Local musician Ben Godfrey, who was has most notably fronted local doom-folk group Listen!Listen! for the past few years and his own solo work, has been rummaging through people's personal effects for treasures and bargains at garage and estate sales since he could remember.
"My aunt would take me when I was a kid. They were total penny pinchers, but my cousins were too embarrassed and/or bored to go. I loved it cause I liked finding odd shit, plus I was a sucker for a deal since I never had allowance."
Godfrey says he had to earn money as a kid doing odd jobs around his neighborhood to support his youthful habits. Sales like this went hand in hand. These days he prefers estate sales versus the garage and driveway ones.
"Garage sales are definitely a different world, and you're more likely to walk away with less. But it can be worth it," he says.
Recently I got the garage and estate sale bug myself all over again, spending my Saturday mornings and afternoons looking for pop-up sales to hit up. It's obviously cheaper than the antique store vice I have had the past five years, though I still find time to kill at my favorite shops.
Plus in this economy if I can get a gym bag for one buck that would cost nearly $40 at Academy, I am winning. I don't know what to do with the wooden cigar box with a picture of Geronimo on it, but I am sure I can find a place for it.
Some of the best memories I have with my father are of waking up early on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer time and going to sales that he had plotted out from local papers and the popular weekly bargain bible The Greensheet. Along the way he was buying classic-rock vinyl that would one day light the spark in my brain to one day becoming a rock writer.
On top of that he was picking up books of all kinds to feed my brain and nourish me away from television. Godfrey's aunt did her own preparation for their weekly hunts.
"She would plan it all out with the Greensheet and Houston Chronicle ads and plot the routes on her key map. We'd early bird it and bug the shit out of people before they were ready," he says. Some garage sale pickers will start knocking on doors around dawn to get first dibs on merchandise. Godfrey remembers finding a bass guitar that propelled him into starting his own band.
"I think my first memorable find was a no-name small-bodied electric bass, It was $20. I coerced a friend to learn on it so we could start a band," he says. Most recently he picked up a crazy piece of vintage party equipment for his home too.
"The best recent thing is my "psychedelic control center" I got for $1. I didn't know what it was, but figured it out. It routes a signal input to other electronic devices, so basically I now have lamps that flicker with the decibel of whatever record is playing."
I have been using a few apps on my phone to help find sales, including one called Yard Sale Treasure Map, which is linked in with Craigslist and plots out sales with a handy Houston map and small descriptions of the sales. When I told a couple this past weekend at a garage sale in Garden Oaks that I got there with the help of an app they were excited and sort of startled.
Garage sales are usually just a family or a few friends piling crap up to get rid of so they can get money to buy newer crap. Estate sales are a whole other animal though, involving the death of family member, lawyers, and the usual familial strife that goes along with each.
Kelvin and Alex at Blue Moon Antiques off Ella near Loop 610 have been in the business for more than two decades and are routinely approached by families in the Heights to help clear out the home of a deceased relative. The legal wrangling is done once they get involved so they don't get to see the real fireworks.
They were presiding over a recent estate sale off T. C. Jester that I attended. I picked up a great looking American flag, a box of vintage matchbooks (including some from a bride's multiple marriages), and a book on the death of JFK for less than $20 in all. The house was something straight out of Mad Men, or at least the first few seasons when Don and Betty were still married.
Both guys prefer that the survivors not be on the premises when the estate sale goes down, because it can turn ugly when you see strangers walk out with cherished heirlooms, even if you are getting paid. At that last sale one of the daughters was walking around the house keeping tabs on us shoppers like a museum security guard.
A lot of the estate sales happening now involve World War II vets and their families so that means that a lot of mid-century furniture and fixtures are entering the market. So in 20 years or so when baby boomers begin to leave this mortal coil you can expect a whole new batch of goodies.
For their part the Blue Moon guys say that their antique store business ebbs and flows with the economy. It's easier to sell smaller items and Americana now than it is to unload huge vanity pieces. After 9/11 and the 2008 economic crisis, they saw the market get flooded with merchandise as people pared down their collections to simplify their lives, or in some extreme circumstances, to buy groceries and to keep the lights on.
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I asked Godfrey if he ever feels a twinge of sadness going into someone's earthly home and perusing their life's possessions, because sometimes it bothers me rooting around a family home. A lot of times you can still see vestiges of the end of the last living inhabitants' life, like medical and convalescent equipment.
"Sure, when it's obviously a dead or dying person it is sad. When seems like they were lonely, and now I'm haggling for their sentimental treasures, yeah. But it doesn't really get to me. I'm kinda into that sort of thing." We also agree that it's better that people like us can enjoy their belongings instead of it all clogging a landfill.
"I like to make up a story in my head about the person, based on the kind of stuff they have. Usually if they have things I like I think that they must've been pretty cool, and they'd probably be happy that I'm going to enjoy their stuff now," Godfrey says.
As they say "you can't take it with you," and so it's up to people like me and Godfrey and others to take it home with us.