Nowadays, it seems like everybody and their posse are busting a move on what used to be my secret escape on weekends. Programs such as the Antiques Road Show are to blame, giving people the mostly false hope that all they have to do is go to some garage sale and they can find a forgotten sketch by Rembrandt and make fifty thousand dollars on something they paid ten bucks for. I figure my gig is up, and I’ll just have to consent myself with people enjoying the newly appointed fad for the next ten years. So now is the time when the truth can be told!

You start by looking in the Friday paper under Estate Sales, Garage Sales, and Auctions. We’ll stick with estate sales for the purposes of this post. Look for things that are close by where you live, of course. Read the descriptions, and if something reads the right way for you, then by all means drive the extra mile. But the point isn’t necessarily the prize, but the ability to hit 2 or 3 places to maximize your chances and to get as much fun as possible out of the experience. I go on Saturdays and Sundays, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do the duty on a Friday if you hustled, or took the day off.

Descriptions can be misleading, however, so always measure how the ad reads and feels to you. “Lots of collectibles” can mean “piles of unrelated stuff we couldn’t identify”, and “Vintage furniture” can mean “broken down junk we found in the attic”. Avoid any sale that requires you to stand in line and take a number, or charges you a fee. Those are the rackets, and you won’t find squat there, maybe the occasional high priced piece of tasteless furniture selling for hundreds of dollars because the owners really don’t want to part with it.

Take cash, forty bucks is optimal, but twenty will do fine. What, you thought you were going to be getting new furniture for your apartment? That will do you for the first one or two runs, but then what? This is a regular diversion, not a bargain hunt per se. Look to do this long term, for laughs. Carry your checkbook if you want, but I never carry more than a hundred, and that only on the days I “gots me that lovin’ feeling”. Also, make sure you have a vehicle that can handle a small piece of furniture or a few boxes of junk. Ideally, it’s fun for the entire family, but make sure you can bring back the loot. My Tardis go-cart hatchback, Micro Blue, does the trick nicely.

Crack out the road maps, Google Maps, whatever you need to find the place, and go. Carry some water or a coke with you, it can be thirsty work. Make plans to stop for lunch, or carry a picnic in the back. The last thing you need is a car full of crabby patties, or a grousing driver. This is an adventure into the dungeons! Load up on supplies accordingly.

Once you get to the location, there’s always the issue of parking. Sometimes it’s easy, other times it can be tricky. Some of the places I’ve been to have had the strangest access, from one way streets into a small cul-de-sac, to a tiny dirt hill with no place to turn around and nothing but cars behind you honking for their chance to risk running over the edge to let them pass. I’ve had neighbors scream at me for parking on a public street because my car was “an abomination”. 90 percent of the time it’s not much of an issue, but you will come across the strange ways, my friend, oh yes, you will come upon them.

There are a lot of estate sale companies managing the things these days, and you start to know them on a first name basis. You walk in the door and you go, “Oh, I didn’t know you guys were involved, how ya doing?” And “Oh, hello dear, yes it’s us. The ad messed up and didn’t get our logo, kind of a last minute thing.” My schtick has always been, be polite and keep it loose and easy with these outfits. Yes, you can bargain with them, but if you cop an attitude they will crack the whip faster than you can say “Captain Thunderpants.” And if you offend them, well do you really want to search a house while they give you the evil eye?

I’ve seen it happen. Guy tries to haggle a pile of nice metal tools in a toolbox, tries to diddle the price down to a dollar (hey, it can be done, and for less than that!) when it’s clearly marked five. The outfit says three, and the guy cops that attitude. Starts arguing with them about ripping people off, ratcheting the tension up in a line that’s already as tense as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I stifle a laugh. Dude! This a zero sum game, are you kidding me? Come back on Sunday when they won’t care! Snap goes the trap, and the giant clams have denied you! Guy leaves everything on the table and leaves in a defeated huff. I could only shake my head at the guy and sadly mourn his removal from the list of “almost unworthy to view the wares but if we must grant you access I suppose we must”.

