My grandfather relates every purchase – from cutting coupons to grocery shopping at the Save-A-Lot – to the fact that he was born during the Great Depression. Nicknamed Mr. Fix-It-All, the man has lived up to his moniker, building everything from a wooden ladder that still leads up to my family’s attic and amassing a collection of sealed-with-superglue dishware. If fixing is chastity, coupons are on par with prayer, saving is religion, and garage sales are your church.
Growing up in Oahu, my grandfather and I would open up the Honolulu Advertiser and map out our morning adventure. Now living in San Francisco, and at the end of the era of newspaper listings, I didn’t know how or where to find these sales. That is until I started working at Adobe Books with my boss, the bargain-bin connoisseur, Andrew McKinley.
Every Friday morning, Andrew searches out estate sales to restock Adobe’s shelves. When I work there, I sell books and occasionally organize music and arts events, but organizing the books is a feat better left to Merlin. Adobe is piled high with books, and gadgets and gizmos like globes, which are not for sale, in case you were wondering. No, not even the moon globes. I’ve heard tales of what lies beneath Adobe and I’ve heard of the piles and boxes that make Andrew’s apartment labyrinth-like. He specializes in books, but he is a collector-extraordinaire who is drawn to the curios of a past generation. So, I asked him to take me along on one of his shopping sprees.
Andrew was my alarm clock, calling me at an unusually early hour, at least for someone who writes from home and works at a bookstore in the evenings. It was 7:30 a.m., and by 8 we were barreling down the road in Andrew’s white minivan sans backseats with crates of books and who-knows-what.
As we drove toward our first destination, Andrew elaborated on the important distinction between a garage sale, which is more like a slice of pie, and an estate sale, which is the whole pie with the yummy apple filling, dank crust, and a light, flakey covering.
A garage sale is usually made up of items that a family doesn’t want – or, whatever can fit into the garage.
At an estate sale, everything is for sale. It includes the trinkets, clothes, and furniture of an entire home, either formerly inhabited by one person or by a whole family. Oftentimes, as you walk through an estate sale, you’ll notice the ghosts of the past slipping through the walls, but sometimes estate sales occur after a divorce, when someone’s left the country, or occasionally, filed for bankruptcy.
Off the highway, we wind through one-story suburbia with symmetrical green lawns and pastel-painted venetian blinds. Eventually we arrive in the Sunset at quaint 31 st Avenue. Our first destination is a sale put on by Sweet Home Estate Liquidation, a family-run company headed by Jordan and Linda Goodman that specializes in the strange. A line is already amassing out front. I rush out of the car to place our names on the list. We’re number 24. If Andrew had had his way, we would have been here at 8 a.m.
We watch the line grow to about fifty people as we wait to be let in not a second sooner than 10 a.m. Around me I hear what others are in search of at this treasure hunt. There’s stout Sophie who makes jewelry from found pieces, broken jewels, rhinestones, sea glass, brass clasps, and whatever else inspires her. Roly-poly Bill craves cookbooks because he wants to own more than anyone else. Salt-and-peppered Paul collects photographic ephemera, which includes images – he leafs through them searching for something special – or cameras that require less work to find. But sometimes it’s just serendipity. Paul’s wife, Heather, says she’s just looking for whatever catches her eye.
Paul pulls out his list. He’s got a well-planned itinerary that includes all the sales he plans on checking out this morning. Most of those here will go to others too. “All the companies have their followings,” Andrew explains. “Each liquidator is ultimately working for the family or the estate, but there are, of course, different ways to do so.”
Once inside the house, we glimpse a child-size dinner table and chairs, polka LPs, Life magazines, and classic dairy jugs galore. How many wonders can one cavern hold? We explore the dining room and then head down to the basement, which is filled with plastic turkeys, doll clothes, jam jars, and a player piano. Squishing by the other arms and legs, I discover a collection of Disney 33s that are complete with picture-book stories and records that chime, telling you when to turn the page. Indoctrinated at a young age with Disney’s mythology, I have a mild infatuation with all things related. Combined with my interest in vinyl, this seems like an appropriate beginning to a collector’s obsession.
