I had told Susan all about the wonders of estate sales, but then again I tell everyone that buying secondhand is the best thing ever. She loves antiques and furniture, and so estate sales should be right up her alley. Rich people die and then you can buy their nice stuff for less than you would pay for not-that-nice stuff at a store for regular middle class people. During her visit this past weekend, there was only one sale going on. As far as I could tell, it was not being run by an estate sale company, which made it a huge question mark. I worried it would be a few crappy pieces of overpriced mass-produced 80s furniture. Not every sale is a winner, and I worried she would not have a good first experience.
From the outside of the house, there didn't appear to be a sale at all, just a couple of guys repainting the siding. I asked one of them if the sale was inside before we walked in, so we didn't seem like a pair of particularly brazen burglars. The first thing I noticed upon entering was that part of the ceiling was covered with plastic. The second thing I noticed was that the floor was strewn with books. I would have to watch my footing so as not to step on anything.
Oh. It was one of those sales - run by the family of the deceased, completely unorganized, possibly overpriced. Not necessarily a bad thing. You can find good things at these sales if you're willing to put in the effort of looking, and there is less competition from resellers. We'd just have to see.
I made my first pass through the house. There were a lot of really old books in reasonably good condition; Josh could spend a good chunk of time here. There was some furniture, though most of it was dated and not particularly good quality. A bunch of moth-eaten Army uniforms were in a cardboard box. There were various craft supplies and plastic flowers in boxes and baskets. The items in the kitchen were still in the cabinets and drawers. The carport was full of more random boxes of stuff. It was the kind of place where you just have to roll up your shirt-sleeves and dig. There was a general air of neglect. Everything seemed to have a thick coating of something on it - not dirt necessarily, more like time itself.
The guy running the sale didn't seem comfortable with his job. He told me he had been recruited at the last minute and that he was trying to be fair about the pricing. He was just helping out, a family friend since the 70s. Every time I heard him talking to anyone, he mentioned that he'd known the family since the 70s, which also seemed to be the last time the house had been decorated. I admired a couple of vintage shirts, but decided they were probably too small. I found a big blank book with lined paper that I could use as a journal. I rejoined Susan in the living room, where she was looking through the books.
She told me what she had discovered about the deceased, just from looking around. There is a bit of a museum aspect to an estate sale. Strangers come in to tour and examine your home, like they do at the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, except you're not famous and they can buy your things. She showed me some old children's books that she had found and said that she used to have the same ones herself. We turned our attention to a chest in the corner. Since this was a digging sale, I figured we might as well look inside. We found it to be full of old photographs and albums. We looked for a few minutes, trying to pick out the people who were common to multiple pictures. Susan said she hoped that someone would want to keep them, though I know from experience that that's not always the case.
"I think the family wants to keep that stuff," said a voice from behind us. It belonged to a short man who was sporting a few days worth of beard growth.
"Oh, okay. We thought they might."
"My mother just died last week," he said. I had a hard time reading his tone and expression - maybe he was slightly disoriented? He made the statement so matter-of-factly that the normal sympathetic response seemed somehow inappropriate.
"Are you Eric?" Susan asked.
"Yeah. How did you know?" Again, I couldn't tell what he was feeling. Surprised, maybe the slightest bit panicked?
"I saw your name in a book," she answered, showing him one of the books she had picked out.
"Oh. Yeah, I guess that's me." He pointed at an old portrait on the wall of a little boy. He looked again at Susan's books and picked up the top one. "I might want to hang on to some of these."
At that point, the family friend (since the 70s) joined the conversation, and they started talking about what an old children's book might be worth. I felt certain that neither of them had any experience whatsoever in the rare book market, so it was mostly wild guesses said with authority. One of the reasons that family-run estate sales are often overpriced is because people think that anything that is old is an antique. Eric seemed so uninvolved and disinterested in everything that was going on, until someone picked something up, at which point he interpreted the buyer's interest as an indication that the item might be valuable. The friend gave the book back to Susan without coming to a conclusion on the price. Eric sat in a dusty armchair and stared straight ahead. He smelled like liquor. I reminded myself that his mother had just died. I'd hate to be judged based on my behavior in the midst of grief. At least, I hope it was grief.
When we were ready to go, I asked how much they were asking for the blank book, and the friend said, "Two dollars."
"How about one?" I said.
"Sure." I knew that he was just guessing on the prices, but as long as he was willing to negotiate, I couldn't fault him for not knowing how much random old crap was worth.
"What is it?" Eric said suddenly from his chair.
"Just an old blank book. It's empty." I began to feel very sorry for the friend. Maybe every time he said that he had been a family friend since the 70s, he was reminding himself why he was here in this closed and dirty house, trying to clear out the mess while baby-sitting the bereaved.
He counted up Susan's stack of books and said, "Ten dollars." She offered seven (good girl!), and he accepted. Then we emerged into the sunlight and breathed deeply. Most estate sales are the nice kind, with beautiful furniture and expensive rugs and eating utensils made for some specific and exotic use. Oh my, look how the other half lives, it sure must be nice! But then sometimes you end up seeing another kind of life altogether, and you leave feeling thankful that it's not yours.