From genuine estate sales to foreclosure sales to the person who’s simply downsizing, you will almost always find old family photos. A scrapbook, a framed portrait from a Sears studio, an old black-and-white picture from generations ago, sometimes even slides or an envelope of developed photos from a drug store–they’re yours for the taking.

Seeing a bunch of family photos always raises intriguing questions for me, all extensions of the one great existential question: why? Why sell pictures of Uncle Dan or Dottie when she was a baby, why put a price on a box of old slides from our trip to the lake cabin in 1988? Why?

Maybe the family’s digitized all the photos, and doesn’t want the paper. Fair enough, but if I were to do that (and my relationship with digitizing shit is so fraught with error that I would never rely on that medium), I certainly wouldn’t turn around and sell these things. But you see it all the time.

Like this weekend. Janice and I hit six sales this weekend, from St. Louis Park to South Minneapolis to Edina, and we found a lot of scrapbooks and old photos… and I even bought one. Honestly, I might have bought more if the dealers weren’t selling them for top dollar. Continue reading

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This past Independence Day, I finally got around to hanging a flag. Many weeks ago, I found an antique mounting bracket that held the banner at a sharp angle, and thus over the ever-encroaching shrubs that cling to the front of the homestead. At an estate sale ages ago, tucked away on a bookshelf, I found this replica of the Bennington Flag, which also happened to be the same one my Grandpa Schilling used to fly.

I dig flags. Frankly, I’m also getting a bit sickened by the way the flag is used nowadays, especially as a toga for so-called patriots. I wish more people flew the U.S. flag, the good people in my life, the people I see working their tails off to make this country great. For Old Glory doesn’t just symbolize our military triumphs and our ability to make a buck pushing Buicks out the door; it symbolizes all the things that made the United States so great (and which often aren’t celebrated): Walt Whitman, jazz, the Stonewall Riots, Susan B. Anthony, Malcolm X, the Civil Rights movement, Jackie Robinson, comic books, Kara Walker, Kurt Vonnegut, A.I.M., Lester Rodney, Daniel Berrigan, Cesar Chavez, John Carlos, Dock Ellis, etc.–all the people, of every stripe, who struggle to make us truly free.

I was thinking about this as I made my way through an amazing sale near the shores of Lake Calhoun here in Minneapolis, a sprawling 70s home, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in every single room. This was the retreat of a man I would describe as a patriot–a prominent lawyer, family man, activist and avid reader, who seemed intent on repeatedly challenging his own beliefs throughout his lifetime. That he was once married with children and a highfalutin Republican with ties to Ronald Reagan who later came out of the closet and found himself a vocal opponent of George W. Bush only makes his story that much more complex… and profoundly American, if you ask me.

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Let’s be honest: thanks to technology, a lot of the things we’ve come to know and enjoy in this life are coming to an end. This isn’t just a lament on the death of records or VHS tapes–though it will be that–but, if we’re honest, we’re probably going to see the end of print newspapers, books on paper, and most likely the post office and even public libraries. I don’t want this to happen, but the way things are going I cannot see avoiding this fate.

If you feel it in your heart and ache over the end of libraries and the post office and what not, I’m with you. However, is our pain any worse than the people who could not believe that they would see the end of the horse-drawn carriage? How the quiet of that simple technology was being replaced by racket, by grease, by inhumane factories and gas stations and what-not. Horse-drawn transportation? It existed a lot longer than any of the dying arts mentioned in that first paragraph. And with its end came the end of a way of life for millions.

Now look around you: from your books to your iPads to your TVs to your MP3 player, in a generation or two they’ll be worthless.

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It’s inevitable: someday, perhaps someday soon, magazines on paper will cease to exist. I don’t know if books will go the same route–I hope not, though I know most will–but as the generation being weaned on iPads and tablets grows older, the need for that weekly paper digest will simply vanish.

Magazines, and especially their advertisements, are a fascinating way to look at the culture of America from the 1940s through the 70s (and probably the 80s and 90s, but for now those have little interest.) Someday, when we want to look into the buying habits and fashion tastes and diversions of another time, historians might turn to the magazines and newspapers. Because they were the swiftest method of communicating via print media at the time, they are, in a sense, the internet of yesteryear.

What troubles me is that in the future curious historians will have a difficult time with the internet. For internet pages vanish. If a magazine, like Holiday (left–which will be the subject of this rambling piece), goes out of business, who’s going to pay to keep its pages alive on the web? Out of date internet advertising certainly won’t remain–it won’t be kept on video or film, like television shows, and it won’t be archived even if said periodical thrives.

And so, despite this being the age of information, the peripheral information, hell, maybe even the articles themselves, may simply vanish, like the scrolls in the Library of Alexandria. Read them now. Watch them turn to virtual dust later.

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Some weekends, running the estate sale circuit is like going to a series of private museums, as if the grump who made the House on the Rock had franchised his tourist trap around the neighborhoods of Minneapolis. By this I mean that there are times, quite a few in fact, when you hit house after house and don’t end up buying anything. Nothing. Cool stuff is to be had, sure, but who really wants, say, someone’s collection of Hamline University 1953 & 1954 Intramural Horseshoe Championship Pennants?