In the dining room, I discover two matching mushroom mugs. I am enamored. Nearby is their friend, the mushroom rag. Andrew’s found office supplies (“maybe I’ll start an art project”), doll clothes that he plans to give his niece, a bumblebee-detailed Bavarian corkscrew made of the horn of an elk and brass, and an antique scale originally used to weigh milk. It’s clear that this house used to be inhabited by dairy farmers. As we wait in line to have our items priced, I start searching again and discover the matching mushroom clock. I’m mystified and delighted. Andrew informs me that there is quite a market for mushroom collectibles; he’s even friends with the people who run the website, Just Mushroom Stuff .
As we have our items priced, Andrew explains, “It’s a family-run operation and everyone here is old pals.” The suit-wearing, polite salesman plays off the other who takes a tough stance on haggling, and like friends would, they tease Andrew: “Gonna wear those doll clothes?” They let me have the mugs and rag for two dollars and throw in the clock for a mere four dollars. My collection of Disney 33s – with everything from the “Jungle Book” to “Little Hiawatha” – is sold as a set for ten dollars.
Bob Gerdhart helps us carry our load to the car, and as we’re walking he tells us he started going to sales with his father when he was a wee tot. When he was older he was “caught” helping a customer carry a couch to their car, and was hired on the spot. “At first I just worked here during the summer, but one summer became two, and then when I finished school it just became all the time,” Bob says. “Everyone’s so great and they’re like family. We’ve known each other forever.”
Our next stop is Old Hat. It’s a new enterprise run by Alex Healy, Danny Garcia, and Noah Sanders, all of whom are under the age of fifty, a rarity in the industry. Fascinated by the bric-a-brac unearthed at estate sales, the three friends decided to start their own liquidation company about a year ago.
Old Hat does traditional estate sales and also rents out a warehouse near the Alemany Flea and Farmers’ Market. In the warehouse, there is everything from precious cameo earrings to a key-winding clock to a Wedgwood collection to ready-to-be-served mimosas. Old Hat puts an emphasis on research, and displays explanatory plaques near its wares.
“We’re still learning,” explains Noah. “We all still have our day jobs.” Earlier that day, a vinyl expert had come to show them secrets of album covers, highlighting a record from the band Rare Earth, the only white band signed to Motown that ever had a hit, and a secret emblem hidden in all covers designed by famed New Yorker artist Al Hirschfeld.
Today is a special occasion: An estate owner is present to talk about the history of her possessions. “At one point I wanted this stuff,” Kay Curry says, “but now I don’t. And I know my kids don’t want it either, so I’m trying to find new homes for my stuff before I’m gone.”
There are three dragon pieces I am awed by: an intricately carved statue of a Chinese holy man fighting a dragon, a mantle clock with dragon handles, and an ivory dragon necklace. The former, explains Kay, was given to her grandfather, a surgeon for the Pacific Railway, by a passenger whose life he saved. The train passenger rewarded him with the collectible that can be secretly disguised – the dragon’s horns detach and can be stored in the base of the statue. The dragon-handled mantle clock was given to Kay’s mother, who was a nurse in rural Kansas, similarly as a reward: “One of the housebound farm wives wanted to pay her but was so poor that my mother would not accept money.” So, the woman insisted Kay’s mother take the clock in lieu of payment. “I bought the dragon necklace as a symbol of power when I was feeling un-empowered in my job,” says Kay. “I always felt more confident wearing it.”
Afterwards we stop by a mansion in Sausalito run by Fine Estate Liquidation, Inc., and to another in North Beach at the corner of Powell and Greenwich, which is run by Quality First. There are more curios, fox portraits, and cheetah-print rodeo jackets that occupy these churches of Scrooge. More than stuff, these past possessions whisper tales of a life well lived.
That evening I call my grandfather. Although a bit bewildered by my mushroom leanings, he is still pleased with my pious devotion at the pulpit of the saver.
Start a collection, go on a mission for a new desk and chair or a matching set of dishes, or just go in search of serendipity at an estate sale. Whatever you’re on the lookout for, be wary when you research estate sales. They’re becoming increasingly popular – many people list garage sales as “estate sales” to generate more customers. Call liquidators; many of them have prerecorded messages with dates, addresses, and what to find at each sale. Or you can simply search Craigslist with key words – always include “estate” – and then throw in the category of stuff you are searching for, if you have one.