For some, spring means the start of baseball. For others, the warm weather and longer days signal the start of the gardening season. But for many of us, spring means only one thing: the return of estate sales.

The season begins slowly in March and April and then explodes in May. By then, the classified section is full of promising sale descriptions, making it hard to choose between several choice sales, all starting at 8 a.m. Choices must be made. Risks must be taken. You cross your fingers and race to Gladwyne, hoping you aren't missing "the big one" in Radnor. Those of us fascinated by other peoples' cast off possessions have waited for spring through a long, hard, sale-less winter. Oh sure, we may have frequented the local thrift shops and flea markets in order to satisfy our rummaging urges, and it's true these outlets provide some relief, but there is nothing like the real thing to excite and thrill the estate sale junkie.

Few sales are held during the winter months. A rare dedication is required to brave the cold, dark mornings in January and February and stand in line to wait for a sale. A stalwart crew attends these events, dealers and hobbyists alike. These are the true addicts. Wrapped in blankets and armed with a magazine or novel, steaming coffee in hand, they arrive at the advertised location just after dawn and set out lawn chairs to claim a choice spot on the front walk or driveway. They survive the cold by making periodic trips to the car, blasting the heat to thaw fingers and toes, and then hustling back to the line before anyone forgets they were there and denies them their rightful place. Hours pass before the sale team arrives to dispense the coveted tickets that grant admittance to the house and the opportunity to take possession of whatever treasures lie within. In the interminable wait, speculation can be heard up and down the ever-lengthening line about everything from the contents of the house (contemporary, traditional, lots of "smalls") to the story behind the sale (a move to Florida, a death, two deaths, a divorce).

What could be worth the trouble, the cold, the time, you might ask. These are all good questions. Sometimes a house does yield valuable treasure, making the hours and days seem worth the trouble. Just last week I found an original oil painting hanging on the wall of a damp basement in Haverford. It was surrounded by mildewed linens, old textbooks, stacks of National Geographic magazines and a broken bench whose crumbling leather seat revealed rusted springs and horsehair stuffing. Something about the colors in the painting intrigued me and the frame was nice. The tag said $40. I offered the owner $25, a German lady who was moving from the suburbs to a condominium in Old City and said she couldn't take all her artwork with her. We settled on $35. I knew nothing about the artist or the painting's value until I got home and Googled his name. It turned out the artist had exhibited his paintings for more than 50 years in major art museums around the globe and had at one time been the cultural attache to Israel.

But rare treasures like the painting are just that: rare. More often than not, the most valuable thing you'll bring home is a half dozen replacement filters for your cordless vacuum, that novel you meant to read last summer, a kitchen scale, a bag of pinecones (for a wreath), or a blank journal (there are lots of these for sale, still blank). Sometimes it just doesn't seem worth it, even to me. Some peoples' sales make you wonder why they bothered. Not only do I not want anything they are selling, I'm probably not interested in anything they are keeping, either. It's at these sales, when I'm standing on a sweltering driveway in the midst of folding tables covered with bulging eyeball bisque figurines, car racing memorabilia and south west decor, I wonder why I bother. I also wonder if anyone I know has seen me as I hurry back to my car.

When I first started my Saturday morning ritual, more than 20 years ago, I would leave the house with $20 and come home with a trunk load of treasure. Young and just married, I hadn't yet defined my taste and I bought mostly utilitarian items. A box of Marimeko tiles for my red and white apartment kitchen, a set of glasses from Conrans. Back then, tag sales were the way to obtain the things I saw in the stores and knew I wanted, but couldn't quite afford. And since I couldn't afford what I wanted, and didn't want what I could afford, I found the perfect solution. I would rather buy secondhand style and elegance than spend my money on brand new merchandise that lacked imagination.

Over the years, my tastes changed and I developed my own personal decorating style. Estate sales helped me learn about what makes a home beautiful and comfortable. While walking through hundreds of homes and getting a close up view of every living room, kitchen, closet and bath, I was able to absorb a lot of information about interior design. Some rooms were beautiful, some charming, some warm, some disastrous. I have pored over table after table of lamps, crystal, silver and linens. I have flipped through stacks of prints, paintings, etchings and photographs. I have seen every different kind of style imaginable: traditional, contemporary, eclectic, urban, country. I have seen countless room arrangements, fabric choices, color schemes, window treatments, kitchen designs, closet systems, rugs, patios, lighting and landscape plans. I saw and absorbed and assimilated it all, storing away the best ideas for future use. I brought home the best of what I saw and incorporated the good ideas into my own decorating plans.

So while I don't always come home with major artwork or a new TV, I could never say my time has been wasted. I have shopped at sales while on vacation, when I should have been at work, even on my way to a wedding. I did not always have perfect attendance at my kids' soccer practices or field hockey games. But I don't regret a moment of the time I've spent at estate sales. It's been a blast. And an education. And an adventure! And there's no end in sight. I can't wait for May! I'll be out there, every Saturday morning, looking for the next great thing I might find sitting next to the harvest gold fondue pot and a singing and dancing Santa Claus.

You can write to Jennifer Gregory at jen.gregory@comcast.net.

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