Estate sales make me think of the Rapture. I imagine that each Thursday evening a deserving group is plucked from their everyday lives for good behavior, while the rest of us buy their stuff for cheap on Friday mornings.
I go to estate sales for the same reason I read obituaries. I want to believe that hidden in each narrative or among the contents of a household I will find subtle, zen-like clues about how to live well.
For those who have never been to an estate sale let me set the scene. The doors officially open on Friday morning at ten and the sale continues over the weekend. There is always a handful of professional buyers, those who resell online or at groovy vintage stores, who arrive early. These are the gamblers and wildcatters of the estate sale circle.
The dealers are usually older and look like they have been up all night. They don’t know many details about the house and its contents except for the bare facts. From behind a card table, one of the dealers lets the first group in the house at ten; others are allowed only as people leave through the checkout station.
The anticipation and underlying competition among the people in the entry line is buzzy.
There are two main reasons for estate sales – death or downsizing due to impending death. An estate sale is like a 3-D, high definition obituary. Much of the contents in the house are in the exact place where the owner had left them with the exception of jewelry, small valuables, and pocket knives, which are usually in a glass case near the entrance.
Silverware and dishes are still in the drawers and cabinets, and kitchen gadgets on the counters. Available pictures and painting are hung on the walls. Furniture that is for sale sits where it has always been. Collections of all sorts are put together and books are on the shelves. Most of the family photographs have been put away, but not always.
It looks like you might be visiting if it wasn’t for the fact that everything has a price tag.
Each sale has the personality of the owner. In just a few minutes I can get a sense of the broad strokes of an entire life. Evidence of travel, hobbies, marriage, family, and careers is all there if you look. I love the tiny details that support my initial impressions; the hand-written recipe cards, trinkets from trips, the art, and books.
I don’t buy big items and usually don’t arrive with any expectations. I am drawn to old domestic stuff. I like hand embroidered runners and vintage fabric, salt glaze pottery, heavy metal figurines that feel good in my hand, and old postcards with sweet notes on the back.
After all my estate sale-ing and obituary reading I have yet to find the meaning of life. I have come to know that people’s actions, not their things or even their words, reveal more of life’s instructions.
However, after every estate sale I inevitably think about my own house and what its contents say about me. I have never been good at accumulating. I’m not a shopper. I don’t have the attention span to collect anything.
At fifty-one, I’m already at the unloading stage. I didn’t expect the urge to downsize would come so soon. I still go to estate sales but the mountains of stuff I see makes me determined to give away more and to repurpose when I can.
My life-long anthropological curiosity with other people’s things has morphed into my 5 Step Manifesto of Stuff Management.
1. I relentlessly purge the stuff from our house on an ongoing basis. Unless they have a latent hoarding gene that I don’t know about, my kids will not want to go through my junk after I’m dead. They will not want every art project they ever made from the time they could hold a crayon or my jeans from 1993. If it hasn’t been worn or used in the past year then it’s on the way out the door to someone who needs it.
2. I use my good stuff. At estate sales I have seen tablecloths, china, unworn leather gloves, never-sprayed perfume and beautiful scarves in their original boxes. There are too many items waiting for a special time. The special time is now. If stuff breaks or I lose it, then so be it. Living is risky.
3. If I need a storage unit for more than a month then I have too much stuff and it’s time for a garage sale, not to be confused with an estate sale.
4. I will pass along meaningful stuff to my kids while I’m alive so I can see them enjoy it.
5. I believe in pictures. I will keep every damn one of them. Photographs are proof that experiences are better than stuff.
Stuff is just stuff.