Second life

I’m not big on resolutions, but when I found myself alone with my credit-card statements a few days into the New Year, I realized it was time to usher in a New Austerity Plan.

I will stop hemorrhaging money.

I will not shop anywhere except the supermarket. When at the supermarket, I will give wide berth to that tantalizing aisle with all the organic hand soaps. I will not set foot in Target, a store diabolically designed to liberate me of at least $75 when I swear I only ran in to get my kid a six-pack of Fruit of the Looms. My online activity will be confined to banking, Mapquesting, and Googling the symptoms of various pediatric illnesses. No eBay, no Etsy, and absolutely no cruising the clearance sales. 

But there is one kind of shopping I won’t give up: estate sales. Because outside of toobing and margarita-drinking, going to estate sales is probably my favorite form of recreation in San Antonio.

Estate sales shouldn’t be confused with garage sales, which tend to feature the same coffee mugs and ugly computer desks that you would sell if you had the wherewithal to get a city permit and some signage. Estate sales have their share of junk, but, oh, so much more, since they’re occasioned by a person’s death (or relocation to a nursing home), not by a sudden impulse to de-clutter. Entire households — from the humble contents of the pantry to the house, the car, and all the fascinating bits in between — are up for grabs.

Some might consider estate-sale shopping a ghoulish enterprise, and I have to admit that when I’m on my knees rummaging through a recently deceased person’s pungent closet, I’ve been known to suffer the occasional identity crisis — am I one of those irredeemable bottom-feeder characters in a Dickens novel or just a hausfrau with a hobby? I like to think I’m an amateur suburban archeologist, specializing in North San Antonio circa 1950-70.

As hobbies go, it’s pretty cheap. No fancy gear required. I’ve never spent more than $200 at a sale — a paltry amount for a nifty midcentury sofa or sideboard. Most of the checks I write are for oddball sums like $11.53 or $22.69, and I go home with armloads of books, retro barware, ephemera, and all manner of eye-catching tchotchkes. I also get old Barbies and pretty silk scarves to bribe my daughters, who last about seven minutes before my husband evacuates them to the yard, leaving me to dig through the back issues of Ideas magazine invariably stockpiled in the garage.

For some estate-salers, the appeal lies in the thrill of chasing down the Big Score. But that’s not really my bag. I’m not a dealer, and while we’ve flipped things on eBay (there’s a bigger market for vinyl soundtracks to ’80s Japanese anime movies than you might expect), that’s often more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, we only go on Saturdays — typically the last day of a sale — when prices are discounted but most of the prizes have already been plucked by the pros.

I love estate sales for the pure voyeuristic pleasure of seeing how my fellow citizens live(d), from Olmos Park to Timberwood Park. It’s like going on one of those house tours, but better, since you can skip the awkward chitchat with the owners (“A wine cave — how unexpected!”). On my expeditions, I’ve discovered a lot about San Antonio, like that there’s a neighborhood where all the streets are named for old-school celebrities (Lon Chaney, George Burns) and characters (Gomer Pyle, Charlie Chan). That this town has more Sunday painters than a Seurat-era Parisian park and just as many obsessive personalities — like the Air Force officer whose tiny ranch house was stuffed with hundreds of vintage uniforms, or the Army field surgeon who’d kept a meticulous photographic record of amputations he’d performed.

Sifting through the detritus of a stranger’s life, I find it hard to resist constructing narratives around the things left behind. Sometimes I almost think I’m doing the stranger a small kind of honor by buying something his own family didn’t deem worthy of saving, but that he kept for some reason, strong and personal to him. But even I’ve got limits. We didn’t buy the surgeon’s boxes of gruesome slides, though we thought about it (there’s probably a market for them — albeit an unsavory one). We bought his Japanese wall clock instead. And every time it chimes the hour in our kitchen, delighting our kids, I’m reminded that the circle of life is also very much a circle of stuff.


If you want to get in the estate-sale game, start checking the classifieds in the San Antonio Express-News on Wednesday. Most sales run Friday through Saturday, though some start on Thursday. The “estate sale” listings (as opposed to “garage sales”) are primarily placed by the professional estate-liquidation services, many of which include their websites in the ad. Go there to sign up for their email lists. You’ll be notified about upcoming sales, and you can often preview some of the offerings online. The first day of a sale is for pickers, dealers, and hardcore collectors. If you’re itching to go elbow to elbow with that crowd, rise and shine — because everyone gets a number (like at a deli) and waits in line. If the sale’s at a tony address, expect to wait a long time. Coffee is recommended. On Saturdays, the atmosphere is less cutthroat and the prices significantly reduced. But be prepared to see that mint Danish modern sideboard you’ve been dreaming of — with a “sold” sticker on it. You snooze, you lose.

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