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Handle of bakelite, body of chrome — a pristine vintage electric coffee percolator idled on the kitchen counter at the home once belonging to Grace and James Dodson. After six

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Handle of bakelite, body of chrome — a pristine vintage electric coffee percolator idled on the kitchen counter at the home once belonging to Grace and James Dodson. After six

Estate Sale Treasures

Handle of bakelite, body of chrome — a pristine vintage electric coffee percolator idled on the kitchen counter at the home once belonging to Grace and James Dodson.

After six decades of marriage, each had passed away at an advanced age, and their mid-century modern house in north Durham was hosting an estate sale.

Mesmerized by the percolator, I envisioned its previous life, brewing a daily elixir for the Dodsons. In that era, Grace likely would have been in the kitchen while James readied himself for another day as a supervisor in the American Tobacco Company’s export department.

The Air King radio installed in the foyer wall would play music, or perhaps the morning news, throughout their home. Hot coffee would gurgle and bubble into the plastic knob.

Grace might have flipped on the intercom: “Jim, your coffee is ready.”

Together, keepsakes add up to a life, reflecting what people held as important.

Left behind, every keepsake has a story that dovetails with its owner’s. Together, those items add up to a life, reflecting what people held as important and even what they forgot. A decanter shaped like a bowling pin. A 1958 RCA portable personal television, as heavy as a blacksmith’s anvil. A Wakelon School lunch ticket, worth four cents. A cloth sack from Old Waynesboro Country Ham that once held a 13-pound, 12-ounce slab of pork, ordered by a woman by the name of Roselle Long.

Marty Mandell, a community advocate, artist, and land preservationist in Carrboro, died at age 93. She found beauty in nature. At her estate sale, among the grand oil paintings and other artwork, was a three-inch piece of tree whose bark had been intricately carved. An emerald ash borer, an invasive pest that decimates forests, had gnawed through the wood, inscribing it with the curlicues of an ancient language. I recognized the pattern. I own entire logs that bear the scars of the insect’s destructive beauty. I saw a kindred spirit in Marty and bought the hunk of bark for $4.

Even with permission, though, it feels voyeuristic to rummage through a deceased person’s private spaces — bedroom closets and medicine cabinets and junk drawers. Their belongings still carry the whiff of life.

“This is a little weird,” one bargain hunter said as he rifled through a kitchen drawer of one home. “But I guess that’s what we do.”

• • •

“Not bad for Butner,” the doorman said. Shoppers streamed through the front, then formed tributaries and rivulets through the rambling 4,400-square-foot home once owned by Fred and Irene Adams.

Before settling in Butner, where Fred ran the hardware store downtown, the Adamses were globetrotters. The couple eloped in Iran and embarked on 70 cruises. Irene wore colorful dresses in hues of emerald and crimson. She was also a top-ranked contract bridge player and apparently enjoyed mah-jongg — of her half dozen elaborate sets, one had been engraved with her name.

The Adamses might have worked in the foreign service, which would explain the stacks of instructional language tapes (Hebrew, Italian) and dictionaries (German, Spanish).

The value of estate-sale finds is often relative: A bridge deck and an old textbook may be worthless, and a historic reel-to-reel tape obsolete, but a broken clock is still right twice a day. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Stashed on a lower shelf of an entertainment center was an array of reel-to-reel tapes. Two had been produced by Voice of America: “French Show No. 1” and “President Nixon’s Speech 08-09-74 0100 GMT.” Someone at Voice of America, four time zones away, had stayed up into the wee hours to broadcast and record Nixon’s resignation.

“I didn’t know those were there,” the cashier said, a hint of regret in his voice, as he rang up both reels.

He charged me a dollar.

• • •

America has too much silverware. In just one weekend’s worth of estate sales, you could outfit a table setting for every household in High Point. Knives for nicking butter, knives for carving steak. Forks for stabbing salads, forks for chasing peas around a plate. Ice cream scoops. Spoons for slurping soup.

