Out in the Field, Under the Tent
From behind us, the Floor Guy with the portable mike calls out “Lot number four-one-seven—you got the pistol here, wine jug, some flatware,” and the auctioneer begins his cadenced gimmetententententen, huminahuminahuminahumina. Jeff and I are standing on the dock at one of three auction houses clustered within as many miles in Gloucester County, New Jersey. A painfully thin standard poodle wanders through the crowd, nuzzling our legs.
It’s a warm summer morning and even though we are only twenty miles southwest of downtown Philadelphia, it feels as though we are hundreds of miles from urban life, here in this sandy expanse of rain-puddled yard and slept-in semis, the scents of an on-lot septic system mixing with cigarettes and mildew. Time seems suspended in this tableau, even as porters in red tee shirts rapidly move the merchandise through its paces: show it, sell it, move it out.
Two auctions are underway: outside, where lesser goods have been left in the elements too long; and inside, where the auctioneer is pushing box lots of household detritus through the great anaconda of aftermarket commerce. With an advertised inventory of over 4,000 items, it will be a long day for the dealers who are waiting for furniture.
This is a world Jeff introduced me to eleven years ago. This is not the Antiques Road Show. David Rago, Suzanne Perrault, Richard Wright, and that guy from the Philadelphia Print Shop may be within shouting distance, but it’s fair to say they are not here today among the regulars who pick through rows of stuff along Repaupo Station Road.
This is where our dead parents’ mahogany dining tables and bedroom suites are stacked floor to ceiling, a dark aggregation of a generation’s love of Duncan Phyfe transformed into a niche market for Southerners, who still appreciate what dealers call brown furniture. This is where Boomers’ toys mix with porch gliders and planters and paper ephemera, their provenance forever lost. Here, experts in antiques and collectibles who are unknown to public television audiences sift through musty, broken goods to find items worthy of retail, eBay, or another auction. Patient and indifferent to the heat, today some of them may find an important antique hidden within a pile of dreck.
“Go Green,” says the auction house website, “Buy antiques and used furniture.” I was shocked and saddened the first time I saw this morgue of worldly goods, filled with a familiar assembled proof of past lives. Now I see how this is a mine, a field, a river of raw materials that can be salvaged, harvested, valued. Here, in this supply-side world that opens its doors twice a month, Jeff has spotted something good in a box lot and we’re waiting for it to be auctioned.
“Three-o-seven-nine-zero. Nice trains here now—Lionel, Shell—real nice stuff now, Jerry. Pay attention,” says the Floor Guy.
They are paying attention, at least the Toy Guy is. This is a place where buyers have sharp eyes, quick reactions, and personal knowledge augmented by laptops. They marry discernment with intuition and risk: they take a shot.
I don’t know how they do it. With the exception of five months, when the magazine that employed me folded and I tried my hand at freelancing until a real job came along, I’ve always worked for others. I’ve worked in offices where someone else signed the lease, purchased the furniture and computers, ordered the supplies, paid for an assortment of benefits, gave me an access card, monitored how I spent my time, then compensated me for it, with taxes deducted.
And so when, for almost a decade, I found myself in the company of a man who had always been self-employed, I tried to understand how we were different: where our motivations came from; what we desired, feared, were willing to sacrifice; how we got up in the morning and went about our days.
I watch the people around me who have chosen this life. They seem hungry, but not desperate. A guy in a white tee shirt that says “King of the Freakin’ Remote” is silently buying almost every box lot that is being auctioned inside. He doesn’t talk to anyone. Porters stack the objects of his appetite into a pile that is getting too large to walk around.
Like the remote king, Jeff is a hunter. He’s been in the business a long time, knows what he’s doing and right now he is scouting and gathering for his next trip to Massachusetts, living in the ordinary time between selling at the May, July, and September Brimfield Antique Shows. In a few weeks, he will be under a tent, out in one of the 21 fields along Route 20, where 5,000 dealers bring their wares to New England’s largest fresh air marketplace.
For months, it has cost him more than $100 to fill the gas tank of his Ford Econoline van. The expenses for each of this summer’s trips are urgent reminders of the need to adapt to a changing economy. He’s the Lamp Guy, who’s been tweaking his inventory, cutting back on buying what he loves in favor of seeking out what will sell. He’s in a self-imposed moratorium on Victorian lighting, making tentative forays into new markets.
Hyper-verbal and descriptive, even he has trouble explaining the fish phenomenon. This spring, he bought a piece of metal wall art at auction for a song. It had “the look” that might sell, a look uncomfortably reminiscent of something his parents might have hung in their northeast Philadelphia home in the 1960s. When he unpacked it at Brimfield, the modernist dealers were all over him. He sold it for $200 when the field opened. Later in the day, he saw the welded school of fish propped on a sofa, eternally chasing each other, tagged $500.
In this new market for old goods, resilience has also meant letting go. In 2008, he relinquished the overhead of operating a retail store. After more than a decade of sole proprietorship, he exchanged waiting for customers for the relative freedom of wholesaling, eBay, and selling at profitable shows. His new rules allow him to engage in just-in-time commerce. In May, when he returned from Massachusetts with goods that didn’t sell, he made a quick decision to set up at the flea market in Lambertville, New Jersey. It had been twenty years since he’d sold in that venue, but it was a practical move that lightened his van and fattened his wallet.
Between bidding, Jeff and his auction buddies gossip about big scores and losses, business ethics and ailments. Most of their relationships seem to accommodate the inevitable competitions. They bid against each other. They are independent contractors, willing to get up while the rest of us sleep, to eschew sentimentality in favor of a democratic, material world where a person with drive can acquire the knowledge needed to recognize value and develop an aesthetic. They are risk-takers who love the hunt, the deal, the action.
Most of his friends in the business are over fifty now, and without dreams of cushy retirement. They buy and sell to each other, indifferent to an economy that is avoiding discretionary purchases. They never dust off resumes, peruse job ads, expect the world to take care of them. To outsiders like me, it seems that they can make something from nothing. Their freedom is real, but grounded: most have accumulated their security in a huge physical reality of weighty things that must be warehoused, must remain marketable.
The open-air market has always offered resourceful spirits the chance to prevail. While some of us fret over an economy we can’t affect, others keep selling what will sell. Somewhere where overhead is a party tent or leaky pavilion roof, thousands of self-employed merchants will spend the next few months engaged in outdoor, itinerant commerce. At the low end, they have set up in the rain in a crumbling parking lot to sell tube socks, tomato plants, and hands-free head sets. At the high end, they are selling $12,000 chandeliers and $5,000 paintings in shady meadows.
The dealers here today are tougher than office workers. Some drove through the night to get to this Sunday morning auction. Players, poker-faced about their knowledge, they are buying to sell, handling desirable goods with feigned disaffection. They eat breakfast sandwiches bought from a food truck, joke with each other, keep track of what they want.
Finally, Jeff bids on the item he’s been waiting for and wins. Huminahumina, we’re done here. We have two more auction houses to visit and more stuff to preview before noon. At the next one, we may run into Joel the Instrument Guy, who might lecture us on the value of collecting old masters’ prints, or Jimmy the Art Guy, who may reveal how he’s stayed ahead of the game, amassing modern art on spec. One of them could be thinking about investing in old, 4-cylinder Japanese cars, which could be the Next Big Thing.
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