Say estate sale at our house and my wife’s eyes dilate, her breathing speeds up, and her hands start twitching. We have lots of estate sales in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, so our Saturdays often involve going into strangers’ houses and plundering their stuff. I’d never been to an estate sale before I met my wife. It seemed kind of silly at first, but now, if I’m truthful about it, I enjoy them just as much as she does. She prowls about the different houses, hunting for outstanding bargains and decorating ideas, then drags her finds to the car like a lioness taking home her bloody prey. I go off in search of stories.
The really personal items have usually been either moved or hidden away in closed-off rooms by the time a sale opens, of course. But people collect a crazy amount of stuff over the years, and every piece tells something about their lives, even if it’s just that they have weird friends with bad taste who give bizarres gifts. Some of the stories, like the odd friends, are easy to find. A bunch of fishing equipment, yard tools, skeins of different colored yarn, camera equipment, or well-worn cooking utensils, for instance, lead to obvious conclusions about how the former residents enjoyed spending their time. And so begins a story.
A worn out recliner or sofa positioned in front of the TV, or the spot where the TV obviously sat, says at least one person who lived there was inactive for some period of time. Occasionally, the medical equipment for sale in another part of the house is a good indication of why. Other times, I’m left to wonder if it was a health condition that kept that person parked in one place, or depression, or grief, or laziness, or maybe just old age. Those are things I’ll never know. And so begins a story.
Technology buffs leave some fun things behind. Big, chunky calculators that cost more than a month’s paycheck back in the early- and mid-1970’s, dot matrix printers, and laptops bigger than today’s desktop computers are common finds. Beta-max players, reel-to-reel tape players, slide projectors, and movie cameras that use 8mm film all make me wonder about the family gatherings and vacations that were recorded and relived on that equipment. Do those memories still bring smiles and happy thoughts? Does the family still gather for Christmas and birthday parties? Do the grown children carry on the same traditions with their own kids? And so begins a story.
Several months ago, we went to a sale in a house that was built in 1915. Even better, the gentleman who was moving out had been a life-long antiques dealer and collector. Needless to say, we saw a lot of junk, but we found some truly incredible things, as well. One of the most notable was a baby carriage, probably from about the time the house was built. It was all black leather and metal, and it was seriously, seriously creepy. I don’t know where it came from or what dark deeds it was a part of, but I wouldn’t even stay in the hallway where it sat. Evil perched on top of that perambulator like a vulture, not just waiting on everyone in the house to die, but scheming to make death come quicker so it could feast on the warm carcasses. And, oh hell yes, so begins a story.
The best thing about that old house was the books. That’s what I hunt for. They’re always cheap at an estate sale and, next to reading, cheap is one of my favorite things. The kinds of books people have in their home tells me more about them than anything else does. A house with no books or no evidence of where books were kept says a lot about the folks who lived there, as well. Most of the book collections I find are made up of trade paperbacks and works by popular authors. These are people, I imagine, who just enjoy reading. For the most part, any of the books on those shelves that I haven’t read yet are books I didn’t want to read, and I leave empty-handed. I still look through them, though, and sometimes I get lucky. A few weeks ago I found one of the only Stephen King books I haven’t read – in hardback – for a buck. It didn’t begin a story, but that was a good day.
Like a bunch of objects devoted to one pursuit, loaded bookshelves also provide a good look into someone’s hobbies and interests and how they spend their time. Often, instead of novels, the shelves are filled with books about fishing, woodworking, politics, electronics, and positive thinking. Once or twice, I’ve found a room full of books on medical terms and conditions. A doctor had lived in one of the houses, as evidenced by the plaques that listed her name. In the other house, though, nothing indicated anyone with a medical background had ever claimed it as a residence, so I had to wonder – was this person sickly and determined to manage a debilitating disease, or just a hypochondriac desperately searching for some illness to claim as his own? And so begins a story.
Every once in a while in my search through other peoples’ tomes I stumble into a treasure trove. The books in these houses tell me that, even though we’ll never meet, I’ve happened on the abode of someone from my tribe. They are folks who don’t just love to read, they love literature. They love to think about what they’ve read. They love books. Not long ago, we went to the home of one of those kindred spirits, and I had to sit down in the library and wait for my heartrate to get back under control. I left with an illustrated copy of Don Quixote printed in 1930, The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, printed in 1964, and a first edition copy of Papa Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. Other than a name written on the inside cover, all were in nearly mint condition, and I paid two dollars for each of them. For hardback editions! Of course, I immediately wondered how these books came to be on those shelves, and who it was that bought them and read them. And so begins a story.
If I’d had my way that Saturday, I would have rented a UHaul and taken the whole lot of books home. But foolishly-spent-money, storage space, and my wife’s patience with clutter are all in short supply at our house, so I left the bulk of that treasure for someone else. Still, it was a red-letter day, being surrounded by so much great literature and claiming a few pieces for my own. I just hope the drool stains I left behind didn’t keep those other books from finding good homes. I wonder about the people who came after we left and bought what was left in the library. Were they dealers, or other kindred spirits? Did they buy literature, or decorations to make their own shelves look good? And so begins a story.