Every antique dealer’s house is filled with items that have become decoration because they can’t be sold. There are things that they paid too much for, objects that ended up being broken or worse, reproductions. Fifteen years after the last time we did the flea market together, I sort through my grandmother’s stuff to sell the items she cannot fit into her new nursing home. Items were initially the friends she chose, but once she chose them, they become an inescapable part of her life. She couldn’t get rid of them no matter how hard she tried. Her house is littered with objects that were failed attempts at finding real treasure. Even my grandmother’s set of Lenox is only half Lenox with another Lenox imposter filling in the empty place settings. Odd numbered sets of glasses litter the cabinets while plates my grandmother was convinced were worth good money hang on the walls because she couldn’t get the right price. Toby mugs that were broken and glued back together are sitting on a high shelf while figurines that are chipped are angled just right so visitors can’t tell. Instead of her nice Royal Doultons, she has placed little worn wooden German musical characters with no faces on her windowsill.
In her den is a stack of maps and atlases, essential to any good picker’s process before the Internet came along. There are piles of them from Somerset Country, North Plainfield, and the entire state of New Jersey. Beside them is a rectangular piece of shirt box cardboard the size of a memo pad adorned with carefully clipped newspaper sales. The sales are arranged in start time order and attached to the cardboard on all sides with clear scotch tape. There were rules: get there early, but if we get anything good, we end our day early and hit McDonald’s for breakfast. For me, there is nothing that compares to the old garage sale sheet. When I look for estate sales now, I try to cut and paste on my computer from Craigslist to a word document and send it to my iPhone. It’s not the same although I do still star and order them and use my trusty GPS instead of maps to show me the way on foot.
My grandmother’s house before the sale seems so full of the stuff we pull out of its hiding places. I find hats my grandmother has not worn in 40 years in a special plastic hanging bag adorned with lace and artificial pink flowers. My sister and I try to trace where they might be from, if one piece is from her wedding veil, pictures which we’ve never seen. A couple of mink coats hang in the hall closet never worn in my lifetime. Globe Wernicke barrister bookcases hold her antique price guides. Her TV is on a Gustav Stickley desk.
In the bedrooms, I lay out meticulously taken care of old lady clothing – rows of different colored elastic waisted polyester pants in peacock blue, brown and orange. I empty out paisley silk blouses and tailored suit jackets. On the high shelves, at least 50 plastic shoeboxes remind us of her previous life as a shoe salesman. I remember going to lunch with her co-workers after she retired. They had names like Ginny and Florence, and ordered health plates with cottage cheese and hamburgers.
“Your feet have gotten so big!” Grandma exclaimed one day to me when I was 16, and my shoe size has gone from a 5 to a 5 ½. I can no longer wear her vintage heels although I am still 5 ft like she was. Now I line them up as carefully as I can, not retaining much of the neatness skills my grandma so dutifully tried to impart on me. I price, price, price and get frustrated with my sister and mom for their pricing schemes. This is the stuff I know, so I must be in charge.
“You think $18 is good for this?” my sister asks me, holding up a wall plate.
“No! It should be $22.”
She looks at me like I’m insane, but for some reason, every dollar amount matters to me.
We arrange boxes of buttons and piles of linens on the green porch. We unearth hundreds of pieces of cookware and canned goods from decades ago. We work ourselves to the bone as only seasoned flea marketers can, our goal clearly in our sights. We rush and organize, clean and price and shut out the pain. We price all the pictures hanging on the wall, the mahogany dining room table, the chiming living room clock my parents had given her 40 years before. So many objects are gifts from my parents, reminiscent of the times they were cleaning out estates themselves.
We work in shifts, in the main house and soon in Grandma’s basement which is definitely most telling, remnants of a life in the antique business everywhere. Old diapers used to wrap fragile glass, unprinted newspaper, popped bubble wrap, dilapidated chandeliers, old drill bits without their drills, pieces of silver and glass, empty picture frames, additional sets of furniture, benches, and packing trunks fill the space.
I unwrap the objects like old friends. I have known some of them longer than my real friends. I recognize the face of an old whiskey decanter with frightening clarity. The Czech teapot with the wrong lid, probably from a matching sugar, with the orange and yellow blossoms has been wrapped and unwrapped for years as Grandma tried to pass it off as original after she had been duped herself. The paper is so old it cracks, and the bubble wrap so used it is opaque. One salt, ashtrays that are now unsellable, Japanese prints with cracked glass, boxes of jewelry pieces and parts, loose rhinestones, and boxes of jet beads in the same box. I set up the heavy metal folding tables the same way I used to at the flea market, but now inside my Grandma’s basement, trying with one final thrust to sell what is left of her antiquing life.
After the prep comes the day of the sale and we arrive early to do the final arranging of the objects. Items are scattered throughout the house and mostly stay in the rooms where they are found. I am in charge of the money.
“Maybe I should set up a business doing this in Brooklyn?” I joke with my sister.
“Are you kidding? Doing this is a nightmare. Most people don’t even make any money,” she responds.
“I think it’s a good idea.” My mother calls from the other room.
