By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
Auction houses are springing up in Ashtabula County like potholes during the January thaw.
In Jefferson, John and Tammy Erdle opened their house at 14 Wall Street in March. Joe Craine, who apprenticed under Erdle, opened his house in the former Austinburg Grange Hall in August. And in Saybrook Township, Paula Hildebrand runs a twice-monthly auction in Saybrook Township that she opened about 18 months ago.
These newcomers are in addition to the Tuesday evening auction that Gary Heaven has been running at the Kathryn Rose Party Center on North Bend Road for more than five years. Also on the local auction scene are Barry Densmore, whose Madison Township auction house is noted for Friday evening antiques sales, and Michael Defina, who specializes in antiques, collectibles and fine items. And the granddaddy of them all, Bill Hamilton, has run an auction house in the county for more than a quarter of a century. His latest location is in a former Chinese restaurant on Benefit Avenue.
What’s behind this growth?
“I’d like to think it’s because they want to be like me,” said Bill Hamilton, with a grin.
“The number one reason is tough times,” said Hildebrand. “Everybody is looking to get a little extra cash for a gallon of milk or gas for the tank.”
“I don’t know,” Erdel says. “I guess it’s because there are a bunch of us auctioneers and we’re getting people in the doors who have come to understand they don’t have to buy something new when they can go to an auction and get it for less money. Families don’t have the money to buy like they used to.”
“We are seeing more and more interest in it every week,” says Gary Heaven, whose auction house issues 150 to 175 numbers every Tuesday evening. “We have new folks showing up every week.”
Heaven feels that the housing crisis has something to do with the growing crowds — homeowners who lost their homes and furnishings are starting over and need furniture, appliances and other household items. And while buyers five or 10 years ago were likely to be purchasing items for resale on eBay or at a flea market, Heaven feels most of his buyers are end users.
Heaven has been an auctioneer 16 years. He’s helped aspiring auctioneers like Barry Densmore fulfill their apprenticeship requirement and eventually launch their own auction house. Despite what seems like a full playing field, Heaven has an apprentice working him and feels that “competition is good” and each auction house finds its niche and crowd to go along with it.
For Heaven, that niche is spaciousness and food. The house has 10,000 square feet and can bring just about anything to the block, including boats and aluminum handicapped ramps. Additionally, the Kathryn Rose kitchen prepares a buffet that is served prior to the auction; for about $7, a buyer can fuel up for the sale, which usually lasts two to three hours.
Craine says his house has a reputation for being very clean and bright; on the merchandise side, he likes to consign antiques rather than prosaic household goods. In practice, however, his auctions, like those of Heaven, typically have a mix of household, antiques and new items.
Heaven says items that consistently sell well are anything that “a buyer can take home in his car. Glassware, old radios, tools. We sell a lot of tools, and for big money,” he says.
Where does all this stuff come from? For Erdle, storage unit sales provide a steady flow of stock that he uses to fill in around consignments. Erdle and his wife purchase and sort through the contents of about 100 storage units every year. He says they rarely find any hidden treasures among the fluff — chances are, if the person who stashed the stuff did not have the money to pay rent on the unit, he didn’t have anything of great value in there to begin with.
Families that are downsizing or need to get rid of garage sale leftovers also provide stock for Erdle’s sales. And he works with individual who provides a range of new items, candy and other food that is mixed in with the used goods.
Hildebrand only needs to look in her store, Only the Best Stuff, or her residence to find stuff to sell. “I was looking for another avenue through which to liquidate my assets,” she says. “Most of it is my stuff. I’m a garage sale/flea market fan.”
Hamilton, who ran an auction out of his Nichols Plaza building for years, sells primarily new items and food through his Benefit Avenue house.
“We want (the crowd) to buy stuff that they use all the time,” Hamilton says. “They will auction off one of an item, and if it brings a high enough bid, we’ll sell more of them at that price.” If the dealer is unhappy with the price, they move on to the next item.
