I entered the home of another dead man last Saturday looking for one thing in particular -- additional book cases to add to the library in my house. The thrill of finding just the right piece for it, though, is but one of many elements I love about attending estate sales.
It's not usually just what I buy that makes my occasional weekend sojourns so intriguing.
I was confident last weekend's estate sale trip to a Maryland home near National Harbor would be no exception. I study the ads in the Washington Post before making my itinerary. (Estate sales, unlike garage sales, tend to be high-quality affairs in the homes of recently deceased, well-off or wealthy people.) This notice mentioned that the owner was an avid collector of many things, including books.
I arrived and did a quick pass through the home until I found my quarry. This man, too, had a formal library. I glanced at an antique table with a strikingly old photo album on it and was so drawn to the artistry of it that I perused a few quick pages. The photos were all black and white and appeared to go back a hundred years.
I moved on to look at the dazzling display in the library. Hand-made, floor-to-ceiling book cases with the craftsman's initials branded on to them lined the room. Books going back to 1904 (not quite old enough for me to buy) lined the shelves.
An oriental carpet reeking of cat urine covered the floor. This man may have had cats but he was in his heart a dog man: countless dog figurines lined his oak desk and smaller book shelves. Maybe he was too old by that point in his life to keep dogs. High school year books and other clues in the house suggested he was likely born between the world wars. The photograph of what was likely his high school or college graduation class looked like something out of a film on Turner Classic Movies ... a dozen or so young men all dressed in suits smiling and laughing and looking everywhere but at the camera when the exposure was made.
The old man was probably a psychologist, his library containing a ton of books on the subject dating from the 1940s to the 1960s. While most people only attend estate sales to shop for interesting items, I often become a biographical detective who tries to discern what lessons the homeowners' lives have to teach me, what stories they have to tell.
This home clearly belonged to an old man who died alone: He never married or lost a wife long ago and chose not to wed again: There was not a trace of the feminine touch in the home. The art work featured scenes of ships and the sea. Two rooms had busts of learned men's faces I did not recognize. Only men's clothes hung in the closets. The sheets and covers on the master bed contained only heavy, dark colors. The sun room on the back contained several chairs but only one with seat cushions that looked worn. An enormous collection of tools filled a basement workshop that also housed a China collection that clearly had not served guests in many decades.
My concentration was broken by a woman on her cell phone debating with her husband whether she should buy the big book shelves. After hanging up, the woman mentioned to me that she and her husband wanted to get rid of their IKEA book shelves for something better. She asked me if I thought these big cases were a good deal. I masked my horror at the thought of any book being placed on an IKEA shelf (an insult to the printed word) and told her these shelves were priced to move. Shockingly cheap, actually. Just $65 each.
I told her I'd grab them if I had the space but that the next person to walk through the door certainly would snag them. When she expressed further doubt, I pointed to the sturdiness, the quality of the wood, and the branded initials -- always a good sign. She noticed the scratches that had come with age and said her husband could paint the shelves to make them look new.
"Ma'am," I said, sweet as pie, "I couldn't tell you how old these book cases are, but they've clearly got some great years under them. They're supposed to look this way. That's what gives them their charm. All you'd want to do is dust them with a cotton cloth. You'd destroy them by taking a brush or chemical to them."
She thanked me for my time, whipped out her phone, and told her husband that she had decided to buy them right away. She scampered to pay for the shelves and returned to the library. The next man who came in saw the bounty and announced he was buying them. He was crushed to learn he was too late. (If you want the best items, arrive in the first hour of an estate sale. If you want to try for a bargain, return on the second and final day when the companies running the event usually mark everything down by 50 percent for the final three hours of the sale.)
I purchased two equally beautiful but smaller shelves that were exactly the pieces I needed for my library -- only $45 each and they were just as well made. I bought a couple of tiny globes the man had on his desk, figured I'd take a chance I could clean the feline-stained carpet, and bought a really nifty wooden item I envisioned holding one of my antique glass bottles. A husband and wife walked by me and told me they were heading back to take that very item in my hands and that I had indeed picked a fine "fern stand". (Hey, I'm a single straight guy; I didn't know what a duvet cover was until a girlfriend from my 30s started identifying such objects for me.)
The library raided, I made more laps through the rest of the home. I had a lot in common with this old man. An appreciation for living alone. A great love for books and old, wood furniture. I could have spent a paycheck there if I hadn't been careful. (Make a budget for yourself if you decide to attend an estate sale. Find the right home and money goes flying out of your pocket.)
There was one item in particular, though, that kept nagging me, inducing a thought that had not quite come to the surface yet. As happy as I was with my library score, I couldn't shake the sight of the table with that old photo album. The album was the major focal point of the man's library, something he regarded with great tenderness. I flipped the pages again and saw what I presumed to be many long-lost family members, yet the old man apparently died with no one in his life who meant as much to him as did the loved ones in the photos. He left no survivors who wanted the album.
I often take great pride in having lived my 40 years to the fullest, following Thoreau's mantra to suck the marrow out of life. I regret little. Still, I am conscious of the fact that I have pushed away every woman I've ever let get close to me because I so enjoy the fun and freedom that comes with being single. I'm big on solitude and I like to do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it. I also very much enjoy my own company, hanging out in my library with my dog Alexis, and riding my bike all day.
Looking around the old man's house one final time, I stared at the sun room seats with only one worn cushion, the bachelor bedding, the dog figurines, and the photo album. I reflected on the choices I have made in my life, the subterranean thought at last emerging: I guess this is how my house will look when I die, too.