One morning, before my shower, I removed two wicker chairs from my bathtub and placed them on the bathmat. When I finished, I put them back. Walking to my bedroom, I said hello to my girlfriend and shimmied through a maze of coffee tables. Our dresser is directly in front of an identical dresser, and lined up like that, they look a bit like library stacks, so much so that you might expect to be able to push a button, the two parting and the back now suddenly accessible. But you can’t. The dresser just sits there, filling space in a room that has none.
Three months ago we went to our first auction, and we have been to two since. I remember having my hand on the door, about to enter a Connecticut Knights of Columbus, when Liz stopped me and looked us over. She was convinced we were underdressed. Plaid at this bourgie auction, embarrassing. We cracked open the door and peeked inside. It was stunning.
Fat men in stained T-shirts sat next to women in cotton sweaters. There were corduroy jackets and jean jackets, oversized puffy coats and too small raggedy ones. And plaid. Lots of it, although it’s doubtful anyone wore it because it had come full circle. For them it had never gone out of style.
"A beautiful bear skin rug. Let’s start her off at two thousand. Two thousand, thousand, two thousand, two thousand. Do I hear two thousand? All right. One thousand, one thousand—I’ve got one thousand. Do I hear eleven hundred? Eleven hundred! I’ve got eleven hundred, do I—twelve!" And so it went, the price climbing and climbing, our arms held motionless, chance bidding just too frightening, until a man in a Steelers jersey took it for $2,200. The auctioneer’s assistants rolled up the bear and set it next to his other purchases: a set of silverware and a still-life of a carrot. He looked dazed.
That seemed to be the night’s mood, confusion. An assistant would rummage through the lots until he found something suitable and then the auctioneer would yell an arbitrary price. Bidders were often unsure what exactly was on the block. That old typewriter, does it work? Lift up that vase. Let’s see the damage. That safe, anything inside? Stock certificates! Oh, long expired. Never mind.
Even when we thought an item was a bargain, no one shared our opinion. The 1950s juicer, classy and well-preserved, went for less than a standard blender, the ear horn for the same as the beat-up boom box, and the only lots to approach bear skin rug prices we found a bit discomfiting: an antique rifle (slightly), a fascist flag (moderately) and a leather suit once worn by Buck Owens (extremely). All the while we wondered what would happen with the furniture. It was everywhere, assistants scratching it in their search, addledlooking men leaning on it between fidgets.
The final item sold and the auctioneer stepped off stage.
He was now in front of a cabinet with tapered Danish legs. Slightly scratched, it was missing a glass panel. A woman behind me whispered it was old and worthless. But hadn’t she been to Lillian August or ABC? Didn’t she know how much old, worthless furniture was worth?
"A teak cabinet. Fifty dollars. Do I hear fifty dollars? Twenty. Ten. Do I hear ten dollars? OK…" "Ten dollars!" I felt giddy. Only later did I realize that as informal as the auction was, no bidders had actually yelled.
"Ten dollars. Going once, going twice, sold! A turn-of-the-century coffee table. Fifty dollars. Twenty. Do I hear twenty dollars? Ten…" "Ten dollars!" And that’s how a Manhattan onebedroom ended up with two dressers, two cabinets and three coffee tables.
Our first instinct was to panic. We rushed a Craigslist ad up that night, a fire sale, all purchases in one frame, and for three days heard nothing. We rethought our strategy. Regardless of its origin, all our furniture was individually photographed and posted. We accessorized our shots. An oilcan helped bring out the teak cabinet’s age; the double-tiered coffee table looked best with a newspaper on bottom, a coaster and mug of coffee on top. We labored over phrasing. Some sellers were about the money—"fast cash"—but we just wanted to find our furniture a good home.
Gradually buyers came. A middleaged woman took one coffee table ($180) and recommended another to her friend ($200). The cabinet and dresser attracted a man who was an effusive emailer but stoic negotiator ($80, $90). An apparently confused dad looking to fill a kid’s playroom came for the Victorian coffee table ($110). As he left, our oncecrowded apartment began to feel vacant.
Over time we’ve come to think of our apartment as less of a home that doubles as a store and more as a store that doubles as a home. A store that just happens to be on the fourth floor of a Kip’s Bay residential. When business is slow and our apartment full, we wonder why we do it. Is the money worth the clutter? And then an auctioneer lowers the price on a teak cabinet. Fifty, twenty, ten. We place a bid and start a process. What now has none will soon have value.