“You can’t buy stuff for $5 and sell it for $2 and stay in business,” Hamilton says.
He also liquidates merchandise for retailers — Hamilton recently sold off several trailers full of returns from Home Depot stores.
Erdle, who runs small items out of one building and furniture out of a second, says he has several policies that set his house apart. If a buyer purchases a radio or other appliance, gets home with it and discovers it does not work, Erdle will refund the price if they bring it back the next Saturday. “We guarantee it. But if you bring it back two weeks later, you own it,” he says.
His other policy is that he won’t sell religious books. A stack of free Bibles greets buyers as they enter the auction house.
Buyers tend to be faithful to one auction. Marge Helton is a regular at Hamilton’s house, where she did her Christmas shopping.
“I got 18 grandkids and if I didn’t come to this auction, I couldn’t afford Christmas for them,” she says.
Duana Hamilton, who runs the bookkeeping end of the business for her husband, Bill, says that faithful buyers have a permanent number assigned to them. When the buyer dies, the number is retired. The back wall of the auction house has photographs of the deceased buyers and their numbers: Dale Anthony, No. 63; Robert Blanchette, No. 6; John Maniccia, No. 159.
That kind of camaraderie is typical of auction houses, where people young and old alike come for the treasure hunt and often leave with something they absolutely could live without.
“A lot of the crowd has been coming for years. We’re about the oldest around,” Hamilton says.
“I come for the entertainment,” says Doris Campbell, “almost 94” and one of Hamilton’s regulars. “I don’t think I’m going to buy too much tonight, because it is the last of the month.”
At Craine’s auction house, the buyers sang “Happy Birthday” to an employee who turned 50 and shared in his birthday cake. The crowd celebrates the birthdays of the regular buyers, as well.
“Everybody is family, you get to know each other,” Craine says.
“It’s more of a gathering place for some people,” Erdle says of his house. “People come and drink coffee, pop, laugh at the jokes and have a good time. I enjoy it and people enjoy it.”
That familial motif extends to the workers. Duana’s daughter, Autumn Briggs, runs the concession stand. Hamilton’s sons Bill Jr. and Tal are runners, and his daughter, Brenda Mullins, is his clerk. Her husband, John, pitches the items to the crowd.
“We just make everybody feel right at home here,” John Mullins says while waiting for the auction to start.
An auctioneer is required to go to school and apprentice under another auctioneer for a year before being licensed in Ohio. Hamilton, who also runs an auction in Euclid, has an apprentice under him and says he’s helped several other persons fulfill their mentorship requirement. Paula Hildebrand worked under auctioneer Wayne Luoma for years and even tried doing a little auctioneering for him to see if she had the knack. A couple of years ago, she finally decided to invest in the schooling (she and Joe Craine were in the same class) and got her license.
The business is highly competitive and the thin margins can be quickly consumed by a bad turnout or cheap crowd. Erdle says he’s had some nights where the gross was just $1,600. He has to pay overhead, labor and other expenses out of the 30 percent of gross that the house gets for all the work involved in preparing for and running an auction.
The narrow margin has forced all the local houses to impose a buyer’s premium on each sale. The premium is uniformly 10 percent across the houses, but some add another 3 percent if paying with a credit card. Craine says they could not operate without that premium.
“It helps us pay the labor, rent, gas and electricity,” Heaven says. “We first tried it six years ago. It got to the point where everyone was charging it. You’re foolish if you don’t.”
Hildebrand says that her auction is a “labor of love,” so she does not worry about whether or not she turned a profit. It’s also a labor of love for John and Tammy Erdle, but in a different sense. John says they got into auctioneering as a way to strengthen their marriage through a common pursuit.
“It helps us spend time together when we do the auctions,” John says.
“I’m not in it to make a million dollars,” he adds. “If I were, I would have gotten out of it a long time ago.”