estate sale












I am not someone who likes to shop. In the past, when a girlfriend has invited me out to a Saturday shopping spree as a “fun” recreational activity, I have let it be known that I would find ritual seppuku a more attractive alternative to spending the day in and out of crowded stores. However, when my family and I recently moved out of the city and bought a 1920s home in small lakeside village, none of our modern stuff looked right in it. For both environmental and economic reasons, I decided to explore the world of estate sales and the realm of “pre-owned” everything. I expected of course to find a lot of old junk, but I did not expect the intimacy with which I would sift through peoples’ lives, nor did I predict the kind of stories my fellow tribe of estate sale hunters and I would share related to powerful assemblies of personal objects.

What hidden treasures or promising insights lurk in the mundane spaces where we don’t expect to find spirituality and religion—in the dark drawers we stumble upon where we might otherwise never think to look? How do objects, too often dismissed as “secular” and thus irrelevant to our research, possess a kind of spiritual power in people’s lives that offers us qualitatively different insights into the worlds they make and occupy? With essays on everything from espresso to cell phones, Frequencies addresses precisely these questions, but to colleagues who do not embrace this kind of approach, it may well seem a bit, well… eccentric. As I began to comb through the drawers and closets of strangers’ homes, their bathrooms and basements, sideboards and sun porches, I was taken into worlds of eccentricity, and became fascinated by what, through either downsizing or death, was left behind, especially the attentive care to various collections. What objects held some sort of compelling power in people’s lives to the point of inspiring devotional practice, if only for a time?












Since beginning my journey through the world of the “pre-owned,” I have poured over table after table of Lladro figurines, decorative spoons from destinations all over the world, assortments of “museum-quality” commemorative plates, and jumbo-sized plastic Container Store crates of Beanie Babies. Then there are the linens—the mountains beyond mountains of linens. This is how I met “Wendy,” who collects hand-embroidered linens from American estate sales and then sells them on the internet to her customers, mostly in China. “You’re sending linens to China?” I ask. “Isn’t that like coals to Newcastle? Aren’t most of them made there?” She explains that Chinese ladies want fine Irish linens with the real lace and hand-embroidery—the kind that would be handed down in American families. A tablecloth she picks up at estate sale for $2, for instance, she can turn around and sell for $25. “Americans don’t want them because you have to iron the darn things, and who has the time?” She tells me that there’s also a good resale market in Asia for more sentimental and hokey embroidered linens (a little girl with an umbrella, sun flowers, kittens, etc.). “Here, we think those things are kind of cheesy and in bad taste, but in Asia they are just crazy for the little girl sitting on the polka-dotted mushroom, or teddy bears having a tea party. And, oh my God, the shamrocks! They love anything with embroidered shamrocks. It adds value.” While contemplating shamrock-embroidered linens with soy sauce stains, I ask about dry cleaning instead of hand-ironing and why that might not be an option. “Well, it is except that it’s expensive and we don’t use nice tablecloths anymore anyway. Most people get them out once a year but have even switched that to nylon or polyester. In Asia they will hand wash and iron them, or at least the person working in their house will do it for them.” I ask if she resells any of the linens within the U.S. or if it’s all mail order to Asia. Wendy says almost none of her linens go to buyers here and declares America to be pretty much a post-linen tablecloth nation, adding “We just don’t have big formal events anymore, so they pile up and sit in the closet.”












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