With one month of sales behind us we were off and running with our new “Antiques Business”. Our business plan consisted of shopping and decorating – it was our dream job! We didn’t just shop for antiques – we also shopped for books on antiques. We had to educate ourselves on the values of our china, glass and books. Sally was doing tea cups, so I focused on depression glass. I was never a big fan of the colored glass that looked like it came free in boxes of Breeze (or were those towels?). However, we had a steady stream of customers looking for depression glass. I educated myself on the finer points of depression glass, carnival glass, milk glass, and vaseline glass.
The experienced dealers in our mall were always talking about “the good old days” – when you could actually make money in this business. Now we had two major hurdles — antiques were going out of style, and eBay. For years, these depression glass hunters would scour the shops and markets looking for that last piece to complete their collection of Hazel Atlas cobalt blue. Then along came eBay, and suddenly they could find a dozen sellers who were naively offering identical sugar bowls for two bucks. As I write this, there are 31,222 items listed under depression glass on eBay. Mall customers would inform me that they saw my same piece on eBay (where I probably bought it) for half the price. “But,” I explained, “you can’t see the piece. You have to ship it.” Besides, what was the fun in buying online?
Jeff, the mall owner, was also new to this antiques business. He had been a collector and had pretty high-end taste. He was horrified by some of the things the lady dealers were selling. Did you see Ruth is selling doll heads for $26? Not attractive doll heads. Hideous doll heads. It was true. Ruth had a giant old bed for a display, wrapped in chenille and covered with an assortment of old dolls, doll limbs and heads. The rest of her booth was shabby chic – which to the untrained eye (and Jeff) looked like rusty or paint-chipped garbage.
I quickly realized that Jeff could not tell us apart. There were 6 of us in one booth. He knew Sue, as she was blonde, but the rest of us where average sized, middle aged brunettes. This was an advantage, at first. Jeff did not approve of some of our inventory (he had recently called us questioning the structural soundness of a tea cart) but he wasn’t sure whom to address. I was also sneaking in new items, which I know he didn’t want. He took to writing monthly letters addressed to us all; sort of a group chastisement. Here is a small excerpt from the first monthly letter:
I am most concerned with quality and uniqueness and will make exceptions to newer merchandise as long as it is tasteful.
Please remember that I do not want any RESIN products here at all. Nothing indicates a “fake” antique store as much as products made out of this plastic type material. Please remove these items.
There were 12 additional bullet points reminding us to be helpful and authentic and not touch other dealers’ merchandise and to make an appointment if we had any complaints with management. I soon realized it was going to be an us against them mentality in this business. The dealers thought they were in charge, but Jeff thought he was.
Jeff did take pity on us and lend us an old cabinet as a display case.
We filled it up with our “smalls”. Sally was quite talented at arranging our merchandise – notice how she arranges our napkins with the point hanging over the edge of the shelf and her use of seasonal produce along the top. Simple tricks (like running the red ribbon through the inexpensive milk glass plate on top) were surprisingly helpful. However, we soon learned that people don’t like to open cabinet doors (unless they want to steal something). In 3 years we never sold a single item from inside this cabinet. Back in the corner you can see the display corner cabinet that Mary Lynn garbage picked for us.
An important source of inventory for the dealer is the estate sale. This was a new and fascinating world for us. People die and their “estate” hires someone to sort through all of their treasured belongings – they arrange them, price them and then let strangers trample through their house and ridicule them. Everything is for sale – from expensive paintings and sterling silver right down to the Depends.
If it’s a good sale, the people arrive early to get on a list. Then the crowd gathers on the front lawn while the numbers are handed out. The doors finally open and they let in about 5 people at a time. The rest of us mill around the yard scrutinizing the house and the neighborhood. We watch every exiting customer, lamenting all the good stuff we missed.
There are two groups of estate sale customers – dealers and scroungers. I don’t know where these scrounging people come from. They must plot out their routes in the morning and go from sale to sale. They always come in pairs. Most of them smoke. They buy all the cheap stuff that you never imagine would sell.
I tried to surreptitiously snap this photo of a few customers waiting to get into the sale of a local hot dog mogul. From a distance I thought the couple on the right were youngish. When they got closer I saw that she was in her 70′s with a wig, and he had to be 105. I couldn’t figure out why you would disguise yourself or try to look so good on your estate sale outing. Perhaps they were in witness protection, or it was really Uncle Lewis from Christmas Vacation. As we waited to get in, everyone by the pool house was mumbling about the vulgarity of people having enough money to build pools and they swore the driveway was even heated (I think it was). You should have seen their faces when we got inside and they saw the 18 black toilets and leopardskin carpet runners.
