Estate sales - buying a bit of modern history

The woman known as Bea liked her jazz soft and her jokes old-fashioned and bawdy. She wore Chanel No. 5 and floral head scarves that softened her angular face. She enjoyed reading Bennett Cerf on a chaise by the pool and biographies of Bette Davis and Ellen DeGeneres before bed. She wasn't much of a cook, but she knew how to make pickled peaches and light-as-a-feather matzo balls.

I never met Bea, but I know all this, and more, about her because I'm a regular at estate sales in southern California. Addict might be more apt.

I don't go for the bargains, though I can appreciate the thrill of getting a chipped antique armoire for $150 or a pristine pre-Reese Witherspoon copy of "Vanity Fair" for a couple of bucks. Instead, I'm drawn to these sales by the stories they promise - a "This Is Your Life, George Bailey" tour that is arguably a thousand times richer and more interesting than any original screenplay. By the time I walk out of a newly abandoned home, I not only know what kind of music and books the owners favored, I'm also privy to which sports they played in high school, their career achievements, and their favorite annual vacation spots.

At a typical estate sale, the doors to the house are thrown open at 9 a.m. (early birds are kept at bay by yellow police tape) and a Kmart-esque greeter waves visitors in with an "everything's for sale." He does mean everything, from the mahogany bed frame in the master bedroom to canned squid and half-used bottles of hot sauce in the kitchen cabinet. By the end of the weekend, an armful of items is likely to fetch an asking price of less than $5. What doesn't sell is usually delivered to the nearest Goodwill store.

After Bea died, her family put her home up for sale and hired professional liquidators to price and hawk her belongings to the public. Even a framed photo of her beaming next to Bobby Kennedy and awards for radio commercials she'd written and produced for Plymouth Barracuda and Western Airlines were up for grabs. People swarmed her sprawling white-brick ranch home, playing Chopsticks on the grand piano, shaking copper teapots, and riffling through stacks of books like "Humor from Harper's," copyright 1925, and the frayed rules guide for a Dallas country club. One man spent an hour trying to persuade the sales coordinators to sell him the pea-green shag rug in the guest house. They reached the new owner, who told them to ring it up.

It all may seem coldhearted, but estate sales are a big business these days. The National Auctioneers Association estimates $9.9 billion in personal property was sold through estate liquidation in 2004 - that's roughly as big as the $10 billion a year domestic video game industry. The Los Angeles-area Yellow Pages alone lists more than 20 estate liquidators, with names like "All Manor of Things," and that doesn't even count the dozens of mom-and-pop operators.

As loved ones pass away in faraway places or move to assisted-living facilities, more families have turned to liquidators in recent years to help sort through a near-century's worth of photographs, china, and Christmas ornaments. In L.A., the events take on a "Sunset Boulevard" quality in which visions of some would-be Norma Desmond linger among the closets full of feather boas and musty copies of Daily Variety. I still wonder, for example, if the owner of the Pasadena Craftsman with half a dozen circa-1983 screenplay-writing books ever did sell a script or if he ended up taking a nine-to-five office job and never looked back. Or if the magnificent silver go-go boots tucked amid an otherwise drab wardrobe in a San Fernando Valley townhouse were purchased for a long-ago audition that never resulted in a callback.

In "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," the writer Dave Eggers calls estate-sale patrons "enthusiasts of possessions of the recently dead." His disdain is understandable. Estate sales really don't belong in today's world of digital cameras and feng sui consultants. And some bargain hunters show little regard for the belongings they are fingering, sizing up the house they are about to enter as a contestant on "Let's Make a Deal" might have looked at Door No. 3, and boldly opening cabinet drawers and closets to make sure they haven't missed anything.

On one hand, I feel guilty for deliberately entering a stranger's private life. On the other, by the time I've walked through the house, I feel protective of the former owners and the life stories lingering in their possessions. The last thing I want is for Bea's signed 1933 cookbook by the chef of the Broadway restaurant Rector's, along with her handwritten recipes, to end up in a trash bin.

A few weeks after Bea's estate sale, I passed her former home on a routine jog around the neighborhood. The house, tennis court, and guest quarters were gone, and her once-meticulous front lawn had been turned into a field of dirt and debris. Even the trees had been uprooted and carted away to make room for a bigger, newer version of a place that had once presumably represented nirvana for a starry-eyed young bride from Texas.

I took some comfort in knowing that at least her recipe for matzo balls will be around for a while longer.

Laura Randall is a freelance writer.

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