Aminaminaminaminamummmm... The auctioneer's drone is like an air-raid siren fed through a kazoo, a continuing sound bending slightly upward then slightly downward in a seeming attempt to hit notes it never quite reaches. It's a familiar soundtrack to the 200 or so plunked down in cheap folding chairs or milling through the bricolage flanking them, and they are rapt.
I'm in Nowhereseville, Ontario, with my buddy B and his wife C, who'd fled Toronto's noise and pollution some 15 years ago and moved, with alarmingly cyclic regularity, into grander and grander mansions stretching farther and farther into the surrounding countryside. They are mortgage-less with grown children. Patrons of both art and the sciences, learned individuals with serious academic pedigrees and enviable financial freedom. And they are utterly and oddly addicted to the phenomenon of the country auction.
The fact that we're in Ontario matters little — it could easily be small-town Nova Scotia, Manitoba or British Columbia. You just need a community hall to which folks can deliver the spoils of their existence and a free Sunday afternoon for others to gather and admire (or disdain) it; some come simply to socialize, some to buy what they need; and others, like B and C, arrive with pocketfuls of cash and little more in mind than the thrill of acquiring some unheralded prize which, when it occurs, is a significant victory over stiff competition.
Before me lies a confusing and confounding mix of garbage and gold, which is why, B and C explain, you need to be good at understanding just what it is you're ogling and have a sense, however superficial, of its worth — or worthlessness. Yes, there is an app for that, and I observe many — in overalls and Carharts and even a woman in a genuine fringed buckskin jacket à la Neil Young — checking their phones for whether an object of desire might fetch a decent price in turnaround. Treasure hunting has always been serious business, but has the digital age beaten the fun out of it? Not really, it's just moved from metal-detectors and old library archives to eBay and Google. This shift likely started with television's weirdly popular Antiques Roadshow, of which the current phone-scouting is but a miniaturized, real-time, DIY version.
I walk around, amazed and dumbfounded. I pass what looks like a shitty globe on a thigh-high, faux-bronze stand but realize it's worth something because its old but unused — depicting the former Soviet Union but with the original sticker swinging from it. There's an enormous amount of crystal, cups and cutlery, and a truly alarming number of cat statues, cat carvings, cat crochets, and cat picture books. These are offset by some truly impressive hockey-card albums.
The smell of cooking bacon hangs over everything, replacing the smell of dust, mould and machine oil, and I'm drawn to it like a cartoon dog. While enjoying the best peameal bacon sandwich ever, I find B and C in another room cruising tables loaded with boxes of junk. This is a whole new auction sub-genre: you bid on each box en masse, without fully knowing what's inside. It's like Storage Wars in miniature and much slower motion. One woman — loud and overbearing in a sleeveless, pink print top and black capris — is de facto junk-box queen. She buys them up in volume and sells the spoils on websites like Kijiji. She talks incessantly and with a frightening sense of entitlement. When someone bids against her she shoots them a look of death — as she now does with C, who has bested her on a milk crate crammed with power tools, unused lightbulbs, and an ice-cream maker.
The head auctioneer, a rail-thin geriatric with a wooden leg in a cowboy shirt and jeans looks — and sounds — like he's been at it for a century. With hundreds of objects and lots remaining, he announces he's decided to conduct the auction at double speed — tantamount to saying you're going to make something that's insane even more so. When he starts the next bid it's like an old vinyl record sped up to 78 rpm. I can't understand anything, but the regulars do as cards fly up around the auditorium and the auctioneer points to bid winners. Soon an entire antique store's worth of kitsch has been trotted across stage by assistants to disappear in a stream-of-consciousness barrage: old milk cans... an old wooden sled... iron ice-pick and tongs. He's funny, too, interjecting jokes into this musty diorama of obsession and generally keeping those like myself who aren't bidding entertained.
A new lot hits the stage: baseball bats, some signed, a box of baseballs and two unused goalie sticks made for Martin Brodeur by Sher-Wood of Quebec.
Aminaminaminaminaminamummm... B and C and a dozen others wave cards in a furious bidding war. Finally, bang goes the gavel. Sold! To the woman in the buckskin jacket! Instead of just pointing, the auctioneer has actually identified the buyer. That seems weird until he adds, 'By the way, nice jacket — interested in selling that?'
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like