Going Once, Going Twice …

By on 29 February, 2016 in Fun, Kate and Stephen, Shopping with 1 Comment

“The auctioneer has his finger in every pie. Wherever there is anything to be sold, there he is, whether it is a truckload of food on the docks at daybreak, or the art of the world for the great auction galleries at night. Nothing is too large for him or too small. “What am I offered?” he cries, and the sale is under way.”

— from Going, Going Gone! (1958), by Bellamy Partridge, author of Country Lawyer

Auctions are one of humanity’s oldest forms of economic transactions, mutating in the modern world into everything from eBay to a method of drafting fantasy sports teams. Although the barter system predates our understanding of auctions, it’s fairly safe to say that most people have participated in some kind of bidding experience — and even if you haven’t, you’re familiar with the basics. You know the fast-talking auctioneer, the tension that can arise during a heated bidding war, the fixing of the price as the word “SOLD” pronounces the deal complete.

Although we are seasoned veterans of seeking online bargains, sometimes through the auction process, until last week we had only once attended a “live” in-person auction. That experience was in the tiny Pike County town of Brundidge, where we stood in the back of a crowded room, mostly just out of curiosity when we saw people hauling large quantities of furniture into and out of a storefront. We followed the flow of antique furniture, saw that it was an auction, and quickly departed after conceding that we were not in the market for enormous chifferobes or Depression-era velvet-upholstered couches.

That five-minute chance encounter didn’t prepare us for the full auction experience. Last week we drove north for about two hours to the fine city of Leeds, Alabama. Leeds is mostly famous for being the hometown of Charles Barkley (note: This ESPN longform piece on Barkley’s origin is a must-read, even if you don’t like basketball or Sir Charles).

We were lured to Leeds by an online notice we had seen from an auction house, and it mentioned that there’d be a live auction and that there’d be some comic books present. We like comic books. And for collectors of those fragile newsprint items, condition can be an important feature. Bidding on something online requires high quality, high resolution photos. But at an in-person auction, you can really inspect the books (at least the covers) for flaws. And who knows? Maybe the folks in Leeds wouldn’t know what they had. “A bunch of old Spider-Man comics from the 1960s? Sure! I’ll take those off your hands for a few bucks!”

So we drove to Leeds, thinking about other auctions we had seen on television or in movies: the European spy movies where silent bidders are cloaked in intrigue, the police procedurals where assets seized from criminals are auctioned to the public, those weird reality shows where people compete to buy storage units.

IMG_2182We parked near a store called, seriously, The Pants Store. We think they sold pants, but we didn’t go in to browse.

The atmosphere was friendly, nearly even festive. Everyone was in a good mood. These folks were spending their Friday nights at an auction, and we got the sense that most of them did it on a regular basis. We registered with the cashier and got a number printed on a piece of paper. We knew to hold it up like a paddle when the bidding started, and we knew that if we made a bid, it would be binding. There are no “take backs.”

The comics were locked in a glass cabinet, but we could get a good look at most of them. They were in pretty great condition, considering their age. A few other people were browsing them, but most people were cruising up and down the aisles of … well … stuff. It was everywhere. There was furniture, lamps, mirrors, cookware, taxidermy, sporting good and memorabilia, and, well, if you’ve ever been in a junk store or antique shop, it was all that sort of stuff. It was an absolutely incredible assortment. We immediately worried that the comics would be at the tail end of the auction, forcing us to sit through hours and hours of bidding on patio chairs and casserole dishes.

Fortunately, the comics were near the front of the auction, after a few items to get the crowd into the swing of things, lubricating the flow of money and letting people adapt to the patter of the auctioneer. We saw some crystal sell, then a plow, then an old WWII bomb that someone had cut in half, then another plow. We considered bidding on the bomb, but you’ve really got to be sure what you want and how much you’re willing to spend. Otherwise, the item is gone before you have a chance to talk it over.

Ultimately, the auction company knew what they had comics-wise. They had pulled out certain key issues, and auctioned them individually instead of in a lot. More importantly, there were some nerds in the audience with deep pockets, so they knew which books were valuable, and offered bids accordingly. Ultimately, none of the books were sold for absurd prices, but several (including a few that we purchased) were very good deals. It was competitive, exciting, and ultimately a lot of fun.

I know we said this before, but the people were really nice. People actually congratulated us on a few winning bids, as if we had won some kind of prize or accomplished something special. Maybe they knew that we were auction novices, but the overall vibe was extremely small town and warm. The cashier told us that as the auction progresses into the night, a lot of people will make place a big group order from a local barbecue restaurant.

We ended up leaving before the food was delivered, but we had a really, really nice time. We probably won’t drive back to Leeds on a weekly basis, but we agreed that it was a great excuse for a short road trip, especially if there are particular items being auctioned. A few tips if you’re interested in trying your hand at bidding:

Have a budget. You don’t have to have specific items you want to buy, because part of the fun is seeing the weird diversity of the things being auctioned. But if you’re going there to “freestyle” and bid on random things, you should at least have a sense of how much you’re willing to spend.

Don’t be too confident that you can re-sell your “bargain.” Unless you own a junk shop (or have a store unit or something), your house can quickly fill up with things that you got “really cheap” but don’t yet have a buyer for.

Do some research first. If you’re there for comics or collectibles, you need to have at least a general sense of the market value of something. You don’t want to get into a competitive bidding war with someone and end up far above the price that you could pay somewhere else. This is especially important if condition is a factor in the item you’re buying. And if you haven’t inspected the item carefully, remind yourself that you’re operating with incomplete information about value. Bid accordingly.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

 

 

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  1. Joe Birdwell says:

    My Aunt used to work at The Pants Store, I can confirm that it does in fact sell pants.

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