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Janel Scott has three rules for family members attending their loved one’s estate sale. Number one: no sharing stories with the shoppers. Number two: no family reunions during the sale. Number three: no crying.
It may seem harsh at first, but many estate sale operators don’t allow the owner’s or their family to attend at all for fear of scaring off potential buyers or making them feel guilty for intruding on someone’s home, and ultimately, what’s left of their life.
“I discourage it, but I would never say they can’t come,” says Scott, who owns Appleton based Bumblepuppy Estate and Consignment Sales. “My rules are all based on past experiences. People might come through the house and say ‘This place smells’ and if you’re not prepared to take the criticism, you’re going to have a hard time standing here.”
This example encompasses Scott’s expectation that estate sale attendees, relations or not, attend with a thick skin. Unassuming shoppers will say what comes to their mind while perusing a home and its contents. Shoppers often come with a mission in mind and can be quite competitive — not taking kindly to those who try to get in their way.
“In the beginning, it’s kind of a free for all. I always tell people that if they’re not interested in being in a house that’s packed, standing in a line to check out, that they should come later in the day,” Scott says.
Hardcore estate salers show up at the crack of dawn for their place in line. Residential properties can only accommodate so many people at once, so the early birds get first dibs at the home’s best items (“best” being a subjective word).
Eager shoppers wait for their turn at a Bumblepuppy sale in Oshkosh.
Bumplepuppy regulars have developed their own system of line-waiting fairness which Scott refers to as “the trinket system.” Instead of physically standing in line, regulars take refuge in their vehicles or nearby coffee shops, holding their place with a representative trinket — a can of Mt. Dew, a glove, a clothes pin.
“I don’t know, it’s just what they do,” Scott says. “I never told them to do it, but they honor it amongst themselves.”
Estate sales occur for a variety of reasons, the most common being a death in the family or a downsizing situation.
“When you have a house that needs to be sold, because the owner has moved to a smaller house or moved to heaven, nine times out of 10 the stuff left behind is an impediment to the sale of house,” says Greg Willett, who operates Greg Willett Antiques & Estate Sales Services out of Appleton.
In these situations, estate sale operators like Willett are paid to enter the home, clean, organize and price its entire accumulated contents, then sell it to the public typically over one or two days. Because of the quick turnaround, items are usually priced lower than at an antique store or retail outlet.
Willett, who moonlights as a stand-up comedian, estimates what an estate will bring in at sale based on the quantity and quality of its contents. Prices for individual items are based on comparables in the market, but after 36 years in the business, it’s rare for Willett to require research on more than eight percent of items to determine its price.
“I did a sale last weekend,” he says. “I walked through the house and after two one-hour appointments, I quoted a $4,000 sale. We ended up at over $3,900. After a while, you just start to know.”
Willett usually runs sales between $5,000 and $12,000, but has the occasional sale that brings in substantially more than that. Operators generally work off a commission of the sale’s proceeds in addition to advertising, labor and any removal fees.
Deb Blank, who co-owns The Market Place estate liquidation with her husband and two other couples, explains how presentation affects estate sale shoppers as she prepares a home in Combined Locks for an April sale. The right presentation can help shoppers envision items in their own homes, thus increasing sales. Blank and her partners post tears from magazines around displays to illustrate creative utilization for everything from tea cups to hand saws.
“We kick it up a notch,” she says. “We stage things, clean things. People tell us how our sales look more like a little boutique.”
For those looking to work for their treasures, which can be half the fun, Blank assures opportunities still abound.
“Discoveries are important too. So, we have places,” Blank laughs referencing a box of miscellaneous household goods. “We put a price on this whole box, you take it home and see what’s in it.”
This phenomenon of poking around the homes of strangers attracts an eclectic crowd. Some look at it as a voyeuristic opportunity while others are all business. You’ll know the professional dealers when you see them. They show up early, move fast and know exactly what they’re looking for, a contrast from the Eddie Bauer-clad couples killing time before brunch.
Janel Scott at her store in Appleton
Hot ticket items at an estate sale depend on who’s shopping. For bargain hunters, it ranges from half-used cleaning supplies (Scott says it’s always the first to go) to appliances and items with a practical use. Vintage clothing and paper ephemera are the sought-after items of hip twenty-somethings still young enough to romance the past. Antiques and pricier collectibles are favored by (surprise, surprise) antique dealers and collectors. Of course, there are the notorious tough sells, too.
“Anything having to do with the dining room is hard to sell,” Willett says. “When’s the last time you set a pretty table? It’s tough when you have to tell grandma that her crystal stemware is worth next to nothing.”
In that way, estate sale trends can reflect the cultural climate of the present and how values have shifted over time. Willett points out that contemporary home design favors open-concept layout which is less welcoming to the epic 12-seater dining tables of the past. Formal dining these days is signified by micro, bamboo-skewered amuse-bouches more than heirloom silver and candelabras.
But the real gems of estate sales can be found in the artifacts of bygone eras that often hold value in their kitschiness. At one of Scott’s sales in Oshkosh, the deceased owner’s daughter, Maggie, is in attendance. She is a mature woman with a raspy voice and an easy way about her. Despite Scott’s rules, Maggie is reminiscing over the home’s bright green shag carpet complete with a rug rake. (For anyone born after the ‘70s, the rug rake was meant to fluff and beautify shag carpeting.)
Maggie eyes the rake sitting in the corner and is compelled to explain.
“This shag carpet was my father’s pride and joy,” she says. “Even on my wedding day, I remember my dad,” Maggie starts feverishly raking the carpet, “erasing the traffic patterns so it looked its best.”
She laughs, remembering the silliness of it all. The shoppers within earshot don’t seem to mind.
Outside, Scott mans the check-out table set up in the driveway. The unseasonable warmth allows her to remain outside wearing only a light sweatshirt on what might otherwise have been a brisk spring morning.
Maggie takes a seat beside Scott in a folding chair as the first round of shoppers bring their new found treasures, ranging from a vintage turntable to a push lawnmower, to the check-out. Maggie baked shamrock-shaped cookies for the event and has been in high-spirits all morning, not seeming to mind the strangers rummaging through her father’s belongings. In fact, she seems to enjoy watching people find delight in his things.
“Oh,” Scott says as she hands Maggie a small metal picture frame and a loose photograph. “These were behind a shelf someone bought.”
The frame contains two photographs, both of little boys who turn out to be Maggie’s siblings. The loose photograph is of two dapper men on a golf course, clubs in hand, smiles wide. Maggie looks at the photograph, her smile growing to match the men in the picture.
“That’s my dad,” she says, a wistful quality to her voice. For a moment, it almost looks like Maggie might break another of Scott’s rules. Luckily, she doesn’t.
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