Estate sale queen Diana Hardin: Photo by Kim Leeson

Estate sale queen Diana Hardin: Photo by Kim Leeson

It has everything — comedy, drama. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!

The newest Spielberg film, right? Wrong. It’s our neighborhood estate sales. And neighbors make a beeline for them.

At a recent sale near Swiss Avenue, folks waited in a long blockbuster-worthy line in 28-degree weather to get inside to root through the possessions of former showgirl Willetta Stellmacher, whom the Advocate featured in November 2011. She rubbed elbows with Frank Sinatra, and his autographed photo was displayed during the sale.

Diana Hardin has a room in her Lakewood home dedicated to her estate sale finds.  She recycles and embellishes vintage items and sells them online. Photo by Kim Leeson

Diana Hardin has a room in her Lakewood home dedicated to her estate sale finds. She recycles and embellishes vintage items and sells them online. Photo by Kim Leeson

But isn’t an estate sale nothing more than a dressed-up, indoor garage sale? Au contraire. Ask Mike Milam, firefighter at Station No. 8 and longtime resident of Old East Dallas. “I particularly love estate sales because they tell a greater story because of their completeness. Garage sales are, at best, a snippet of how the people lived or are living their lives. Estate sales offer a complete picture, everything from the pots and pans used daily to the outfit they only wore a couple of times.” As a furniture builder, Milam always has an eye out for interesting heavy metal, industrial-type items and other objects to repurpose. “File cabinets can become dresser drawers,” he says. “Old brass dishes can become light fixtures.”

Lakewood Heights resident Diana Hardin has been a fan of sales for decades since tagging along with her antique-hunting mom in East Texas. Hardin seeks out vintage Barbie dolls and doll clothing for her large collection — and as a legacy for her daughter. She also searches for funky clothing and purses, old luggage, and antique books and ephemera for collage art and decoupage. Like Milam, Hardin creates new pieces, which she sells in her Etsy shop.

The big draw for estate sale fans like Milam and Hardin, though, is the thrill of the hunt, the rare and unknown. And did we mention surprising? Milam recalls a sale he attended years ago in which “everything in the house had been stolen.” He found items with sensor tags, benches from city parks, and bikes with snipped locks still attached.

Hardin, too, certainly stumbled upon the unexpected at the home of three elderly sisters. An entire room during the sale was devoted to the sisters’ assortment of vintage lingerie from the 1930s through the ‘50s. “Bullet bras, garter belts, lace, feathers … I kept thinking how interesting and fun those ladies must have been,” muses Hardin.

And then there is the element of pathos at estate sales. Like those heart-tugging, “Terms of Endearment”-type scenes out of Hollywood, the stories behind the sales can evoke sadness. A true estate sale, after all, results from a death or a transition to another living arrangement. Greenland Hills resident and estate sale devotee Lee Ostermayer attended a neighborhood sale where the homeowner, a “sweet, elderly woman,” was overheard explaining that she was selling her belongings to pay for her husband’s funeral. On the spot, a customer wrote her a check for $5,000, exhorting her to keep her items and go take care of herself. Restores your faith in humanity, doesn’t it?

More often than sad, though, estate sales are just plain fascinating, often a mixture of the everyday, the cups and books and tables, and the not-so-ordinary. How about a coffin? Perhaps you’re in the market for some used false teeth?

At another sale that Hardin went to, a woman and her adult son were selling the woman’s belongings in preparation for her move to a retirement home. As folks bought her possessions, she explained about each item, where it came from, when she bought it, why it was special. Hardin noticed that as the son helped carry purchases to vehicles, he was crying.

More often than sad, though, estate sales are just plain fascinating, often a mixture of the everyday, the cups and books and tables, and the not-so-ordinary. How about a coffin? Perhaps you’re in the market for some used false teeth? Ostermayer saw these items for sale. Milam is now the reluctant owner of a vintage Charlie McCarthy dummy: “Its creepy factor is through the roof.” And Hardin, well, let’s just say she passed on a chance to purchase a stuffed family dog. “The taxidermy was very, very old,” she recalls with a shudder.

But Hardin and every other estate sale junkie will tell you that it’s the lure of the unknown that keeps them coming back. Hardin says, “It’s like a treasure hunt.” At a recent sale, she happened upon an antique French crystal and gilt chandelier for five bucks. A good cleaning and rewiring and voila! It now hangs in her office — and she’s since discovered that it’s worth more than $500.

Milam found a seemingly ordinary clothing rack for a few dollars, researched some markings on it, and was amazed to learn it was a rare piece from the turn of the century, worth about $1,200.

At a Lakewood sale, Ostermayer picked up a book titled “The World’s Great Letters.” Inside she discovered a love letter dated 1934 in lovely old-school cursive, the gentleman vowing to live the rest of his life trying to make his ladylove happy. “This was the sweetest dollar I ever spent,” she says.

Will that estate sale down the street be a “triumph of the human spirit”? A tearjerker? A laugh a minute? You just never know.


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