All of my favorite possessions were paid for with cash in the homes of strangers in Texas: My favorite sweater is a vintage Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt I found in the back of a closet in a four-bedroom house outside of McKinney, Texas. It was brand new, with the tags still intact, and had never been worn by the owner. My espresso machine is from a home in Irving. My typewriter, a portable Royal, comes from a home outside of Fort Worth; my mom paid $40 for it as soon as she saw the ribbon still worked. My favorite shirt is an atrocious men’s button-up that I found on a clothing rack in a stranger’s garage. It’s purple plaid with green and yellow mixed in. I had it taken in, and it’s the most comfortable thing I own. In the backyard of the same property, I found a kitschy plastic tray that freezes ice into the shape of Texas. It reminds me of home.
Life accumulates a lot, and when someone dies, there are heaps of material goods left behind. You end up with dishes and tights and cheap pens and garden hoses and books and printers and crosses and sweaters. There are piles of DVDs and thumb drives and underwear and spices and shoes. There’s rarely enough family to take it all (or family who even need it all) — hence the estate sale.
My mother and I routinely drive hours across Texas to stand in line with the other hopeful collectors and cheapskates who visit these sales. I’m usually the youngest shopper in attendance, if you don’t count those still required to hold an adult’s hand. While walking through older ranch homes or two-story McMansions, it’s a reminder that, regardless of economic station, building a life is an act of hoarding. Putting down roots, like buying a house, only leads to acquiring more things.
My mom is always searching for patterns, sewing notions, and fabric, so we have a primary mission for our mother-daughter journeys. But I’m never looking for anything in particular. Office supplies, like notebooks and pens, have to be dirt cheap. Kitchen appliances have to come with all their parts. With clothes and fabrics, it’s all about possibilities: Can I alter this to fit my body? Do I own other clothes I can wear this with? I once bought about two yards of Vera Bradley–esque quilted fabric that looked kitschy in the bin; it’s now living a second life as one of my favorite vests.
It can be a process to find something you really love, but the key is arriving early to get first pick of the inventory. That’s why my mom and I have spent so many early mornings chasing the Texas sunrise, listening to terrible chat radio, and sipping from large cups of coffee and tea.
Here’s how it goes: If you arrive an hour before the doors open, there will be a small line. If you’re two hours early, though, you’re almost certainly guaranteed the first spot. People don’t really make conversation, and if it’s cold enough, everyone will wait in their cars. Eventually, the estate-sale employee unlocks the front door of the home and announces any guidelines or markdowns. Then we all file in.
Newbies mill around the front room, eyes agog at the state of the home. Nothing is neatly stored away. Instead, the items are arranged across every available surface. Small objects like pens or toiletries are packaged in baggies and priced to sell. Earrings, pins, necklaces, and other jewelry are put into display cases by the cash register. But everything else can be found where you’d typically store it. Looking for a toolbox? Go to the garage. In the market for cooking supplies? Make a beeline for the kitchen. The cabinet doors are often removed so the shelving can be used as a display. Every counter will be covered with canned food, pots, pans, plates, coffee cups, silverware. The fridge and oven may even have price tags.