Me, I used it to my advantage. Bought my stuff and didn’t haggle. I already knew the lampshade was a bargain (which surprised me, given the high prices of this outfit). I sympathized with them and chuckled at their well-played snap. Out of the blue, they say, “take that shelf, we can’t use it.” I’m like, “Whoa.” Genuine cherry wood three tier sub-shelf with original varnish and almost completely intact!? I’m there, dude. You roll the dice and sometimes you get a surprise. But you won’t get it by being a jerk. But hey, you wipe out, I’m taking your boots and leaving your corpse by the wayside. This ain’t no disco. I trust you get my point. Stay calm. You lose a lot, you sometimes make the play. That’s how it works.

Now, you should be aware of a certain kind of “estate sale” known as the “bogus estate sale.” I don’t run into them often, maybe three times in the past ten years, but you will encounter them. And when you do you will be outraged by the complete waste of time they are. The “bogus estate sale” is a tactic used by dishonest furniture dealers to sell their products under false pretenses. You’ll walk into a house, and there will be nothing in it except lots of high-priced furniture, often it’ll be covered in plastic wrap because it hasn’t even been completely unwrapped from the wholesaler. There will be a lot of “helpers” walking around asking you if they can help you, like its some kind of freakin’ store or you might walk off with their high-priced tacky junk.

Ohhh! It burns my bunions when I walk into one of those things. Just be aware they exist, and realize that no, you aren’t hallucinating. This is a scam, get out now before you waste any more time. Sometimes you’ll walk into an estate sale with nothing left, but there will still be that smell in the air, or some crud in the corners, like the Grinch has just passed through on one of his runs. The scam will be instantly recognizable by the “cleanliness” of the house and the abundance of nice furniture without the signs of anyone having actually lived in the house.

So, where’s the fun you ask? Well, there’s the excitement of not knowing what you will get, or what kind of situation you’ll find yourself in. After all the preparation and hassle of getting there, after the maneuvering of the obstacles, nothing beats the moment of truth: The moment you walk through the door. You get to explore someone else’s house and pick through their things. That’s what I call the sordid angle. And, every now and then, you come across and object that wants to come home with you. It’s like scratching lottery tickets. You’re hoping for the jackpot, but when you win that one-dollar, you feel like a million bucks. Dreams are what this is made of.

Sometimes you walk into a house and it’s full of nothing but junk. All of it is cheap and the right price, but you don’t want any of it. Other times you’ll walk into a house and it’s crowded to the gills with people fighting over piles and piles of towels, curtains, and used clothing. K once had to flee a pile of used clothes because two women were literally pushing her away to fight over who would get what scrap! Then there are the times you walk into a person’s house and you get insights into how they lived, but don’t come away with anything.

For example, I went through the books and diaries of a housewife who had passed on, and the husband had been moved to a nursing home. The woman had lived a life of constant worry over her religious devotion, her weight, and her attractiveness to her husband. She had gone from religious study, with tons of appropriate knick-knacks, to diet and nutrition with cookbooks and health regimens, and finally to ahem, more modern seventies books on “how to do it” and how to be both religious and uhm, “adventurous”. It culminated in a light interest in mysticism, with astrology books and “spiritual renewal” manuals.

The husband, meanwhile, had gone from mathematics with calculators and slide-rules for a navy engineering job of some sort, to fiddling with electronics and do-it-yourself household fixtures in the basement (I never saw so many transistors and vacuum tubes next to wiring and plumbing projects in my life), and ended up with an extreme interest in National Geographic and travel. There were countless artifacts from Asian vacations, from Thailand to New Guinea, and on into Hong Kong. It’s as if the guy had decided numbers and electricity didn’t measure up to going on expeditions to bring back the goods.

You sometimes come into the houses of specialists. People who devoted their entire waking lives to one thing. I once explored the home of a guy who had worked in the state department with literally, thousands of books in his home. Piles as high as a human being, one after the other up and down the stairs, on numerous shelves or on the floor, filling entire rooms, on every conceivable subject, though mostly having to do with economics, philosophy and ancient history.