Then there are the dealers. They have their own giant shopping bags and they rush in and claim their stuff. I was always after the books. There was one dealer that I had several run ins with. She would go to the books, grab them all and put them in a pile. If I touched a book on this pile she would tell me that they were hers. “All of them?” I asked in my most challenging voice. “Possibly,” she said. “I have to go through them all.” This hardly seemed fair. Could I claim the entire house until I go through it all? I sat there staring her down as she slowly inspected each title, apparently hoping I would go away. I decided I could wait her out, and hovered annoyingly over her pile. She was determined that I not get a single book. She draped her coat over the books and flagged down the estate sale lady. She offered a group price for them all, and smiled at me when it was accepted. I hope she got nothing but book club editions and mildew.
Even the dealers in our own mall were not very friendly to us. We were the newbies, the dilettantes. We were just stealing their market share and potentially exposing all their secrets. They were not always the most honest bunch. Mostly they were just trying to make a living in a tough market, but we actually saw one woman switching price tags at an estate sale. These were cheap items, but still, she was stealing from the dead.
One Friday, Sally and I scanned the local paper and planned to finally beat the other dealers to a sale. We were in luck – there was a sale in our town. We got there a few minutes before the opening time. Oddly, there was no one else there, but as the homeowner was running her own sale (instead of hiring an expert) she probably did not know where to advertise. We hurried up to the home. The garage door was open and the folding tables were neatly lined with treasures. We started examining everything and picked up a few vintage ornaments.
There was a large handmade sign on the garage wall with a giant arrow pointing to the door to the inside of house. It said “More Inside ==>”. That must be where all the dealers were, we realized. They were beating us after all. We quickly opened the door to the house and stepped inside the kitchen. A woman was sweeping her floor. We must have startled her. She jumped and then turned her broom sideways and thrust it toward us, as if to hold us back from all the good stuff inside.
Her: Do I know you?!!
This seemed like an odd question.
Us: I don’t think so.
Her: Why are you in my house?
Us: Did we forget to get a number?
Her: What the #@&$* are you doing in my kitchen?
We suddenly noticed that absolutely no one else was inside the house either.
Us: Aren’t you having an estate sale?
We backed out of that house, dropping the things in our hands, and made a run for the car. “You should not have left your garage door open” we yelled as we ran. We sheepishly checked the ad and, indeed, she was right. We did not return the next day.
The next big “shopping” event in our area is the annual spring clean up – or “garbage day”. That is the one day a year when you can throw out anything you want and the garbage men will take it away. I love this day because I can clean out all the junk in my house and try to sneak in some of my husband’s remaining bachelor crap (every year you see sets of giant speakers on the parkways). My goal is always to have all of my trash garbage-picked and not wind up in a landfill. I attach helpful signs to my stuff, like “Works Fine”. I sit in the front window and watch in glee as each piece is scavenged. My feelings are hurt when my pile is bypassed.
My neighbor, Karla, dreads garbage day. She clings to each piece of treasure that her husband, John, hauls from their house. “Someone can use that,” she insists. “That is a perfectly good avocado electric range. Hey, I haven’t read those papers yet.” John is usually able to pry a few things from her hands or he pays us to take Karla for the night. Once, Karla was out of town, and you never saw a happier man as he wheeled barrels full of junk out to the parkway and chuckled as it disappeared into the garbage truck. It was months before Karla spoke to him that year.
The kids love garbage day because it is a giant treasure hunt, and they hunt in packs. We call it Wilding – or Lord of the Flies night. Middle school boys claim the town as their own. For some reason there is always a leader and he always carries some sort of garbage-picked walking stick (like an old ski pole or hockey stick). He climbs to the top of each pile of garbage and then swings his stick. Sometimes he points to something that one of his pack grabs. Sometimes he instructs them to just swing and smash anything that looks fragile – mostly giant computer monitors.
Strangers pour in from a hundred-mile radius to come to our garbage day. We must have good stuff. They troll the side streets in giant vans or open trucks. There are the metal collectors who take anything metal. There are the furniture shoppers. Then there are the antique dealers. I had no idea that garbage was such a rich source of mall inventory. This must be where Ruth got her doll heads.
I will do almost anything, but I draw the line at garbage picking for antiques, especially in my neighbors garbage. Mary Lynn didn’t quite understand why I wouldn’t go out picking with her. It was killing her that all the good stuff was being taken. She left to go out on her own. Mary Lynn was definitely our best bargain finder. She could negotiate a $50 item down to 99 cents, and then still have buyer’s remorse. The problem for her was the selling. If an item had any value, she could not part with it. So she bought lots of stuff, but only a few pieces actually came to market.
While the other dealers were out picking, I watched my garbage pile dwindle. It was getting dark. All I had left were a few broken down old chairs that I decided were beyond repair. Finally, a huge vehicle pulled up, and Ruth hopped out. She looked around to see who was watching. She inspected the chairs, gave them a little wiggle, and then tossed them in her truck. I imagined I would be seeing them at the mall next month.