This was once some kid's internet.

There’s a wonderful old joke by our man Groucho Marx that goes, outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

Well, if you’ve got a dog that’s big enough, with your new iPad you can read to your heart’s content, no matter how damn dark it is in that pooch. This weekend, I went to Magers & Quinn bookstore in Uptown to see Zak Sally speak about his latest publishing venture (I do things other than roam estate sales, you know.) Zak writes and draws his own wonderful and peculiar brand of comic, and even hand prints the things with a giant printer he’s got in an old warehouse on the north side of town. Zak lamented the i-publishing world, saying “some person took time and you know, somebody made it.” ‘It’ being the book, of course.

This led me to wonder: what will the estate sales of the future look like, book-wise? When someday a person’s entire library can be held on their Kindle Fire or iPad? Already we’re seeing the demise or shrinkage of newspapers, of magazines, phone books (don’t really miss those), encyclopedias, and even the U. S. Postal Service and its accoutrements, like stamps and postcards. I have to admit, that I’ll be damned sad when I go to future sales and find not a single solitary book.

That day is coming, people. That day is coming.

This weekend saw us hit nine sales, of which maybe five of them were triumphant. Friday saw visiting dignitary Mike Haeg score big-time, but more on that later.

We begin this beautiful weekend’s jaunt in Crystal, the home of Howard and Rita, a couple who endured many years, with him passing away in 2008, her just last fall. This couple liked to read, because they kept every damned pamphlet and cheap paperback that passed through their lives. Entering in through the side door, you were met with a little alcove filled with books (see right.) Turn around, and there’s a desk filled with pamphlets, maps, and the like.

From their collection, you can learn how to get along with other people (left), how to make pies men like, about the Gutenberg printing press, and more, so much more, most courtesy of the telephone company or Spry shortening. I bought a few of the cooking ones, especially because old pie recipes are often gold.

Friday, the Mayor and I hit the sales, starting at a moving sale in the swank part of Edina, right on Minnehaha Creek. An old colonial, with brilliant light and big huge bay windows looking out over the creek. The place had the look and feel of a pad that Sinatra might film a short Christmas movie with Bing Crosby at his side.

Apparently, the owners were keen on the Kentucky Derby, since there were overpriced ($15 and up) tumblers, commemorating the race since 1976 (the older they got the more expensive they became.) Upstairs, women were going crazy–there were rows and rows of designer shoes. One woman shouted at the dude writing up receipts “put me down for ten!” “Which ten?” he said. She didn’t even look up as she crammed her feet into another pair, “I’ll get there!” she said.

I found a few Life magazines here, there was a $125 erector set, Mike found a pedometer, and I glommed on a stack of cheap classical music CDs, and a book on how to understand the music, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. Estate sales– the cheapest education in town.

Edina was still on the docket, the next home a rambler on a twisting suburban street. This one proved to be the grail for the man from Mt. Holly. Mike’s very much into the DIY lifestyle, and I brought to his attention four Foxfire books, as well as a title called The Salt Book, and one called  I Wish I Could Give My Son A Wild Raccoon. They were either all from the same publisher or Foxfire’s writer blurbed about the thing.

For those of you not in the know, the Foxfire books, of which there are twelve volumes, were fairly popular, back-to-the-land titles from the early- to mid-70s. I think my Dad had some, and I remember them on the shelves of his friends as well. The Salt Book and the Raccoon book are in the same vein–The Salt Book’s subtitle is “Lobstering, sea moss pudding, stone walls, rum running, maple syrup, snow shoes, and other Yankee pursuits.”

The Mayor promises me he’ll let me know what sea moss pudding is as soon as he finds out himself.

We hit the big city next, a cool little bungalow in the Page neighborhood of South Minneapolis. This place had been totally decked out, 50s style, with an inlaid clock above the fireplace (without numbers, looking very sleek), intercom, basement bar, the works. Apparently this person (I couldn’t find an obit) was a collector–I found a bunch of little baseball dudes (left) that are just too cool for school (and may end up in the possession of my pal, Buddy, if he’s interested.) There was an old candy machine, an old pay phone, tons of artsy stuff (like weathered old windowpanes they’d hung willy-nilly throughout the house.) My favorite was The Truth Phone, an old Bakelite number he or she had dolled up into profundity (right.) In the center it reads “Speak Your Truth”.

I guess we all speak our own relative truths in life. What has that little phone heard over its lifetime?

I went back with Janice later that day, and they wouldn’t budge on the $22.50, and I knew I wouldn’t be back the next day, as we were pretty busy.

