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'We Have It All': A Night At The Auction House

People sit in rows of chairs with bidding numbers.
Erica Heilman
Erica Heilman recently visited Ely Commission Sales, an auction house in Bradford.

Every Tuesday and Friday night, there’s an auction at the corner of Lower Plain Road and Route 25 in Bradford.  Ely Commission Sales is run by Ernie Stevens, and VPR's Erica Heilman went down on a recent Friday night to talk with Ernie and check out the auction.

Ernie was taking bids over the phone when I got there. Behind him there were nine crockpots, all collected from houses over the years and now warming up chili, chop suey and macaroni and cheese to sell that night. Soda’s a buck. Every single week Ernie Stevens buys the contents of entire homes, moves it all into the auction hall, sorts it and then sells it. Some of the buyers are antique dealers or Ebay sellers, but a lot of people are just there for the chop suey and a great show.

Ernie: “We do on the average three to four houses a week. Whole houses. They’re either estates or people that are moving out and going south because they can’t afford to live here anymore. The taxes are killing them. And so, we try to be as fair as we can, and usually when I leave, everybody’s happy. I write them a check for it, it’s done. And then I bring it in here and keep my fingers crossed that we make money.” 

Me: “Oh I got it now. So you’re a gambler!”

Ernie: ”I am a gambler. This is like going to Vegas and rolling the dice. And you never know if you’re going to be on top or the bottom.”

A pirate mug on a table with ceramic items.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Going into a house to empty and resell its items is "like Christmas" for auctioneer Ernie Stevens.

Me: “When you go into a house for the first time, do you still have a sense of excitement?”

Ernie: “Oh always. Every house is like Christmas, for me anyway. Because you never know what you’re going to find. I mean, we’ve brought stuff back here that looked like nothing. And all of a sudden you find a five dollar gold coin in a drawer that’s worth money. Or you some really good piece of glass. Or something like that that’s been packed away for years. Nobody’s even seen it. But it was in the closet, packed. And that’s when you find all the treasures.” 

Me: “You ever found any dead bodies?”

Ernie: “No. I fear that every time I go in and somebody’s got a freezer.”

'We have it all'

Ernie shows me his wares.

Ernie: “These are all the slot cars and stuff. These are very collectible. But we have Christmas ornaments.”

Me: “You got a nutcracker.”

Ernie: “Oh yeah. We have it all.”

Me: “What is that? A ceramic asparagus?”

Erie: “Yeah.”

Me: “What the hell is that?”

A person holding up a rug.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Rugs, furniture, ceramic asparagus: Ernie Stevens has it all.

Ernie: “It’s a dish.”

Me: “It’s an asparagus holder. That’s what you serve asparagus in.”

Ernie: “Probably. I don’t know. I don’t at my house.”

Me: “So now we have rugs.”

Ernie:  “Yup. This lady and her mother did these.”

Me: “Wow, these are beautiful. Golly.”

Ernie: “Yes. They’re very nice rugs. This one is an owl.”

Moving all week every week

Me: “When I think about what you have to do, there’s nothing more nightmarish to me than moving. And you move all week every week for your entire life. Why …?”

Ernie: “It’s the excitement. You never know. And I’m a workaholic. I don’t take days off. I don’t like them. I don’t like vacations. I’m good for one day then you gotta find something for me to do. Well, I was born and raised on a farm. So we worked from sunup till sundown, every day. We had five hundred hogs. So. I can’t sit around and watch the waves roll in or something. That don’t get it with me. I gotta be working.”

Me: “What is the range that you consider?”

Ernie: “100 miles.” 

Me: “Southern Vermont?”

Ernie: “No right here, anywhere in Vermont. People are leaving. They can’t afford to be here. There is no work to begin with, and there is no money, and they can’t afford to live here anymore. What do you do? We go in and buy the stuff. But it’s sad. And dealing with the elderly people is the saddest. Because they have no money. And they’ve got three options: Do I buy oil, do I buy pills or do I buy food? And they can’t do all three. I’ve bought stuff from old women that were right in tears because it was great-grandma’s stuff, and they didn’t want to let it go, but they didn’t have any options. They needed the money. And their kids aren’t making enough money so they can help them out, you know? Unless you’re out here every day and see what goes on, you really don’t have any idea what our society is like. Our society is brutal. Especially for old people.”

A framed photo of four married couples.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Ernie Stevens said there's sadness in his line of work, especially when he's buying items from older people who can't afford all their living expenses.

Ernie, continued: “A lot of this furniture that we sell is antique. It’s a hundred years old, and it’s going to live another hundred years. Like, there’s a Thomasville bedroom set tonight that, in the beginning, was a lot of money. And now it’s going to be a heck of a deal for someone. And they’re going to furnish a bedroom with this furniture for nothing, basically. So I recommend it, with kids starting out or whatever, just getting married, don’t go to the furniture store. Go to auctions. And it doesn’t have to be mine, just go to auctions and buy a room as you can afford it.”

Me: “In a way what this is, is the most perfect kind of recycling.”

Ernie: “We keep it from going to the landfills, and hopefully these people that owned it loved it for years. Now hopefully we’re going to trade it on to somebody else and they’re going to love it for years. And that’s how it all just goes.”

Bidding time

I meet two women in the auction audience.

Me: “Are you bidding tonight? I know what I want and I hope it’s not what you want. I want a hooked rug.”

First woman: “You want one of the new ones.”

Me: “It’s an owl. Hooked rug.”

A person in a red shirt holds a poster.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
David Vance shows an old school dance photo for potential bidders to see.

First woman: “Yeah. If I wanted that owl I wouldn’t consider your feelings. But I’m not interested in that owl. I’ll tell you what I’d rather have: That little hooked rug on the floor over on the other side.”

Me: “Well. I wish us all the best of luck.”

Second woman: “Absolutely.”

First woman: “Don’t blow it.”

I didn’t. I got the owl rug.

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