The work of Frederick W. Bock, all but forgotten, was unearthed at this rather unearthly sale.

Once upon a time, in the Willard-Hay neighborhood of North Minneapolis, there were grand and beautiful mansions owned by the captains of finance and industry. These mansions, stately and proud, sat upon a hill overlooking the more modest, yet still impressive two-story homes.

Once upon a time, the people who lived in these homes felt that they had a duty to the artists of the world, and became patrons. They augmented an artist’s WPA commission, or teaching job, by purchasing numerous paintings and etchings, sketches and scribbles, or hiring the artists to decorate the home in any number of inventive ways, from designing a bar fit for a four-star hotel or designing a bas relief for the basement walls. If they grew close to the artists, then probably they hosted parties and fed them at grand dinners.

Times change, as they always do. The industries that supported these highbrows became antiquated or simply went out of business. Some thrive to this day, but the neighborhood has ceased to become attractive to the very rich. These towering homes are falling apart, the plaster on their ceilings tearing apart, the concrete crumbling, the glaze on the windows falling away to allow cold drafts to shoot across empty rooms.

As for the artists, they have fallen into obscurity, their work vanishing into the dim memories of the old, leaving the children gaping at their parents’ and grandparents’ collections as they wonder to themselves, “Who drew these strange rabbit people?” Continue reading

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Though there were a plethora of estate sales this weekend, mostly in the St. Paul area of our Twin Cities, prior commitments and the urge to play some euchre¬†interfered, and Janice and I didn’t actually hit all that many. A strange church sale in downtown, a small bungalow in North Minneapolis, a Bloomington split level, a suburban pad in Wayzata–these revealed only a handful of treasures, such as a Louisville Slugger, an old chair, a set of measuring spoons, and an original Gauguin.

Well, not quite the Paul Gauguin, but an original album cover by an artist who is channelling the spirit of that feisty Frenchman, or is the reincarnated soul of the man, I’m not entirely sure. In any case, visiting dignitary Mike Haeg discovered the work, buried in a pile of LPs, and walked away with a treasure that is both strange and intriguing. Which is part of the joy of estate sales, yes? Continue reading

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For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land… –Song of Solomon, 2:11-12

Every Tigers’ fan worth her salt knows that Ernie Harwell always opened spring training with those words from the Song of Solomon. He then followed them with “Happy New Year, everybody, and welcome to Tiger Baseball!”

Oh, boy, do I miss that greeting. I don’t really dig following spring training too closely, but I would often tune in to that first afternoon game from Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida, just to hear those first words, usually drifting from my radio as I stared glumly out at a frozen Michigan wasteland. It was February, after all.

I am facing some strange disarray in my love of baseball. Usually, I’m a grump, and a grump whose existential malaise has been growing every year. Admittedly, I have a serious and deep-seated prejudice against the rich, and baseball players, as I’ve written before, are eager members of the 1%, willing to leave teams just because another club added more money they don’t need to an already grotesquely large pot. The fact of the matter is that most ballplayers don’t really care for the great unwashed all that much.

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When we travel nowadays, no matter how far away, we remain very close to home. Hop on a jet plane to Rio, to Moscow, hell, probably to Antarctica and you can kept abreast of every drop of rain that falls on your backyard via Facebook, the iPhone, emails. When Janice and I visited Saudi Arabia we were still able to read the Star-Tribune, where I was kept abreast of the Twins 2006 comeback. You just can’t get away from it all.

Not that we want to get away from it all. Quite the contrary: We gripe and grumble if our call to Jupiter doesn’t connect in .05 seconds. Should the email fail to load on our iPad while we ignore the majesty of Yosemite, we will bark and shout and curse the government for its inability to have a national WiFi. It’s ridiculous. As comedian Louis CK says, “everything’s amazing right now and nobody’s happy.”¬†

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From St. Paul to Coon Rapids to Summerville, South Carolina. Norwegian ancestry (as evidenced by a pile of cookbooks and a Norwegian/English dictionary), a Japanese gent in Minnesota, to the “Christ haunted South” (in Flannery O’Connor’s words.) A sportswriter, the mother of one of our country’s best comic screenwriters, a nurse, and other mysteries. So pardon the grade school patriotism for a moment, but I’ll be darned if this weekend didn’t make me feel like, well, like this country of ours is one big melting pot.

