Sunday, November 14, 2010

dead people's stuff

recent finds...$7.75 total, baby

about a month ago my friend vanessa introduced me to something truly amazing: estate sales. also known as: walking through the houses of the recently dead and buying their things. since that fateful day, it has been a saturday morning tradition to hit at least one estate sale with vanessa, sho, and usually david, whose enthusiasm i was initially surprised by, before i remembered his love of gaudy kitchenware and "apocalypse tools," i.e. the really really old tools usually buried under a pile of rusted nails in the basement that require no electricity to operate. i think we both have this picture in our minds of the apocalypse that involves equal parts red skies filled with swarms of vultures and finally putting our victrola to good party use! either way, if you end up needing a like-new hatchet or gear-operated hand drill once judgement day arrives, you know where to find us...

david's recent finds...note the hand mixer for post-apocalyptic cake-baking

anyway, the thing i love/hate about estate sales is the way an entire life is on display for all to see. it can be heartbreaking, like the lifetime's worth of collected stamps ($3) for sale at a house yesterday, or the box of christmas ornaments packed neatly away for a next year that would never come. i always wonder what the woman of the house would think, having strangers tramping through her house (with their shoes on, no less!), looking with a critical eye at her collection of thanksgiving tablecloths and the matching hula girl nightstand lamps from their honeymoon in hawaii. "i know they're tacky," i can hear her saying, "but we could just never quite get rid of them..."

you spend a lifetime collecting and treasuring things--a certain cup that fits in your hand just so, or an ashtray that you stole on a dare from an alaskan cruise liner in 1953--and then just like that, you're both dead and strangers are haggling over your aprons. no matter how much you love something, you just can't take it with you, can you?

and that's where the love part of estate sales comes in. as forbidden as it feels to gaze at a stranger's treasures with acquisition in mind, it is with a good heart and respect for their histories. i always remember the house where i got each bowl or painting, and what it felt like there. i think that's true of most estate salers. you usually hear people wondering aloud about the people whose house it was as they look through their stuff: "oh look, she was a quilter," or "they must have been from texas originally." i have never heard anyone comment on the ugliness of anything, though lord knows it's there. maybe we all feel a little as if we're being watched, or are simply conscious of the fact that it's a life we're digging through.

it reminds me a bit of the lovely custom practiced by many native cultures of potlatching, redistributing wealth and possessions within a community, often after a death, to promote general equality. the way i see it, there are so many beautiful old things already on this earth, i really try to think hard before buying new stuff these days (especially plastic, ugh). i love estate sales because you can walk away with truly beautiful old finds, often for just a few dollars, and with a wonderful reminder of the ultimate impermanence of it all thrown in free of charge.

this has been sarah h, gettin' philisophical about dead people's stuff.


  1. recipe for taking it with you.
    Find appropriate day to die. (39-85ish years)
    Go into basement and start fire. (10 mins)
    Everything burns and falls into basement with you. (4-6 hours depending on response time)
    Cover with dirt. (backhoe rental and operation 8 hours)

    16 hours worth of work. Not bad for a lifetime.

  2. Girl, this is an amazing post. Estate sales have such a bad connotation to them, by they sound so amazing. Jon also loves antique-ing. Its grown on me - well, at least when they have post cards.
    if u ever see any amazing post card or stamps (with themes like multicultura, judaica, or israel), picke me up a pair and i'll get u back!
    much love em