Saturday ended up being fairly dead–we hit three sales, one so incredibly packed with people (in St. Louis Park), I thought there might be a fire and a Triangle Shirtwaist situation. It was too crowded–there were moments when I simply couldn’t move, people pushing, elbows in your face. And not much going on in there, more Life magazines, old books, etc. The rest of Saturday ended up that way–a Minnetonka sale and a warehouse sale in St. Anthony Main I was excited about because that space is gorgeous and the company that usually runs it does a great job. Not so this time–this thing was mostly junk, including this beautifully framed photo of Joe Louis. I like Joe Louis. But when someone scribbles an obviously fake signature across the front of it, that ruins any value whatsoever, aesthetically or otherwise. “Oh, no!” the lady insisted, “That’s totally real.” You can look online and find dozens of his signatures, none of which look like that one.

Sunday found Janice and I hitting the discounted sales we’d missed yesterday. The first was a place I’d call The House of a Handyman–a big, huge garage with a heated back room which at one point held every conceivable tool. I said hello to an old handyman walking out, and he breathlessly asked if we’d been there yesterday. “You could barely walk in that garage!” he shouted. “A gold mine!”

The inside–not so much. Crappy books, a framed $100 savings bond from the Imperial Chinese Government (yours for $45), and a few curios. We wandered out with a hole punch.

Ah, but the next sale! So very interesting. This gentleman was a collector, a serious collector, of yet another soon-to-be antiquated pursuit: stamps.

You can see, left and right, his stamp room (from just outside the door and in.) Books and books and books about stamps, and I mean hundreds, and in the center (below left), he had a pair of books of first issues–real stamps. First issues are where the U. S. Postal Service designates a town–say, Mt. Pleasant, MI–as the first community to issue the stamp in question. There will be a special postmark on said stamp, and maybe even a commemorative postcard. There must’ve been hundreds in the book, and I wanted to buy them, but there wanted too much money even on discount day. And besides, I would have just looked at them and stuck ‘em on my own shelf for years.

This gent was a reader, with crisp encyclopedias and the New Junior Classics among other dull titles (this was Sunday, so there may have been a bounty the day before.) There were numerous games (all of which I already owned), and some art, the home of a person who reads and enjoys time in his own home, probably with other people. Which is pretty nice, if you ask me.

I found some old ties, really beautiful vintage ties including one silk number with Japanese scenes all over the front. In one corner of the basement, I found a strange old navy blue tie, with a mysterious pattern over the front, like a constellation. Upstairs, in the light, that pattern revealed itself to be mold. Look at your clothes carefully, children. Smell them, too. (The other ties, from upstairs, were perfect.)

We ended up with school supplies, a few new serving dishes, cooking pamphlets, books, ties, and music. Mike found his Foxfire books, a Johnson brand card shuffler (so Autumn can shuffle cards), a pedometer, and a glass electrical line insulator to use as a doorstop.

But I was left wondering how long we’ll be indulging in these old paper goods. Like Zak, I like books, paper books, not electronic books I can’t mark up with a pencil and stick a bookdart onto. From here on out, in this electronic age we’ll lose a family’s recipes–for good cooks never follow a book’s recipes exactly, but make notations–and stamps will eventually go the way of the horse-and-buggy. So will postcards (ask yourself: when was the last time you received a postcard? Or sent one?) We will have no record of vacations, of scribbled notes to a loved one or friend. No more “wish you were here.”

Someday, the homes of this generation will yield themselves to the estate sale crowds, but I wonder what they will reveal. Books and records and movies unearth a bit of your mind, your personality, much more so than clothes or appliances (even though the companies who make them would love for you to think otherwise.) Those Foxfire books in themselves are a total anomaly–who is going to make their own fiddle, go back to the land? Someday, someone will wonder if the Mayor made himself some sea moss pudding.

It’s true: some of the nicer homes look like they’re from the set of Sleeper already–not a book in sight. And you can’t split up someone’s library on an iPad that’s twenty years out of date. You can’t feel how the spine of the book was twisted from multiple readings, smell the cigarette smoke, look at a little star on the margin indicating a favorite quote.

Then again, maybe there’s something very clean and very zen in us dying and leaving behind… nothing. Nothing but the clothes on our back, and the memories in the minds of our loved ones.




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  1. Professor Jim says:

    Hi Peter – i have the often intriguing honor of being Shanai’s dad and on of the greater fans of her activities – she just referred me to you – is it possible to get on your mailing (blog ?) list here? Seems like we have a partially common slant on the observation process.

    Professor Jim

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