A blue velvet, electric owl painting. Need I say more?

“The worst trouble a man can be in, I think, is to have one hope left, and that a hope of something so inherently improbably that he knows deep in his heart it won’t happen… Three feeble gardenias on a vendor’s tray in the rain an hour after curtain time; a cup of fly-specked jelly beans in a shop window: these are the merchant’s last precarious handhold on the window ledge. The cruelest merchandise is a talent for which there is no demand.” –Joseph Liebling, from “People in Trouble”

Estates sales, we might remember, are a business. They’re not merely a group of grieving individuals piling the detritus of the recently deceased on tables and then pocketing cash. As I mentioned last week, there are collectors and antique store dealers plundering this stuff to fill their stores, real and virtual, but let’s not forget that the sales themselves are run by men and women who depend upon their success for their livelihoods.

And there are some weekends where I don’t how the hell they manage. This was one of them.

The coldest winter weekend of 2012 turned out to be aptly metaphorical for our latest plunge into the homes of the retired, the transitory, or the dead. With our friends Barry Kryshka and Stephanie Molstad joining us for a pair of sales first thing Saturday morning, and then caravanning all day with ESC special guest star and Cribbage master Jordan Wiklund, the pickings were damned slim. But this is not simply because I don’t have use for a black velvet, electrified “painting” of hoot owls in a dark farmyard (see above–the eyes and the windows of the homes light up), it’s that no one in their fucking right mind has any use for this type of bizarre garbage. So when a whole house is filled with this type of stuff, how the heck do you make any money?

My knowledge of the business comes from a distant interview I had with an estate sale company rep a few years back for an article in The Rake magazine that never panned out. (*Please see note below.) Basically, it works like this: you have a relative who died, or is going into a home, or, God damn it all, you are moving and want to pretend you’re having an estate sale to rope in fools like me into trying to buy shit even you didn’t want (sorry, I just hate it when that happens.) The estate sale rep goes through the house, makes an assessment, and either takes on your project or not. They tell you roughly what they think they can get, tell you the percentage you’ll get, and then tell you that if they fail to make a certain amount, you will be charged such-and-such an amount regardless. The customer could, in fact, lose money. If you’re a smart estate sale company, you will not lose money.

I get the very distinct feeling, however, that there are some companies who don’t quite have this arrangement, and no one makes much of a haul. I could be wrong, but the fly-by-night nature of some of this weekend’s sales seemed to reflect a certain, let’s say, ineptitude.

One thing we’ll look at today are the classified ads. How do you get folks to your sale? Well, my first stop was on Friday morning, and it perfectly illustrates how to do the job right. Yet another sale by the dudes who ran the vintage toy sale in Spring Lake, this time in Bloomington, and this time more “Vnte games, Bks” (vintage games and books.) And this time I did not stand in the freezing cold–at 10:30, there was at least an hour wait! OK, so that company grabbed their customers right by the nape of the neck and hauled them in, and no doubt made some nice cash. Wish I could’ve seen the swag, but I’m guessing they didn’t miss me.

On Saturday, our first stop was the house with the owls, in South Minneapolis, on Bryant, a fairly large two story that had seen better days, full of scratched woodwork, probably the original plaster. “Owls of all kinds!” proclaimed the classified ad with its jaunty air (OK, the exclamation point was my own.) And sure enough, if you love owls, you’d, well, no you’d want to see this sale… and then walk out empty handed. I’m guessing there might be a market for people who love owls, but even those guys typically want nice owl stuff, right?

This was a weird sale, not a diggers sale, nor a clean sale, in a South Minneapolis home that needs a hundred grand put into it (the outside was a mess, and there were gaping holes in the ceiling, the result, perhaps, of an abandoned repair job.) The clothes were crap, the owl stuff the cheapest shit or some hand made project that made the owl in question look more like a bear without eyeballs and a beak. There was a cool dining room table they were sure not to sell, and little else. Janice found some school supplies, Jordan found a book on deer hunting for his brother, but then walking through the house gave him time to change his mind.

Our next house was also in South Minneapolis, which was advertised as such: “Nokomis small classy estate sale.” They mentioned a baby grand piano, antiques, artwork, full garage. Now, even though Wikipedia is not always the best source, I do think their definition of an estate sale is valid:

An estate sale or estate liquidation is a sale or auction to dispose of a substantial portion of the materials owned by a person who is recently deceased or who must dispose of his or her personal property to facilitate a move.

This “shoes off” sale was utter bullshit. The house was a one-and-a-half story bungalow, including a basement, but only parts of the main floor and garage were open (and even half the rooms were sealed off.) Looking through the closets, and seeing a few paltry, wrinkled shirts, I knew wasn’t an estate sale–this was a moving sale, and fell under that heading of “this is stuff they would normally throw away or don’t want to take with them.” When I asked the woman running the sale if the person died, she hemmed and hawed a bit, and then admitted the couple was moving. So it was a moving sale. There almost literally nothing of value, the people running the sale had no business name present, and, even more amusingly, they only accepted cash.  That’s fine, except that there was a $1,600 baby grand piano. What, was someone going to just run to a money machine?

Jordan did find a nice, though beat up copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

At this point, Barry and Stephanie abandoned us to our journey, and now we had a decision to make: there were essentially four sales left (I wasn’t interested in sales that started on Friday): one in Burnsville, one in Brooklyn Center, one in Deephaven, and Birkeland’s warehouse sale in Golden Valley. That’s pretty much three totally different directions–I knew I wanted to hit Deephaven, just because I dig the homes that pepper the shores of Lake Minnetonka, and because I feel lucky there (and have been lucky there.) We were going to chow and play some cribbage a half mile from the warehouse sale, so that left a coin toss for Burnsville or Brooklyn Center.

