My husband and I went to an estate sale this weekend. We arrived during the last hour of the sale when everything was marked down to half price. There wasn’t much left but I still managed to find a red tablecloth for $1.70.

I walked around the rather empty house, trying to avoid a surprising number of people still looking for something to buy. I paged through a stack of prints of lions, tigers and elephants. Then I noticed several small wooden carvings of animals and knew the previous owners had taken a trip to Africa. In another room, I found a stack of books on sewing and surmised that someone had enjoyed sewing. When my husband approached me with a hand sewing contraption still in the original package, I talked him out of it because I knew it would suffer the same fate in our house. Or, even worse, we would open it, find it unusable and it would end up in the garbage.

We’ve been going to estate sales since we moved to Florida in 2001. Our excursions have been part entertainment and part bargain hunting. I have to admit that, when the doors to the house are opened at 9:00 am and the ragtag line of antique dealers and bargain hunters is admitted, my heart races and my body tingles in anticipation of the possibilities inside.

The sales have been in houses ranging from multi-million dollar homes on the water, modest homes in middle class neighborhoods to mobile homes in mobile parks. But I’ve learned the size of the house has nothing to do with the furnishings. One of the most interesting estate sales was in a double-wide mobile home that was loaded with a variety of collections: cups and saucers, frog statues, spoons, Japanese art, candle sticks and more. On the other hand, a large new home on Long Boat Key was furnished with expensive, but bland furnishings that appeared to be right off the showroom floor.

Once, we arrived at an estate sale in Sarasota in the middle of the afternoon. As soon as I walked in, I was drawn to a small peacock statue on a side table. An original bill-of-sale under it said it was made of jade. I knew immediately that I wanted to take it home. But in one hour, everything left in the house would be marked down to half price. Did I dare wait until then? What if someone bought it before then?

I took the chance and waited outside in a line until the doors were reopened for half-price sales; then headed right for my jade peacock. And there he was, waiting for me! He still has a special place in our living room.

One Saturday morning, my friend, Pat (who is the same size as me) called me. “Jeannie,” she said. “I’m at an estate sale and you’ve got to come. The bedroom is filled with petite clothes in our size. And many of them still have the price tag on them.” I was out the door and at the sale in half-an-hour.

Pat was not exaggerating! Racks and racks of clothes in our size filled the master bedroom. I couldn’t believe it. There was no place to try things on so we had to hold the clothes up and make a good guess. I was about to leave the room when I looked in the closet. It was filled with women’s shoes, all in my size. By the time I left the house, I had four pairs of shoes and a huge bag of clothes for the grand sum of $30.

At home, I headed right for the bedroom to try on the clothes. Then I decided to rearrange the closet to hold my new treasures. Just as I hung the last blouse on the clothes bar, it pulled away from the wall and collapsed, taking ten feet of clothes with it. Since this was an old closet, the only sensible way to repair it was to call in a closet organizer and redesign the entire room. The final bill for my estate sale bargains was $600. And most of the clothes I bought at the sale never looked quite right on me – they ended up at Good Will.

We went to an estate sale at a charming cottage on Anna Maria Island that, we heard, belonged to a woman known as the “Teddy Bear Lady”. That was not an exaggeration. Teddy bears were everywhere; in fact, the second floor of the house was dedicated to them. We bought teddy bears for a friend’s grandsons and several for our granddaughter. We also bought an adorable small wooden wagon that has “The Teddy Express” painted across the side. It’s on display in a high shelf in the kitchen.

Most of the time, a notice about an estate sale comes by email accompanied by photos of the household items that will be sold. It’s fun to look at the pictures and see if there’s anything we truly cannot live without. Once, I fell in love with a watercolor painting of wash drying on a line in a tropical setting and was determined to try and buy it at the estate sale. We arrived early but were still pretty far back in the line of people waiting to get in the house at the nine o’clock starting bell. It was a big house so I was hopeful that they’d let us all in at once.

Doors opened and I took off, leaving my husband behind. I hit the living room first, the dining room and the bedrooms. Nothing. Finally, I reached the laundry room and there it was – of course! It was laundry on that line, after all. I drew close. It was even more colorful and lively than the photo. Then I saw the small post-it note in the corner. Sold!

My exhilaration was gone; I wasn’t interested in anything else so I went in search of my husband. I found him in the kitchen, checking out an appliance. “I was too late,” I told him. “The painting was sold.”

He smiled and pulled a receipt out of his pocket. “To me,” he said. I hugged him and remembered once again why I loved him. The painting is now hanging in our guest room and I enjoy looking at it every day.

Sometimes the estate sale home owners are moving to a new city or just a new home. But often, I know, the home owners have died or are moving into assisted care facilities. I always wonder about the people who lived there and look for bits and pieces – like the sewing books- that tell me about the things they enjoyed and valued. When I purchase a treasure from an estate sale, I feel as if I’m entrusted with something someone else loved and cared for and it’s now my responsibility to use it kindly and take care of it until, inevitably, our home will be opened for an estate sale. And I can only hope that the next owner of our treasures enjoys them as much as we did.

Please visit my blog: http://www.stayingyounginflorida.com

My email is jean@steigers.us

Forthcoming book: Moving Into Murder

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