I have a weakness for estate sales. Not garage sales or tag sales, but those events at which an entire house is opened to the public and everything inside is tagged with little price stickers. Sometimes the homes are fairly new, the contents department-store tidy; perhaps the owners are moving away and either can’t take everything with them or want all new decor. I’ve been to quite a few of those, especially when I’ve accompanied my three kids as they looked for good, used furnishing for their first apartments. Sometimes I go with my woodworker husband on his never-ending search for tools. But that sort of sale doesn’t draw me often.
I’m especially intrigued by older homes that were occupied for many years by the same family. Often, they’re crammed full of “stuff” for sale. Furniture, appliances, kitchen items — including partially used boxes of food or jars of spices in the pantry. Bric-a-brac, books, yard tools, clothes, shoes, Christmas decorations. Wrapping paper, office supplies, linens. Half-used bottles of cologne, old gloves and hats and purses and costume jewelry. Creased black and white photos of unidentified men, women and children in clothes from the ‘forties, ‘fifties and ‘sixties. Old records and eight-track tapes, battered dolls and board games. Unopened gift sets of body lotions and stationery, coffee mugs stamped with “Grandma” or “Papa.” Canes and walkers and shower benches giving evidence of the aging of the former homeowners. Even, once, a set of dentures hanging from a shoestring in the bathroom.
Several established estate sale companies operate in central Arkansas, and my husband and I are on the email lists, so that we’re notified of upcoming sales. We don’t go every week — more like every few months, when a particular sale intrigues us or we simply need a day out of the house. Still, we’ve attended enough of them that we’ve actually made friends among the other “regulars” who line up a half hour or so before the doors open and spend that time chatting and laughing, comparing notes on the other sales scheduled for that day, frequently checking their watches. Some are dealers looking to make a profit in flea market booths or on-line auctions, others are collectors on a never ending quest for their own personal addiction. I have a thing for cut-glass toothpick holders; I don’t know why, they just seem to jump into my hand and follow me home. My husband bee-lines straight for the workshops and garages.
More often than not, we leave the sales empty-handed. I’m not usually there to buy. I enjoy the camaraderie, the rare time away from the computer, maybe lunch out afterward. And I am fascinated by the history I find within those walls, especially in the old homes. I’m not seeing an old rocker marked with a bright yellow price sticker. I see a mother rocking the child who played with that old doll on sale across the room. The set of old China displayed on a vintage dining room table was carefully chosen by someone — was it a wedding gift? Or collected a few pieces at a time over many years? The jaunty, net-trimmed hat and short white gloves from the ’50s would have been worn with some of the glittering costume jewelry for a special evening out.
This past week, my husband, son and I attended a sale in an old Victorian house on the Arkansas Historic Register. There were actually two old homes, side by side, that had been owned by the same family. Uneven wood floors, very high ceilings with dangling, tarnished brass fixtures, narrow wooden staircases, small rooms arranged in rabbit-warren confusion, tiny bathrooms with rust-sprinkled iron tubs, layers of peeling, yellowed wallpaper, the smell of must and dust and decades. I could hardly tell you now what was offered for sale; I was too preoccupied wondering what it would have been like to live in that house more than a hundred years ago, what views the family would have seen from the oddly-shaped windows, how many generations graced those rather dark, high-ceiling rooms. I spent quite a while time drifting through those old houses. Longer than my son would have liked, I’m sure, though he waited graciously enough while I daydreamed, even though he was impatient to visit a couple of nearby furniture stores on his search for a few more things for his new apartment. He’s not really interested in dusty, fussy antiques at this point in his life.
Some people I’ve talked with about my estate sale habit tell me they find those sales sad, all those now-abandoned mementos of lives gone by, often for sale now because the homes’ occupants have passed on or can no longer live alone. While I agree that there is an element of sadness, and perhaps of simple voyeurism, I like to think I’m paying tribute, in a way, to the owners of those things now for sale. I buy, occasionally, contributing to the estate, and I try to view the contents with respect toward those who once used them. And I can’t help imagining my own home and possessions opened to the public someday. What would it say about me if all the closets and cubbyholes of my life were set out on display, the things I’ve collected or used or stashed forgotten in a drawer, the few shopping mistakes crammed at the back of the closet, the little gifts or souvenirs admired briefly, then tucked away somewhere in this home where we’ve lived for more than twenty years? How much of me is revealed in the things I’ve bought or displayed or chosen to keep wrapped in tissue in boxes of memories from my youth and my children’s lives?
I’ll never forget attending a sale several years ago in a 1940s era home in an older Little Rock neighborhood and being immediately enthralled by the lovely antique furniture throughout the house. In a back bedroom, an old four-poster bed was covered with a beautiful, hand-tatted lace spread. Always drawn to bookcases, I moved to a particularly nice one that appeared to be walnut. At first, I was too busy studying the bookcase to notice the books it held. Then I realized it was filled with paperback romances, carefully arranged by author — including a section of my books, displayed in chronological order. As far as I know, I never met the woman who lived in that little house, who read my books in the bed with the lace spread. I hope those stories gave her a few hours of pleasure. I know I will always treasure the crystal bell I bought from the top of that bookcase. I like to think it serves as a continuing connection between us.
You never know what you’ll find at an estate sale.
A HOME FOR THE M.D., on sale now — click Books Available Now! for more details.
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