There was the woman who had converted her entire enormous home into a yarn depository. It was like being in a store. Shelf after handcrafted shelf of patterns, balls of yarn, and knitting books. The workshop had every arsenal of knitting tool known to humanity, and it all looked used and lovingly attended to. K, being a knitting and spinning artist, had a nervous breakdown at the sight of it, and I almost never got her out of the labyrinths of knitty goodness. I think we spent over an hour lost in that place.

Then there are the houses that aren’t right. An ex-diplomat’s house filled with hard-to-find side passages, hidden attics, and labyrinthine basements. Regular old houses on joe-blow street that look normal on the outside, but are put together funny on the inside. Doors that go nowhere. Basements you can see but can’t get to anymore. Twisting and turning hallways that force you to always go in one direction, in a circle. And farmhouses that have layouts that allow women and men to live separate lives, with sewing and bridge club rooms with easy access to the root cellar and kitchen in one area, smoking/sitting rooms and workshops in the other, meeting only in the dining room around a large long farm table for meals.

I’m only scratching the surface, and I don’t want to make this into a manifesto. You get the idea. You usually walk into a generic place, but might find something interesting that teaches you about people. Oh yeah, the stuff. Anything’s possible. Most times, a place is cleaned out. I have a set range of things I’m looking for, mostly books and toys, and sometimes a good knick-knack for the prize table. I’ll have to explain the concept of the prize table in another post. I won’t turn down a bargain if I see it, and I’m not looking for furniture, though I might pick up a shelf or rug if the price is right. Everybody has their focus.

I was in a McMansion once, totally filled with bad taste in furniture. One thing that never fails to amaze me is how in the new big houses, say post 1980, the people who once lived in them always seem to have spent all their energy in obtaining the dream house, but never have the life-force left to actually fill it with what feeds the soul. The furniture is tacky, or out of a crummy catalog, and doesn’t look like anybody has ever used it. There’s very little clutter, just a lot of the basics such as shelf for entertainment electronics, couch to enjoy said electronics, and some accessory pieces like a lamp on a pedestal. No posters, maybe one lifeless piece of framed art, no colors in the wallpaper or bric a brac in a corner to indicate even the slightest interest in obtaining mementoes or fetishes for a healthy functioning psyche.

But I digress. House is a typical lifeless shell, when I get down to a single room in the basement, and pow. Apparently the housewife was a teacher, and clung to that part of her life tenaciously, and this was her space. She had a mobile shelf made of high quality wood and constructed to withstand long-term exposure for kids. I get it for five bucks. Holy moly. She has a box of wooden blocks of the kind you never see anymore. I pick it up for another five bucks. As a kid, I had the companion set of blocks to this set, so here I am, years later, completing the set of blocks. The one with the solid round pillars and the arches to go with the squares and rectangles of the other set. I’m out of my mind with disbelief. I buy a pile of kids books that are long out of print for a buck. Those will go on the prize table and will end up in the hands of my younger cousins, who might never get a chance to know some of the classics I grew up with. It’s a humbling experience.

Sometimes you walk out with one thing, but it’s a prize. I go into a huge old house where somebody (I can’t tell who) does a lot of cooking. The basement has every conceivable appliance, dish, pan and accessory you can imagine. Mixed in with someone else’s Matchbox Car collection of rare and expensive die-cast metal cars from the sixties and seventies. I can’t touch that stuff, it’s way too expensive for my tastes. So I look under all the tables and boxes in the basement, just to see what’s there, and I pull out a cast iron pot, complete with lid and handle. I’m stunned; this has got to be pre-fifties stuff. I can hardly lift it, but the outfit lets me have it for a buck. I hand it over to the folks, who know how to revive iron and care for it. We now have a large pot, the kind you might find in the wild west, capable of cooking a huge amount of food, say chicken and dumplings or beef stew on an open flame in the wilderness. That’s exactly what we end up using it for. Talk about cool.

You do a lot of dues paying in the form of wasted effort. A lot of times you go to three sales and they’re all a bust. For weeks you get zero return. But then the clouds part, and something gets revealed to you, making it all worthwhile. In some small way I’m paying my respects to these people who have passed on, by bearing witness to their passing and making out of the ritual a way for life to improve and move forward. Gotta drink to that!