Spring has sprung. Get ready, get set, go to those garage sales. Last year we had a dearth of sales due to COVID. Most of, if not all, the outdoor flea markets were canceled including the big one in Grand Rapids.
What this means is people have piles and piles of stuff to unload on someone. So, if you are looking for that one item that you might consider to be the holy grail, this summer is the time to look. Already I am seeing a few garage sale signs.
My wife, Kathy, and I have owned antique shops in three states and have rented spaces in numerous antique malls. We’ve sold at countless flea markets and antique shows and have had numerous antique garage sales. We’ve been rained out, snowed out and, at times, and even sold out in a few.
I have lost beautiful antique secretaries that blew out of my pickup, lost dresser drawers the same way, passed up sets of fiesta ware only later to learn they were hot items, sold old toys too cheap, spent many dollars on reproductions, over spent and over stayed at auction sales. For sure, antique buying and selling is a learning experience.
We also had our share of garage sales. One of the first ones we ever had was in Greeley, Colo. It spoiled us because we completely sold out, every last item was gone by the end of the day. That’s the goal of a garage sale, right? As everyone knows, the worst part of a sale is packing things up and deciding what to do with the leftovers. Here is a suggestion for you. When you have a couple of hours left in the sale and you really, really don’t want to see this stuff again, when a shopper picks up an item, yell out “sold” and give it away.
While attending the university in Greeley, Kathy and I would go to the garage sales during the week, spend about $20 on items we thought we could sell and then get up during the wee hours of Saturday morning to sell at the Denver Race Track flea market. If we took in $80 to $100, it was a very good day. Most of the items we sold were $10 or less.
A year later we opened up our first antique shop in Larkspur, Colo.,—Plum Creek Antiques. This was in 1975. Forty-five years later, I still do some buying and try to sell what I buy. I still find enjoyment. I still look for the Holy Grail. Put an emphasis on the "still looking."
Our very first antique flea market was in Philadelphia in 1969. We only sold a green depression glass butter dish for 50 cents. The man didn’t collect depression glass, he just needed a butter dish.
True antique collectors continue to look for that one item that can make a difference and help them break even. Maybe they will find a gold ring or a gold tooth filling tucked away in a box of old costume jewelry like Kathy found not too long ago. Maybe you will run across a rock and roll poster like the one my sister-in-law had, which I wrote about on one occasion and that eventually sold at a Texas auction house for $125,000.
It’s those kinds of dreams antique collectors possess and this is what motivates them to go to one more garage sale or sell at one more flea market or visit one more antique mall. They are looking for the Holy Grail. Maybe they will find it at your garage sale.
Let me tell you a secret. If you have a good eye and know what you are doing, you can make a few dollars. A friend of mine recently sold a rat-torn, filthy, dirty, No. 24 Superman comic book for over $200. I purchased a box of some 20 or 30 year old pulp magazines and sold six or seven for over $300 each. Why? The cover illustrator was what made them valuable. I recently purchased a Hamm’s beer sign for $100 and sold it for $1,700.
People keep telling me that it’s harder to find antiques these days. Not true. All of those antiques of yesteryear are still around. It’s you and me who are dying off and so has the interest in many antiques.
Young people today don’t seem to cherish what many of us old guys and gals cherished when we were younger. Depression glass? Who needs it? Old round oak tables? No thanks. Primitive butter molds? You must be kidding. Hummels? Wait until I stop laughing. Wildlife prints? Excuse me while I take a nap.
What you need to look for are things that are scarce and unique. Some of the hot items are still old toys, advertising signs of all kinds, old tin containers, gold and silver, rare depression and carnival glass, rare trade tokens and real photo postcards, old fishing plugs, rock and roll posters, scarce pottery and stoneware pieces. I could name a few more but that’s a pretty good list of what currently sells. My friend, Roger Patterson, would add, "Don’t throw away interesting old paper items."
Sometimes you get lucky. Walking through an antique mall I spotted a Chad and Jeremy fan button. It was only a couple of dollars and pin back buttons of rock and roll stars are unique so I purchased it and sold it for over $200. The same was true of a Fort Laramie brass 5 cent token. I sold it for over $250. Sometimes you are unlucky. I purchased a cast iron Humpty Dumpty still bank for $100 and learned that it was a reproduction. Yes, watch for the repros, they can trick even the best of collectors. Still, it pays to keep digging around, looking, searching.
We were living in an older home in northern Minnesota that had a dirt floor basement. Kathy and I were just beginning to get into the world of digging in old dumps. Well, in our basement, hard to imagine, I dug up a J & P Coats walnut, two-drawer spool cabinet in very good condition dating to around 1920. At about the same time we were doing some digging in a woods in southern Minnesota and Kathy dug up a half pint aqua Pittsburg, whiskey bottle with a nice eagle embossed on the side. It’s probably worth about $100 today.
Since those early days of buying and selling, one question prevails. "Is it really worth it?" I have not found too many antique collectors driving Corvettes. If, at the end of the day, you can say you made a few dollars profit, then I guess you had a good day. More importantly, if you find enjoyment in it and realize you are preserving history, dollars and cents aren’t really all that important. Just remember, it all goes back to finding the Holy Grail. Keep looking. Keep digging. It’s still out there.
Riddle: What did Humpty Dumpty say when he fell off the wall? (Answer: Ouch!) Be careful that you don’t say "ouch" too many times when you buy antiques. It could be a repro.
Thanks to the Bemidji City Council for renewing their support to our community goal of a 100% graduation rate.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.