An Open Letter to Estate Sales

I’m sorry, but I have to take a slight detour this week, away from writing and editing, and into my other passion – vintage items. Specifically, estate sales and rummage sales and what not to freaking do to your vintage items!!!! So this is an open letter to anyone who organizes and runs estate sales especially.

Estate Sales:

I’m at your sale for two reasons:  because I love a good bargain and the thrill of the hunt, and to find items for my personal collections and for my vintage shop.

I don’t care how poorly organized everything is. In fact, the less organized, the more fun it is for me. I love to dig and rummage through boxes of crap to find the one good thing in the bottom. And for once, I’m not being sarcastic.

But poorly organized is one thing:  poorly run is another. If you want me to patronize your sales, please take note:

  • Never, ever put masking tape on velvet or any other fabric. Never, ever put any sort of adhesive on any sort of fabric, ESPECIALLY velvet and silk. In the past three weeks, I’ve purchased five hats that were ruined – RUINED – by morons using masking tape as a price tag. The adhesive DOES NOT COME OFF. If you really want to sell something, stick a sign on the wall saying “Hats, $2 each.” I bought those hats thinking I could salvage them. I can’t. I won’t do that again, no matter how good the hat is otherwise.
  • And on that thought:  never, ever put safety pins through vintage gloves! You may think you’re keeping pairs together and you’re able to stick a price tag with a string on it to the safety pin and aren’t you being clever? NO!!!! You’re not being clever. You’re ruining the value of the gloves. Because now, I have to disclose to MY customers that there’s a pinhole in each wrist. Put them in individual baggies. It’s very easy.
  • Don’t think that because a piece of costume jewelry is signed, it’s automatically expensive. It’s not. If you aren’t going to do the research to find out exactly what this Sarah Coventry brooch is worth, don’t expect your customers to pay exorbitant amounts of money for it. I guarantee you, it’s probably not worth what you think it is. And if it’s signed Christian Dior? Do me a favor and assume it’s fake. 🙂
  • Vintage handkerchiefs are not all the same. The fact that they’re old doesn’t make them rare or valuable. I have literally 175+ handkerchiefs sitting in my room right now that I’ve picked up in just the past six months. As with anything else, stains, holes, loose threads, etc. makes them worth less. Or in some cases, worthless.

I never know what I’m going into your sale to find. That’s what makes it fun for me. I know that what I want is mostly likely going to found in either the bedrooms or the basements. (Or the attic, in some cases.) I may walk out with nothing. That’s not a reflection of you; it simply means that I have to be choosy about what I bring home, and you didn’t have anything that met my criteria – or, let’s be honest, my budget.

Oh, and this habit some of you have of “saving back” items that you can trot out on Day 2 and 3 of a sale? STOP THAT. I may only be able to come for one day. I might make it back for Day 3, when everything is half price, but possibly not. If you have 15 hats, but I only get to see 5 of them on Day 1, and my schedule doesn’t permit me to come back, that’s not fair. And please don’t pull that line about “well, we’re still sorting stuff.” It’s your job to get the stuff sorted BEFORE THE SALE STARTS.

While we’re on that, this whole elitist thing about handing out numbers and only allowing a few people in at a time? It’s just that. Elitist. STOP THAT. Most people who come to estate sales aren’t there to steal items, they’re there to find bargains or pick up the things they collect. Most people who come to estate sales are adults who are certainly able to avoid each other and the merchandise. And I am capable of defending my pile of stuff. 🙂

While we’re on that . . . could you please have a designated “piles of stuff” area for customers, complete with boxes of varying sizes and slips of paper that we can write our names on and put on our box(es)? Right next to the cashier would be fine. Oh, wait, you haven’t got a cashier? Well, you need to fix that, too. I went to an estate sale a few weeks ago where my pile of stuff got raided. Luckily, I caught them in the act and they were apologetic (and as it turned out, I’d unknowingly raided their pile of stuff, too!), but the entire thing could have been avoided by this one simple thing:  Boxes and a designated area. Both of us ended up buying TONS of stuff, more than we could carry through the house and garage. We needed a safe place to put it.

And for the love of God, don’t ask me to tell you what something is worth. If you didn’t research it, don’t expect me to pay you some outlandish price for it. Like many of the people coming through your sale, I own a vintage shop. I take pride in being able to find the best items at the best price, and finding them good homes at good prices. Buying low means I can sell them for slightly below my competition.

I want to buy things at your estate sale. Lots of things. Too many things, probably. 🙂 Help me help you.

Sincerely, One Frustrated Customer

History’s Orphans — those items I can’t let go

I’m a historian. I teach history for three local colleges, and while I started out as a medievalist, and still love that, I’ve gotten much more into American history since I started teaching eight years ago. There’s something about it – we learn one thing in elementary school, mostly propaganda (at least, that’s how it was when I was in elementary school!), and then you don’t learn anything else unless you really start to get into it and study it more.

All the little stories. All the hidden history. All the things you never knew, or took for granted. (For example: did you know that the KKK of the 1920s was far more likely to attack Catholics or bootleggers, than African-Americans? It’s true!)

I also collect historical items – vintage items, to be more precise. Some, I sell through my store on Etsy. But sometimes, I find those things that I can’t quite let go. That 1930s passport. Research for a book. A wood cheese box that I store Post-It notes in. More than a hundred snapshots and World War II letters, left behind. To some, they’d be things to throw away. To me, they’re orphans. Not perfect; sometimes I can’t even put them in my shop because they don’t meet my own standards. But I keep them nonetheless, because I think everything has a story behind it. My shop’s motto is “Finding homes for history.” Sometimes, that home is with me.

For example: I collect vintage dresses. This week, I found a 1920s silk flapper dress at an estate sale. It’s fragile, but beautiful; a golden yellow with purple edging. Flowers dancing down the skirt. This is my third flapper dress. I showed it to a friend, and then I told her about one of my other dresses. One that I know has a story behind it.

I found it in a trash bin at an antiques shop – it was wadded up in a box of stuff to be thrown away. It’s gorgeous: white silk, sleeveless, with a blue and red striped skirt with heavy glass beads, in red and blue, all down it. So heavy, in fact, that the dress can’t be on a hanger; it has to lay flat. But all that would just be interesting if not for the fact that the dress is also covered in blood stains. I definitely understand why the shop decided to toss it – but I couldn’t let that happen. What tragedy did this dress see? What happened on a summer night in the 1920s? Why were the stains never washed out?

So many stories. So much imagination. I’ve no idea. Yes, I know I’m strange; a normal person would not bring that dress home. But I’m not normal. I’m a historian. And more – I’m a writer. This orphaned dress needed a home. I am slowly working on cleaning it, but the fact is, I’m not sure I want to. Every time I touch it, my mind wonders what the girl who wore it was like. What happened to her – or more likely, to the person she held, as there are no holes in the dress itself. Clearly, it was never taken as evidence. Was it an illicit relationship gone wrong? Where did the tragedy take place? And why?

These are the questions that haunt me sometimes, when I pick up objects, as I decide whether or not to bring them home. Photographs do this to me the most – so many times, the photos I collect have no names attached to them. They are strangers to me, but their stories are still there, somehow, in the paper and ink. But then there are those “orphan” items, like the christening gown I picked up at an auction a month or so ago, clearly tossed in a box and forgotten for generations. I intended to put it in the shop, but . . . I spent so much time cleaning it, I fell in love. 🙂

And that’s why I haunt estate sales and rummage sales. It’s true that sometimes, one man’s trash is just another man’s trash. But it’s also true that sometimes, there’s an item that doesn’t belong in the trash. That deserves better. Those are the items – those orphans – that come home with me.