All The Things We Leave Behind
The Melancholic Beauty of Estate Sales
The first time I visit the cozy brick house on Virginia Avenue, it has a trapped-in-amber feel to it. Hyacinths bloom in a wooden flower box by the front porch. A cabinet in the formal dining room takes up an entire wall showing off delicate curiosities behind its glass panels. Coffee cups line kitchen shelves like restless soldiers reporting for duty. And from a shed out back, two round Buddhas watch Christ – cast in concrete – offering his final ministry from beneath a big pine tree.
Within the next couple of weeks, almost all of these items will be sold — if not to collectors and antique dealers, then to estate shoppers giddy with the thrill of the search (visions of American Pickers’ Mike Wolfe dancing in their heads). But first, