I could hear the chanting as I approached the unmarked metal door on the far side of the warehouse after sunset Tuesday night. There were old and battered trucks and cars parked on the sand and gravel outside, and mine fit in perfectly. I was a little surprised the door was unlocked when I hauled at the knob, but just inside I found hundreds of rickety-looking square folding tables loaded with assorted junk and an irregular crowd of about 25 people, all muffled in flannels and overcoats, hunch-shouldered and intent on a tired-eyed fortyish orange-tanned guy in short sleeves wearing a small headset who was singsonging numbers and swinging his arms from one bidder to another as small nods and hand gestures signaled higher offers.
I tapped one fellow lingering at the back of the group on the shoulder and asked him where to register. He pointed me across the warehouse to a glass window where a fat pale woman wearing another headset was rapidly typing on a computer. A black man leaning up against the door frame next to her, who looked like he was in charge, directed me around to another desk where an elderly clerk took my driver's license for a few seconds and then gave me a large index card with the number 420 scrawled on the unlined side in Sharpie. "There's 8% tax and a 10% premium on all winning bids," he said. I thanked him, and tucked my license back into my wallet.
It might not seem possible for a place where computers are well integrated to seem rustic, but the office had the feel of an old family-run car repair shop where there was working dirt under the staff's fingernails, and receipts and parts catalogs tucked in the corners. And then there were the signs--a yellowed typed sheet taped to the wall listing the rules for bidders--cash and checks only, no credit cards, no debit cards. A second name to whom checks could be written was crossed out on the sign--evidence of death, retirement or professional rift, I guessed. Various stickers with warnings about the laws against passing bad checks we pasted on the glass window, and humorous notices about the insanity and stress level of the staff, and pictures of children and pets were around the frame.
Meanwhile, the auctioneer continued through the tables, the crowd shifting down the row as lot after lot was sold. I noticed that he began at "10 for this lot," then went to "6 takes it" if there wasn't a response. Some items found no takers even after he dropped to a dollar and paused, looking around hopefully, and others bounced up to twenty or more within seconds. There were no long silences--he had a steady rhythm, calling out the winning bid and number of the winning bidder in a breath, and the woman at the office computer recorded it, and he was on to the next table.
My adrenaline pumping, I decided to quickly survey the upcoming tables and decide if I wanted to hazard anything, on what and how much. Every table was an eclectic assortment of household goods, dishes, electronics and other items. Of the fifty or so remaining, I saw maybe five that attracted my interest, and I quickly scribbled their numbers on the back of my index card. The first several tables that I thought had neat things went over my budgeted maximum. I noticed one guy sneaking glances at my notes, and mentally recorded that this crowd was a casual, relaxed, grizzled bunch of bottom feeders like myself, and in future I should keep my cards close to my chest. Literally.
But I got the two lots I really wanted – a set of three dusty pictures for $22.50, and then a table heaped with odds and ends, including a wooden jewelry box with brass corners, for $7.50. Right after I won the pictures, the fellow who hadn't outbid me asked if he could buy one of the lot from me--it was the one picture I didn't want! So I told him, "Sure, let me pay first."
At the clerk's desk, a small queue had formed, including a six-foot-tall bass-voiced transvestite wearing grandpa jeans, a resurrected-from-the-1980s satin vest and large chandelier earrings. Her magenta-dyed long hair was combed over so the three-inch grey roots formed a neat line up from her forehead. The only people who seemed out of sorts there were one short snaggle-toothed white couple, who bickered over who should load the car.
With the tax and premium, everything cost me about $35. I sold the saddle picture to the old guy who wanted it for $10, so that brought my outlay down to $25. It took me three trips to take everything to my vehicle. I hadn't realized there was a bin full of things underneath the second table that was included in the lot. Some of it was trash, but there were some treasures--a nice leather bag, and a hatbox with two pretty vintage hats. I plan to flip everything once I have it cleaned and polished. Dirty doesn't sell. Or, rather, clean sells for more!