The answer, I’m guessing, is no one.

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Ask yourself this question: do you really need yet another book on your bookshelf? Or another Minnesota Twins trinket? Do you need more little owls, cats, poodles, more Marvel or DC swag, do you need more vintage ties, more LBJ buttons, more beer cans, more Mad Magazines? Do you really need more of whatever it is you collect?

We know that the Buddhists whisper “no you do not”, but that little manic man who sits in his beat-up leather chair in the pit of your brain shouts repeatedly, “Yes, yes, you need more, more, more!”

I have to say that I do not know anyone who has truly embraced the life of the uncluttered, lived Buddha-like without possessions, in a clean apartment with only a wooden bowl and some chopsticks. Most of the people I know collect stuff. However, very few people I know collect stuff like the people whose estate sales were this weekend.

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Used to be that everybody smoked cigarettes. As recently as three decades ago (if you count that recent), you could light up anywhere. Magazines had tons of advertisements for cigarettes, movie stars lit up during a heated moment, and it was not uncommon for there to be ashtrays in restaurants, ballparks, and bars (obviously), but also at work, in schools, in the air, and even doctor’s offices. We truly lived in a smoking society.

My family has firsthand accounts with cigarette smoking. Growing up, my Dad, Grandpa and Grandma all smoked; so did my brother up until 2008. My Great-Grandfather, Grandpa and Dad all died of either lung cancer or emphysema. They made my Grandma sick at the end of her life, though she lived a long time. When my Dad died it was personally devastating; his death, complicated by the ravaging cancer and a stroke, still throws me for a loop on certain days. I don’t wish smoking on anyone.

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Autographed with a dying pen, Dick Williams smiles in his McDonald's style Padres uniform.

In recent years, the Atlanta Braves held a ‘Faith Day’ promotion, featuring performances by Christian rock bands and testimonials from Braves players about how Jesus turned their lives around. This is the same team that, back in 1977, drew more than 27,000 fans for a ‘Wet T-Shirt’ competition. Give me the 1970s, any day. Dan Epstein, from his great Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s

Pardon me while I go old grouch on you: when I was a kid, back in the tumultuous 70s, baseball was different if you were a fan. For starters, you could typically get autographs from your favorite ballplayer, either at a local department store (as I did, glomming Mark Fidrych’s scribble at the Saginaw J. C. Penny), or, even better, by writing said athlete and waiting for them to send you a little card with their John Hancock.

I collected baseball cards, but I beat the hell out of them, and typically threw away most of the ones I didn’t care about the next year (yes, I do regret that.) Back then, stadiums were weird, cookie-cutter, Astroturf, and somewhat unfriendly to families, as guys would often bring doobies to the bleachers, girls would shake their bra-less torsos, and if there was success or crushing failure, well, the mob would stream onto the diamond, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down and sending the players fleeing.

Oh, how I miss those days.

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When people ask me, as they frequently do, if I ever go to garage sales, I like to paraphrase the great beer writer Michael Jackson: “My dear, estate sales are a playground, not a prison.”

What he meant (and he was responding to a question about whether he drank wine as well as all that beer), and what I mean, is that as much as I love estate sales, in the spring my thoughts often turn to the many joys of garage sales.

Now, I don’t just look in the paper for a garage sale, because garage sales, for some reason, promote false advertising. “Huge Sale”, Janice and I scream whenever we drive by a sign advertising what we know is going to be a shitty, small sale with nothing but crap (we also shout out “Huge!” in a Cockney accent, so it sounds like “‘Uge sale, gov’nur!”) Seriously, whenever I’ve stumbled on a sale that I would legitimately describe as ‘huge’, that word is never used, but it is simply advertised as a garage sale, and maybe they’ll add “books” or “household” or some detail. But huge? They’re simply never huge.

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This old Atlantic mag is a sobering reminder of the dark side of the 70s...

The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70’s!
It’s not reality,
It’s just someone else’s sentimentality…
–Mike Watt, “Against the 70s”

By now you should know that I’m a man who’s fully entrenched in the past. I love reading old books and magazines, wear vintage ties with an outdated four-in-hand knot, and sigh repeatedly when watching Have Gun Will Travel or my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone. The past seems like such a warm and friendly place to me.

But I’m a bit wise with my years as well. Much as I love reminiscing about my conscious first decade (I was born in ’68), I’m aware that there were some, well, some drawbacks, too. When I peruse the old Life Magazines that have such a fascination for me, I see some of the worst of the past as well. The foods were awful, frozen, canned and stuffed into plastic squeeze tubes, and everyone crowing about how delicious this shit could be. Ads for smoking, for the worst beer, with women draped over everything like a new Tigerskin rug. Politics and the world scene may not seem so horrible in hindsight, but at the time it seemed as though Watergate, Vietnam, and others would ruin this country.  Compared to the shit we’re in now they seem quaint. As someday this decade will seem quaint.

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