Monday, March 25, 2013


When I was about 18, my grandmother started giving her things away. When I would come to visit, she would open her chiffarobe and fish something out -- a vase, a little ceramic dog, a faux Japanese tea set -- and just hand them over. This was very distressing to me. I felt like Grandma's things belonged with her. But she was insistent.

This divesting of stuff didn't make sense to me at 18. It sure makes sense now.

Over the weekend I earned a few extra ducats by helping my friend Celeste run an estate sale. The estate in question was a posh place -- near Princeton, big two-acre lot, heated swimming pool, barn with a two-car garage. The residents of the house had lived there for 48 years and were getting ready to move to South Carolina to be near family.

Both residents, the husband and the wife, were in the house during the sale.

Promptly at 8:30, people started arriving to peruse the kitchen stuff, and the China plate stuff, and the collectible dolls and stamps, and the stuff that sits out on display, and the framed pictures, and the pictures without frames, and the frames without pictures. And the linens, aprons, teddy bears, garden tools, DVDs, VHS, Christmas stuff, Easter stuff, and on and on. Every inch of every table was covered with stuff.

While the "customers" circulated in the house, the elderly couple sat in their den, answering questions as needed. More than one customer wandered into the den, looking for more stuff.

I'm used to thrift store prices, so I thought the stuff was overpriced for bargain-hunters. Sure enough, not much stuff moved out while I was there. And some of the high-ticket items that did go out the door were negotiated to a lower price.

A treadmill that the homeowner bought for $2800 did not sell at $300. The homeowner was baffled.

Celeste has to bring a whole staff with her for these sales. This is because no room can go unsupervised. Otherwise, folks will just palm what they want and saunter out.

I was in charge of the living room, with half an eye on the dining room. The couple were both of Russian ancestry, and they had been to Russia many times. They had beautiful framed prints -- some whimsical, some realistic, some fantastic -- of Russia. Not one of these art works left with a buyer, even though I pointed them out to many browsers.

At the end of the day, after Celeste had totaled up the take and paid those of us who helped, the homeowners got a wad of cash very, very shy of $2,000. The husband in particular looked like a house had fallen on him. Not only was most of his stuff still sitting on tables, he had hardly earned any money for the stuff he did sell.

Free advice: Do not buy collectible dolls. The only person who will ever want them is you. Goes without saying that a used teddy bear is only so much fake fur.

We cleaned up for the homeowners and put away some of the pots and pans that didn't sell. We boxed the fancier stuff for an auctioneer. We left two shell-shocked people, looking at their lives arrayed in cardboard boxes around the floor.

I don't have any grandchildren. Maybe I will some day. Hopefully Heir and Spare will own their own homes in the future. (With college loan debt, it will be awhile before they get to a mortgage.) All I can say is, I sure hope no one in my family needs money worse than they need Grandma's vase. We attach sentimental value to our belongings, and a person without that sentiment isn't interested in having them at eight dollars a pop. Then we feel like our lives have been repudiated by strangers. Who wouldn't want a cute little boy porcelain doll with a conductor's hat and overalls? No one but the person who sat riveted to QVC when the dolly went up on the screen.

My husband is the great accumulator in our home. He likes books. Me, I've always tried to travel lightly. I've got just enough stuff to satisfy grandchildren and Goodwill. May the Gods and Goddesses guard me so that I need never hold an estate sale for any reason, ever and ever, so mote it be.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

First-time garage salers always overprice their stuff. It's the mark of an amateur. You gotta price it to move, move, MOVE, baby! But it's distressing to first-timers just how little their precious junk is worth. Oh and these days, you can't GIVE books away. No one wants them. No one.

Anti Kate said...

I don't bother even trying to sell stuff anymore. I'm pleased that charities take my useful stuff that I don't want in my house or in the local landfill. I'm happy that someone who needs a particular widget can get it for a few bucks at the charity store. I'm glad that the charity store does useful, charitable things with the cash they make. But most of all? I'm tickled pink that that white elephant of a widget is no longer in my house, weighing down my heart and mind. It seems like a Win/Win/Win to me.

Anonymous said...

Rodger C:

I WORKED in a thrift store for nearly three years between my PhD and my actual career. Anything with moving parts that might break down afer an hour, etc., must be priced VERY low.

Anonymous said...

I love your thoughts and have been stressing over NOT getting rid of crap the last few years. My proven theory is: out of sight, out of mind. It's my main goal now, to move this stuff out the door. Yay! No collectible dolls here, thank goddess.