What I Learned From Shopping at Estate Sales

I walked into to the estate sale at 9am on Saturday and immediately knew that this was this right sort of house for me.

The very modest two bedroom house was on a cul-de-sac in one of those modest suburbs that erupted around New York City after World War II. The wall to wall grey rugs were bunched up and thread bare. There was one of those automatic stair-chairs and unopened bags of Depends in the corner. And the house was packed to the brim with stuff – a grand piano that dominated the living room, shelves and shelves of book, artwork and prints spread out over the piano for sale, and little china cups every where.

Together, all that stuff was a horror show. There was just too much of all of it, and it was covered in dust. The guy who ran the sale told me that there was even more, but the basement had gotten flood last year and all that stuff down there were just dumped in a dumpster.

It was so sad that I almost walked out of the house. The house reeked of depression and OCD. The other people at the sale were Asberger’s types looking for yet another volume of Plato’s Republic or very poor people picking up a casserole pan for a $1. I was there looking for pretty, but not terribly valuable books.

I’ve been working on one writing project or another continuously for months. Even when I had a short break for a vacation or while waiting for an editor, there was always an article on the back burner using up brain space. I have some vague plans for my next projects, but I decided to really take a couple of weeks off before starting them. I’m very burned out.

So, I decided to lean into my sporadic hobby of selling books on the Internet. I don’t do it very often. Every few months, if I have spare time between articles or while waiting for interview subjects to return my emails, I post stuff on the Internet. It’s very, very low brain work. Time consuming, but it’s nothing like brain-hurtie job of wrangling ideas into palatable words.

I’ve learned a lot from this hobby. Not just that the Modern Library series is very collectable, and that homeschoolers love old children’s biographies. I’ve learned a lot about growing old.

Walking into that house on Saturday, I made a silent promise to myself. I will not go out like this — surrounded by “treasures” which confine movement and fill the air with moldy and musty smells. When I went into the house, the junk had already been cleared out by the estate sale people and the previous day’s buyers. It was probably even worse a few weeks ago.

When I hit 70, I’m going to start selling and giving away all my stuff. I’m already going through my basement and getting rid of crap. I want a nearly empty house by the time that I’m too old to do anything about it.

There were “treasures” in the house — books when dusted off and grouped with similar items that will easily sell to young home decorators. I picked up a stack of Modern Library books and some boxed sets of Heritage Series books. I’ll decide later, if I’ll sell the boxed books for $20 a pop or as a lot for $150. I can’t help buying this stuff, because it’s like finding $100 bills on the ground. Curated, the books are valuable. In that house, they were dumpster fodder.

But I don’t want my last years weighed down by crap, and have already stopped accumulating. I rarely buy a new dish or pan anymore, except to replace something that is broken. I only buy ebooks. All our photographs are online (though some should be made into neat little books). We’re gotten rid of all the kids old toys, except for the wooden Thomas train sets, because there are still too many memories there.

I want to check out with dignity. I don’t want to burden my children with getting rid of our stuff. I want to fill my later years with family and experiences, not dusty books.

The Oldest Thing in My House #2 – Books

Probably the oldest stuff in the house are my books. Steve has some old crap in the basement, like a 100-year old tiger skin from China, but we’ll get to that later. Let me show you some of my oldest books.

About twenty five years ago, I was visiting a friend who lived in a small town outside of Boston. One day, we roamed through an antique shop, and I rummaged through a basket of old books under a table. I picked up this old copy of Little Women, which is one of my favorite books, and bought it for 25 cents. I promptly put it away in a box and forgot about it.

I found it last year and put it on my Etsy shop. After doing a little research, I found out that it was a I believe it was a second edition from 1870. I sold it in couple of months for $700.

I’ve got a Robert’s Rule of Order from 1876.

I’ve got “The Red Cross” by Clara Barton from 1899, but I haven’t listed it yet.

I love this illustrated history of the Civil War from 1895. I honestly don’t want to part with this one. (Click on the link for all the beautiful and horrifically racist images inside.)

I lost today to parenting chores. Ian was home from school for the Jewish holidays, and he needed a lot of help with an engineering project. For the rest of the week, I’m continuing my break from real writing and will the time listing a huge allotment of vintage textbooks that I bought a couple of months ago for $3. Engineering textbooks from the 1930s are surprisingly collectable.

The Oldest Thing in My House #1

Picking up a comment thread in the last post, I thought I would find the oldest things in my house. (I’m waiting around for edits on a draft and don’t feel like starting anything new until next week. It’s the Gig Worker’s prerogative.) We’ll do our own Antique Roadshow here at Apt. 11D for a couple of days.

A couple of weeks ago, I unpacked my grandmother’s old sewing machine from its box in the basement and decided to display it somewhere in the house. It’s kinda cool. Check out the beautiful scroll work.

I actually had no idea how old it was until a few minutes ago. It’s from the 1940s, which means it’s probably not the oldest thing in my house, but it’s still cool.

My grandmother used it, until she died about fifteen years ago. In fact, I used it ten years ago for some project or another. It still works great.

More to come.