I grab my wallet, keys, et al and head outside to find my dad's SUV illegally idling on the street. No worries, the meter maids are still in bed. I'm amazed she managed to drag Dad along. The only reason I'm awake at this ungodly hour is the desperate hope I might make a score like Mom did two Christmases ago. Knowing my bibliophilic tendencies, she got me the Harvard Classics [eBay auction of the same set I have]. Now, in and of itself, this was a pretty awesome gift, but I was stunned when my mom told me she only paid $15 for it.
Fifteen dollars? For the Harvard Classics? How can this be? The answer is simple: she looted it from the house of someone recently deceased.
Y'see, when people die, they leave behind a lot of stuff and whoever inherits it usually doesn't need the vast majority of it. Sure, they'll keep the sentimental stuff and maybe some furniture, but most of it has to go. Enter the estate sale, where grieving relatives liquidate a lifetime's worth of possessions to unscrupulous bargain hunters for fast cash. The same people go to these week after week, obsessed with the prospect of the killer deal. My mom has since cut back her habit after her collection of antique glassware started to get out of hand. She's down to about once a month, just to look, she swears.
About a week ago, I was talking to Mom when she brought up her unhealthy obsession with the remains of the dead. Apparently there was one coming up that weekend and, as she does with damn near all of her activities, invited me along. The thought had been there for a while; a little romantic desire to hunt for rare books á la The Ninth Gate. What the hell, I agreed and Mom was happy.
Cut back to 6:30 in the morning last Saturday. The parents have thoughtfully brough along an extra thermos of coffee for me as I am barely awake stumbling into the back seat. The reason we are all awake, according to Mom, is to get pre-numbers. Apparently, the freaks who go to these things regularly are not satisfied waiting a mere two hours beforehand to get numbers in the line for the sale. They have therefore set up their own system of "pre-numbers" in a line to get numbers, and thereby adding another two hours of waiting. This is organized entirely by the people who go to these things and remarkably enough the official organizers recognize the pre-number system.
It's still pitch black out as we roll up to the estate in question. Mom tells us this should be a good one based entirely on the knowledge that property taxes for the estate are roughly $33,000 a year. This is a rich dead guy's stuff we'll be picking over. In front of us is a parked car with the engine running and the lights off. Wedged in the driver's side window is a plastic bag with slips of paper inside - the prenumbers. Dad grabs three and we head back to the car.
Despair hits. We got good prenumbers, 4, 5, and 6, but they all say "must wait" on them. Mom explains that means we "must wait", i.e. can't drive off and go back to sleep like she promised us when roping us into this deal. Now this is already a pretty shady operation from my point of view, but now we're expected to sit in the car with it idling from 6:30 to 8:30 in the posh part of town. Dad wants to leave, but Mom insists we can't because then we'd lose our spot in line for the numbers, so she concocts a dubious plan to get us out of there without the organizer realizing we left.
Here's the plan: Mom and I walk back to their house and get her car. We then pick up Dad, leave his car there and go to the local bakery for coffee and puppy dog tails. Nefarious, I know. The house isn't too far away and we make it back before Dad gives up and drives off.
After breakfast, we head back to get our official numbers. The sun is up and people are milling about in front of the house. Mom says hi to a few people she recognizes and learns that it's actually only a moving sale. She apologizes to Dad and me that no one died. The numbers are handed out on a pack of playing cards with the official number written in black felt pen. I get the King of Spades. As promised by our pre-numbers, we are still 4, 5, and 6. Not obligated to wait this time, we take both cars back home.
We sit around and read the paper until it's time to leave again. There are more people present when we return, but according to Mother it's a small crowd, what with the owner still alive and all. People line up on the front yard and ready themselves for the sale. Some have brought bags and boxes, like number 1, a woman who recently moved up from Phoenix. She tells us this is her first estate sale in the ten years it's been since she moved down to Arizona - I guess the pickings are slimmer down there.
The vultures start to get restless as 10:30 rolls around. A gentleman comes to the front door and checks the first few numbers to see if we're in order. He takes a moment to explain what floors have stuff to buy and that there's also some furniture in the garage and three season porch. Finally, the doors open.
He counts off as he takes the cards and people literally run into the house. I feel out of place casually strolling through as others dart around me. In the first room I see some silver candle holders that look interesting, but are more than I want to spend. Anyway, I'm here for books.
Turns out the guy who owned the house was part of the theater department at the University of Minnesota. While his play collection was impressive in quantity, they were for the most part shitty paperback prints. The rest of his books were an abysmal assortment of champagne socialist literature.
Wandering through his house, I learned all sorts of things about the owner. He listened to vinyl instead of CDs, was most likely nouveau riche given his terrible taste in art, and was an overly indulgent parent who bought his daughter a pony for her birthday. As for objects of note, there was a dusty Apple IIe in the basement no one was going to buy at $35, and a 19th century wooden bench which was cool if you're the kind of person willing to spend $1300 for a wooden bench.
I ended up buying Tom Stoppard's "Rosencratz And Guildenstern Are Dead" - I've been meaning to read it - and the one worthwhile book in his entire library, a copy of Romeo & Juliet which, according to the inscription, was a Valentine's Day gift from 1899. Sadly, it's missing the front cover, but is in otherwise excellent condition.
The price? One dollar.