Of course, this melting pot seems, in this year 2012, to be boiling over at times, especially when elections are on the horizon (though, nowadays, it seems like that ‘horizon’ begins the day after the last election.) To be honest, that’s one of the things I like most about estate sales–the peace. For no matter how different the person in question was from my one political leanings, I have to think that that matters not to them anymore. Right-wing, left-wing, money troubles, family troubles, that leaky roof. No matter. They’re dead.

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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.

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Tolstoy once asked: how much land does a man need? I pondered this as we wandered the homes of the rich, and then the very, very rich. To be honest, I have deep and abiding distrust of the wealthy, a tooth-grinding annoyance at their excesses. Perhaps this is a failing on my part, but it’s there, it’s there.

This was a strange, strange weekend, indeed, plumbing the depths of the homes of the people like you and I, and then the homes of people who think nothing of a six hundred dollar coffee set.

To make matters most intriguing, our trip took us into the 9,000 square-foot home of the scion of a local beverage magnate, a tremendous, gray edifice that rose like a small museum in the Lowry Hill district of town, a place filled with the cold, cold homes of the rich. And, if my hunch is correct, of the sad souls who, like Charles Foster Kane before them, never figured out that you can’t fill the void of loneliness with the treasures of the world.

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Don't try this at home, kids.

Who doesn’t love ties? Neckties, bowties, Windsor knot, half-Windsor, four-in-hand. Well, if my lying eyes are to be believed, most men dislike ties, wearing them only for their work, a colorful metaphor for the strangling nature of white collar existence. If movies from before 1960 are to be believed, every man wore ties, to work, to play, at a bar or ballpark, loosening them in hot weather or under duress. Ties were everywhere.

As every estate saler knows, ubiquity in the past often means abundance in the present. Case in point: this weekend I found neckful of ties. Twelve total, including an uncut bow tie, a rare creature, indeed.

This leads me to raise the rather curious point about “estate sale karma.” My Dad’s old girlfriend, Bonnie, used to talk about “garage sale karma”, and “thrift store karma”, since she used to haunt both in Saginaw, Michigan, actually making a living reselling furniture and costume jewelry. This “karma” is the gift of the gods to those of us who frequent these sales–eventually, the idea goes, you either get what you’re looking for or you begin to see patterns in the process.

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As you’ve guessed by now, estate sale shopping is as much about observation as it is buying used stuff that you may or may not need. Admiring the collective detritus is exciting. This is not the same as visiting a museum, since you get to manhandle the items (and there’s no curator to relate any stories and such), but more like an art crawl, except in the person’s home. And the person is usually dead.

One thing that always amuses me is original artwork. My own home is filled with art from people I know or professional artists whose work I admire (and was lucky enough to nab before their prices went sky-high.) But this weekend’s trip saw an abundance of original artwork–how great is that?

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Apropos of the coming Mardi Gras, this weekend was a parade of estate sales, fun sales and sad sales, sales that stank to high heaven, those of low income and high treasure and those of great wealth and insipid taste. From Thursday to Sunday, thirteen sales total, with ESC’s recurring guest star Mike Haeg on Friday, and special guest star Holly Petersen on Saturday. Despite hitting the magic thirteen, I still missed three more.¬†Never, never in my many years of wandering the estate sale circuit have I seen so many sales in a given weekend.

This calls to mind lyrics from the official theme to Estate Sale Confidential, the White Stripes’ “Rag and Bone”, especially the part where Bone (Jack White) politely leaves a home that has rejected him, and begins his journey across what we should consider Detroit.

If you don’t want it, we’ll take it, if you don’t want to give it to us, we’ll keep walking by. We’re not tired, but we got plenty o’ homes we ain’t been to yet, on the Westside, Southwestside, Middle East, rich house, dog house, outhouse, old folks house, house for unwed mothers, halfway homes, catacombs, Twilight Zones…

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