Ah, but it was the Star-Tribune classified ad that got us: “That 70′s Show Sale” in bold lettering sent us hightailing it to Brooklyn Center.

Now, this was from a strange, one day sale, but it was a legitimate company. If I had to hazard a guess, they went for a one day sale because there was a lot of stuff, it was in pristine condition, but by God, I can’t imagine anyone buying any of it.

And I will also say this: this rambler looked as if it were updated in the wake of Nixon’s resignation, and preserved perfectly. I mean, the thick shag carpeting was a bit worn, but, man, in every room was plastered crazy wallpaper, in those outlandish 70s styles, mustard yellows and shit browns and puke green, but looking like they’d been hung a year ago. In the living room, there was a wall that was covered in cedar shakes! The basement has bamboo rods covering it , and a net with seashells (see left).

Now, normally when you witness this kind of thing, and it’s from the home of a person who recently died, in this case a lovely woman named Irma, well, the place sort of falls apart as that person’s abilities fail them. If they can afford to hire someone to clean, well, then they can also afford to remodel their home, and then we have a “clean” sale.

But Irma’s home was spotless. The avocado colored fridge looked as if had just come off the showroom floor. If I had cedar shakes in my house, each and every splintered shingle would be coated in dust and cat hair. That old, ugly wallpaper is textured, you know, a great way to catch the settled smog of years of cigarette smoking. Those bamboo rods should have been tacky, the net should have coughed up tons of dust when you batted at it, as I did. In the next photo, you can see some of the weird wallpaper, behind her handmade eternal calendar that no one will want.

But the place was spotless. Proud Irma kept a clean house.

And she took care of her stuff! According to her obit, Irma turns out to be quite a fighter, and from the looks of things, someone who kept a tight budget (why else would she remodel so profoundly in the 70s… and then never again?) and a tight ship. According to her obit, she was born in Germany, but when the Soviets invaded at the end of World War II, they sent her and her family to Siberia (guess that makes those Minnesota winters seem like a sunny beach, eh?) According to the obit, she emigrated to the U. S. and “became an excellent office secretary.”

Jordan almost bought one of those Zenith stereo cabinets, a turntable and radio with speakers built in (and a place for about twenty LPs), again in perfect working order. These old things often play well at one volume, and then scratch and hiss when you move the dial. Not this one–clear sound all the way. I almost considered buying it, but passed, as did Jordan.

Irma was also deeply religious, which was a bit of a problem if you wanted to buy books. Oh, she had tons of books–every one of them bizarre religious works, again from the 70s. There was one about “Our Providential Nation”, extolling the fake virtues of our deeply religious founding fathers, and other works about surviving the holocaust by following Christ. I bought, or rather, I was given, a totally freaky paperback One Bad Dude, about a “four time loser” who found God (the cashier said “ah, just take it.”) It’s one of those works where the dude in question writes excitedly about his bad-ass past, only to make sure to tell you how awful it was and how exciting the church and polyester suits can be when you’re drug free.

Jordan found some records, Janice got more school supplies, a really nice glass water pitcher, and that’s about it. It didn’t appear as though there had been many sales at all, unfortunately. There were tons of big items they were trying to push–furniture and a weird mini-freezer with faux wood paneling (it looked like a record cabinet), the worst albums and records, and a kitchen full of old utensils no one wants. And again I found myself wondering–as a company, how the hell do they get by on this?

Next, we hit the Deephaven sale, which was in a nice little abode, one story that had numerous additions attached over the years, built on a small, winding country road, once owned by a handy fellow who built for himself a giant workshop. There were lots of woodworking tools, and a big HO gauge model railroad layout for $40–problem is, anyone who’s into that typically wants to build it themselves. The guy had a robot, the R.A.D. 2.0, for $60 (see photo on right.) Jordan took a picture of an interesting little cribbage set for his blog.

Photo courtesy of Jordan Wiklund.

From there it was the warehouse sale, a quick wander, a photo of the three-foot-long cribbage set (“if I bought every cribbage set I found, I’d have no money,” Jordan explained), and we were done.

We didn’t get to the sales at first dawn, but for the life of me I cannot imagine that there was a lot of high-end merchandise we missed, sold at top dollar. Looking over the websites of these companies, and reading the classified ads (or Craigslist of the deceptive moving sale) I could see that most of the crap that we witnessed firsthand was the alpha and omega of those sales. That happens. As I’ve said before, estate sale-ing is akin to baseball, in that you strike out a lot, and succeed maybe 40% of the time. Last weekend was a bonanza, Janice and I hitting for the cycle as it were. This weekend saw us strike out four times, the last with the bat on our shoulder. We had a blast, as we always do, especially chatting with Jordan and later playing cribbage over bulging sandwiches at the local delicatessen.

But striking out for us means simply heading home, perhaps content that we didn’t fill our home with more junk that we really don’t need. For the guys in “That 70′s Sale” or the hucksters at the moving sale or the shrinking lilies who ran the “Owl Sale”, this weekend may have meant missing out on some needed cash. But what can you do? You simply cannot sell what people will not buy. And as moving as Irma’s life turned out to be, and as fascinating as her museum of 1972 was, in the end, her stuff was just more junk for the dumpster.

(*NOTE: I won’t mention the name of the company I interviewed, nor will I speak to these guys today for this article because I’m concerned that if I write something they don’t like, I’ll get banned from future sales. So, at least for now, but probably forever, this columnist remains anonymous to these companies.)

The cribbagemaster shows off his swag.


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