My love of clean-outs is pretty well-documented by now. I don’t do my scavenging at flea markets, like most. My routes are less-traveled inroads that crop up by word-of-mouth. Sometimes I’ll hear about a particular piece, only to arrive and find the entire garage filled floor to ceiling with dusty loose ends.
A few years back, I was doing a lot of clean-outs. Scrap was fetching a good price, so I knew I could unload it fast and earn a few bucks doing it. After a while, it was like I developed a sixth sense for the stuff. The clean-outs started lining up in front of me. There was no lull. As soon as I finished at one site, I got in my truck and headed to the next.
In the midst of this, I was asked to take a look at a barn and a neighboring garage. The barn housed a beautifully curated lamp store, and its owner had recently passed away. I knew the woman charged with overseeing the property. She was a longtime employee of the store. I met her there to discuss the clean-out.
At that point, the most obviously valuable pieces had already been claimed and sold for millions. The barn was reduced to remnants of the store and a workshop. But I could tell from a cursory look around that there was still enough around to make it worth my while. It was what I didn’t see, though, that truly piqued my interest: the scrap. He and his partner struck me as people who never threw anything out. My sixth sense started to itch.
“Did you ever hear about them going to a scrapyard?” I asked her. Not that she could remember, she said.
“Do you know where they kept their scrap?” I asked. She didn’t. I began to think that I did.
Two decades in a box
My favorite salvage finds through the years are not always the most valuable. In fact, they’re rarely valuable. Instead, they’re the things that have the most personal meaning attached to them. They were stashed away by their owners usually with no intent to capitalize on them. Maybe there was a plan to recycle them in some way down the road that was never realized. But, often, it was enough for them to just know their things were nearby.
That appeared to be the case the first time I entered the lamp store’s garage. At first sight, I recognized it as a catchall for all the loose ends from their lives. Everything, though, was fairly well organized. But before I took stock of it all, I started looking for one thing in particular: the scrap.
It only took a few minutes to find them. There, in an old beer-case box, were hundreds of brass lamp parts, bent and packed in as tight as they could be. There must have been 20 years’ worth of them, at least. I think that’s what struck me the hardest, initially; the contents of this box ran two decades deep.
In less than a half-hour, I pulled out 500 pounds of brass lamp parts—and I’d only just scratched the surface.
The revenue and the responsibility
In the days that followed, I transferred much of the barn’s and garage’s contents—lamp shades and bases, hundreds of lamp prisms, display cabinets, furniture, a gun-cleaning kit—to a 28-foot box truck that I drove over to the Golden Nugget Antique Flea Market the next Saturday morning. By the end of the weekend, I’d sold every single article and made about $10,000.
Something came over me that weekend. I was in a zone. I was doing five or six deals at a time, and that went on from the moment I unpacked until the end of the day. Every time I picked my head up and glanced around, someone new was piecing together a pile of stuff. It was like everyone who saw this haul immediately sensed how special it was, and they just wanted a piece of it. Only two people tried to negotiate a lower price. Everyone else accepted every bit of it at face value.
I ran into one of those buyers recently. He recognized me at a rummage sale and immediately started lamenting that he didn’t buy more that day. A set of flapper doll heads I sold him that day for $30 apiece, he told me he sold for double that. He found out they were sold again, this time for twice his price.
Even after all of that, there was still work to be done. I pulled close to another $1,000 in scrap out of the two buildings. And I reached out to a friend who owns a salvage finds shop nearby. He came by and took a mantelpiece and several large doors off my hands. I sold some huge barn sash windows and a pile of cedar siding to a local lumber company. I removed 20 enamel-baked, industrial-style lights and found a buyer almost right away. That installation earned me another few grand.
In a matter of a couple of weeks, I’d emptied both the barn and the garage and sold everything that was inside of them for about $25,000. Almost everything. I held on to four mahogany columns that are carved with this beautiful floral design. I couldn’t bring myself to part with them. They’re destined for a forged-bronze canopy bed I plan to make some day, not necessarily my taste in furniture design, but I couldn’t imagine these columns as part of anything else.
With every corner of that barn and garage I cleared, a single thought ran through my head: This is someone’s history. These things were placed here, not because they wanted them out of the way, but because they wanted to keep them in their life. In turn, they became more than an endless stream of prime salvage finds to me. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to make sure everything found a home, to make sure all of it lived on in some way.