader Joe’s. I fucking hate that neighborhood, because that grocery store has forced the denizens of the ‘hood across Excelsior to make virtually every block a no parking zone except for residents. It’s a bitch finding a place to park. Well, we were lucky, probably because there’s few people who hit estate sales on Friday night.

Frankly, I’ve avoided these sales, since I figured they were preyed upon by greedy antique dealers racing in to rip apart the place in a mad dash to find valuable stuff they can sell in their Hopkins showroom. You know, like in the incredible death scene in Zorba the Greek.

Shockingly, there was no line when we arrived at 4:45. And virtually no one in this immaculate house, filled with beautiful antiques, some of which were very reasonably priced. There were the usual beautiful chairs and couches and tables and silverware and dishes that we not only can’t afford but simply don’t care about, but there were also some nice books, though not too nice. Reader’s copies–not first editions, but paperbacks. Some Steinbeck, a beautiful bound copy of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” for two bucks, a paperback of Cutter and Bone, the one that was adapted into that crazy 1980 noir that you should see on Netflix streaming. And, my favorite, a reprint of the WPA Guide to Minnesota.

I would’ve been happy with that, but then we went upstairs (“that was where the man of the house lived”, said the guy who ran the place), and found our gold. I won’t bore you too much with the details, other than to say we now have a place to hang our coats, our guest towels, and can play some cribbage and dominoes in our 30s era game set from A & L Manufacturing, Brooklyn, NY (that’s a quarter by the dominoes, to give you an idea of the scale.)

Saturday we picked up Holly early and headed to St. Anthony Main, to a gorgeous space that one of the companies, Dennis J. Hagen, uses to sell stuff when they can’t set up in the deceased’s home (it was a condo and the by-laws prohibit estate sales, I guess.) This was a very distinguished lady, who “smoked herself to death,” the salesman said, quietly. “Couldn’t give up the heaters.”

What a weird collection. Tons of books, mostly coffee table types, lamps and lamps and lamps, and a bunch of ‘collectible’ items–like a case full of very expensive paperweights (we’re talking hundreds of dollars.) My sister-in-law collects these things, so Janice was on the phone trying to figure out if any were to her sister’s liking (not at those prices.) There were also a good dozen or so kaleidoscopes at a high price, too (right.)

Holly found some really nice combs, and a tiny little tarot card set, small enough for a doll to play with (or her one-year-old to eat.) We went back on Sunday and bought a cool lamp for 30% off, and I bought a stack of books I’ll probably unload someday and never read, like a Charlie Chaplin biography and The RKO Story.

We’ll skip the next clean sale, except that it was another woman claimed by cancer, which seemed to be the theme of the day. I’ll also add that she was very religious, and had an electric crucifix that lit up (left.) Birkeland’s warehouse sale was equally bereft of anything of interest, which is one of the reasons I hate shopping there.

But Holly’d read of a sale on Craigslist in St. Louis Park, and I rolled my eyes. Craigslist estate sales are usually bald-faced lies, merely garage sales that someone put the tag “estate sale” on them to nab suckers like me. If you won’t pay for an ad, then you’re not serious about your sale. But Holly insisted, it was on the way (at Minnetonka and 169), and we checked it out.

It actually wasn’t a bad sale, a genuine estate sale. There was a beautiful 1995 Volvo with a new paint job (that spells trouble), and the sale actually meandered through the weird, 80s style split-level (as opposed to being confined to the garage or basement, as is often the case with these lies.) I found a copy of Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, The Bob Allison Story (kind of rare, and in good shape), and not much else, though Holly found some vintage coffee cans, just like the mayor (though she’s not using hers for musical instruments.)

What impressed us most was the starburst light fixture in the entrance, that they wouldn’t sell. Oh, so cool. But a lot of people were asking about it, even while we were there, so the reality was that if it had been for sale, it would’ve been gone long before we arrived.

This weekend saw us walk away with a lamp, about a dozen books, two game sets (cribbage & dominoes, and a backgammon set), notecards, Look magazines, coat and towel racks, and a Calphalon pan. That’s quite a haul.

But as I look back at these sales, and at the Zorba clip above, I am again reminded of the fleeting nature of life and ownership. I love that moment when Zorba gently lays the widow’s hand on her chest, and he walks out, her life’s possessions meaning literally nothing to him (and he is far from a rich man.) It was the life of that vibrant woman, her wine and her body that moved him to dance. So it was with Leota, whose family I’m sure shed many tears and shared memories of music, of great dinners, of dancing and rocking away the long summer nights on Spring Lake, which was in their back yard. Probably the family looked over her lifetime’s accumulations and simply said “take it away”, content to turn over the many memories of a life well lived over coffee, or dinners with their families. Piles of stuff probably just gets in the way.

People like me get the left overs, but I’m happy to imagine that both Holly and the Mayor are going to generate more of this type of joy with their families and friends, just as I hope to do myself. Mike’s going to make a banjo with one of Leota’s cans, which is beautiful, don’t you think?

And I wonder: do collectors notice the life’s parade when they plunder these homes? I’m guessing that Leota’s family simply doesn’t care.

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