I put myself behind a table with a moneybox, eerily reminiscent of my early days at the market. I am prepared to be fierce and unwilling to budge, dead set on getting as much money for my grandma’s stuff as humanly possible.
I have carefully advertised the sale on-line and in the paper. I make all of the rare objects stand out; I make it sound like a true estate. The ad goes as follows:
Complete Contents of House
Stickley desk, mahogany breakfront, dining room set sideboard, antique oil paintings, glassware, dishware, mahogany china closet, vintage linens and housewares, kitchen items, vintage clothing and hats, machinist tools, lathes, estate – all must go!
Royal Bonn Mantel Clock
Mahogany Table and chairs
Mahogany Drop Leaf Table
Mahogany China Closet
Antique Figural Lamps
Barrister Bookcase (3 stack)
Royal Doulton Figurines
Pot Belly Stove
Twin Bedroom set (2 beds, nightstand, dresser, mirror)
Volvo Model: 960 4 Door Station Wagon Burgundy 1996
Despite my trepidation that no one will show, an hour ahead people start pulling up in cars and lining up at the front of the door. They are all men, mostly in their 50s with gray hair and lightweight jackets, chatting, ringing the doorbell, peeking in the windows, and doing the rounds of the property. I am nervous inside, ready to sell like I haven’t for years.
We let them in, and they canvas the house. A dealer comes in and pulls out a huge wad of cash to pay for the mantle clock and a Victorian biscuit jar. A young couple looks at the mahogany table but is too nervous to make an offer and leaves abruptly. A man in work gear who can barely walk gets let in the garage to look for scrap metal. He picks up large pieces of lead and pipe and spends hours unsuccessfully negotiating their already low price. The man walking around the property buys an old bottomed out iron pot, a birdbath, and lawn jockeys he has a hired man take away. He helps the man who can barely walk as he trips on the lawn. We sell hundreds of skeins of acrylic, boxes of 50s plastic elves and Santas that used to adorn my grandma’s artificial tree, and holiday lights we dug out of the precarious attic space about the stairs. I will not negotiate even a dollar.
Meewee, what can we take for this set of jars?” my sister asks me.
“What they are priced?” I respond
A dealer tries to claim a set of pictures, yelling at my sister as she takes them off the wall.
“Those are mine,” she swats in her direction.
I call out sternly, “I think you misunderstand; she works here.”
I have to tell the lady three times before she comprehends what I’m saying. We should have worn name tags.
Day two is nothing like day one as we face most of the items, which are leftover from the first day’s sale. Now it is about moving it and moving it fast and giving customers bargains they can’t resist. We make package deals, taking anything for the remnants. An eager young man of about 23 uses his Iphone to look things up on Ebay and keeps adding and adding to his pile, Japanese plates, brass candlesticks, stainless steel flatware, Royal Doulton figurines, the more he buys, the cheaper it gets as we succumb to pangs of empathy.
A pair of sisters spend hours working through the leftover stuff, trying on scarves and shoes, picking through bathroom remnants and looking at rugs.
“Tell your Grandma she should feel good about this sale, I am on disability and am getting a lot of good stuff here. Tell her she should feel good, cause her stuff is going to someone who is on disability.”
She repeats the same thing for over an hour.
It is only after my grandmother’s sale that I start to miss the artifacts of a house that are no longer there. I become terribly afraid that in the mist of memory as the days go by I will no longer be able to recreate every nook and cranny. I won’t be able to go there and take my husband so that he can really experience what my childhood was like, getting ready for the market and the daily things, like what it meant to have dinner at my grandma’s house, and how the bread, the salad, everything tasted somehow completely different than anywhere else.
Beaver dam teapot, sugar, and creamer, all shaped like beavers. Broken down band, with chipped paint, indistinguishable features, drawer of cards, pens, pencils old and not working ever. Face mug full of pens with ink stains, bowling trophies of my grandfather who held every league record there was, linoleum floor in rectangles of brown, fruit plates hanging on the walls, white chenille bedspreads, holy water, doilies, piles of cards, a tin full of fastenings and thread. Boxes of all kinds, shoe, store, angels on them, Christmas boxes, hatboxes, almost all of them empty.
Even after they are cleaned out, it is easy to see Grandma’s rooms are all color-matched. A blue bathroom with swans and blue toilet, sink, cabinet, curtains, soap dispenser, bathmat, towels, bath scrubbie, tissue paper holder that in the 80s boasted matching toilet paper. The yellow bathroom the same. A pink bedroom for the kids with pink carpet, wallpaper and her dark blue bedroom with a neon blue shag rug and baby blue walls. The porch is matching greens, and the living room all shades of beige.
My grandmother asks what we get for the objects, repeating the fleamarketeer’s refrain, “They got a good deal on that, let me tell you. That’s worth a lot of money you know.” She spent years preserving these items because they were special, or so that one day she could get her money back for those mistakes and broken items. She would be devastated to think we just gave them away. The pile of money from the sale makes her happy as only a flea marketer could be with a stack of bills at their disposal.