Our proclivity for collecting cutlery burdens our heirs. Think of the children stuck with 42 forks, trying to off-load them for a quarter apiece.

In general, most of us have too much stuff. Sure, heirlooms are invaluable, family treasures to pass down through the generations: military medals, handmade quilts, cedar hope chests.

The spoils of any given estate sale reflect the region in which it’s held. A Piedmont sale might yield anything from headache powder created in Salisbury to locally branded pens and yardsticks to seemingly ubiquitous Pepsi and Tar Heel memorabilia. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

But what of the cardboard box punctured with air holes, some of which appear to be gnawed: “This box contains a live baby rabbit caught near Great Smoky Mts. Handle with care.”

No, let’s not remember the family vacation when we terrorized a wild animal and caught tularemia.

In the Zebulon bathroom, next to a prehistoric bottle of ipecac syrup, a box of Stanback Headache Powders, concocted in Salisbury. Fred Stanback Jr., now in his 90s, is an heir to the family pain-reliever fortune. He and his wife, Alice, used part of their largesse to help preserve Chimney Rock State Park. Which put into perspective my paying $3 for a box of powdered aspirin and caffeine, half a century past its expiration date.

• • •

One Saturday afternoon, I drove to Burlington in pursuit of an AKAI reel-to-reel player on which to play Nixon’s resignation speech. Yes, his farewell address is on YouTube, all 16 excruciat-ing minutes of it. But I wanted to watch his words unspool: “I have never been a quitter …”

The two-story suburban house was packed with people and items. I spied the AKAI upstairs, among the turntables and portable radios, ready to cradle it in my arms … until I flipped the price tag: $500.

Burlington was one of those sales that irks the veterans and tricks the novices. The wooden mid-century modern dinette set with rose-colored cushions was lovely, one woman remarked, “but $2,400?” She pointed to a set of drinking glasses that had been priced at an astronomical $15 each. “I could get those at Goodwill for $2,” she said.

I came away with a couple of yardsticks and two dried-up ballpoint pens from Western Electric, which operated out of the former Tarheel Army Missile Plant in Burlington.

Total cost: $8 and at least that much in buyer’s remorse.

• • •

Until her passing at age 95, Alice Hartman used to stroll — in any of her many pairs of shoes, size 6 medium — through her neighborhood of Forest Hills in Durham.

Her estate sale reflected her love of Paris, also famous for its flaneurs, as well as the beach. Hundreds of seashells filled buckets and planters and the bodies of table lamps. She framed them, including that of the “ostrich foot” sea snail, found only in the cool, shallow waters of the Southern Hemisphere.

The occupants of those shells — the clams and cockles and lucines — owned nothing. All they left behind is what they carried — their homes now empty, for someone else to admire.

Know before you go

To the untrained eye, a discolored ring in the back of a dusty drawer might appear worthless. But David Blue knows jewelry. In 2009, his parents founded Blue Moon Estate Sales, which is now a national brand. Blue took over the original Raleigh location in 2021, managing sales for clients whose parents have died, or who are moving into a retirement home or out of the country and want to shed their possessions. He assesses the value of items in a client’s home — “everything from pots and pans in the kitchen to the Lexus in the driveway,” he says — and his team stages them for sale, strategically placing items and adding lighting to best show them off. Customers arrive over the course of a weekend, with a limited number of people allowed in a house at one time.

Blue’s advice for making the most out of a sale: “The early bird gets the worm in most cases,” he says. Most items are sold on Saturdays, with remaining items marked down on Sunday. What might you find? Anything of utility or of monetary value, from office supplies to quirky oddities to rare antiques. Blue once sold a 1940s-era ring with a nearly perfect 2.84-carat diamond — one that his client hadn’t even known about — for close to $10,000. You just never know what treasures someone will leave behind. — Rebecca Woltz

For more on estate sales, visit bluemoonestatesales.com.

This story was published on Mar 27, 2023

Lisa Sorg

Lisa Sorg is an environmental reporter for N.C. Policy Watch.