Originally published in The Buffalo Story Project in May 2013.
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The enamel bowl was “very beautiful,” Nikki McIntosh remembers.
Made by Catherineholm of Norway, it was about 11 inches wide and half as tall. White and teal green stripes of varying sizes sloped up the sides. The motif recalled a peppermint. Small chips circling the rim provided character.
McIntosh knew she had to have the bowl as soon as she spotted it in a photograph advertising items that would be available at an upcoming estate sale.
So the morning of the sale, she woke up, got dressed and headed out. She wanted to get there as early as possible.
Access to estate sales is granted on a first-come, first-served basis, and the first day can be frantic. The hungriest shoppers will stop by hours in advance to claim a spot in line. To maintain order, some liquidators post waiting lists outside a house, or ask buyers to take a number denoting their order of arrival.
Doors often open to a mad dash.
Liquidator Charmaine Then said that at a sale in April, two cast metal Buddy L toy trucks sold in under five minutes — one for $275, the other for $225.
Shawn Peters, 30, owner of an Etsy shop called compostthis, said the atmosphere of every sale varies. In the most competitive, the tension can spill over to the second day. He described one particularly cut-throat event: “I was holding — it was a brass buffalo or something — and I was holding it and I was standing in line and I was waiting to pay and this lady walked up to me and ripped it out of my hand.”
McIntosh, 29, is familiar with the frenzy. She runs Wise Apple Vintage, an Etsy shop she opened in 2008. To stock her store, she spends hours each week scouring estate sales and other sources of second-hand material for collectibles like brass animals and Mid-Century bakeware.
“I think if I’ve gone a dozen times to get something specific, I’ve gotten that thing, like, once,” McIntosh said. “A lot of times, the stuff I’m super-excited about is stuff that other people are super-excited about.”
Often, she said, “You see the person walking out the side door, holding whatever you want, and you’re like, ‘ERR!'”
McIntosh wanted to make sure that didn’t happen with the enamel bowl. It was something special — the rare treasure that she wanted for her own collection.
By the time she arrived at the sale, however, a flock of shoppers was already milling about outside the house. Workers were only allowing small groups to enter at once, so McIntosh added herself to the queue.
As she waited, she chatted with a fellow shopper about the bowl. The other buyer, a middle-aged lady who sold stuff on eBay, agreed that it sounded beautiful.
Eventually, the woman was called into the house, and McIntosh found herself alone again, anxious, waiting.
Finally, it was her turn to go in.
She rushed to the kitchen. She looked for the bowl.
In the living room, as she explored the rest of the house, a dejected McIntosh ran into the eBay seller she had met earlier. The woman was holding the bowl.
She beckoned to McIntosh.
“She kind of pulled the bowl out from under her arm and said, ‘Now you’re sure you’re going to keep this, right? It’s not to sell?’ It was only after I promised that it was for my own house that she passed it to me,” McIntosh said, recounting the story in an Etsy message, akin to an email. “I was SO excited!”
“I was so excited about the bowl that I think I just raced to the checkout like someone might tackle me for it if I didn’t get out of there right away,” McIntosh wrote.
“That’s super-special to me now — that bowl — because she was a seller, too, and she could have taken it,” McIntosh said.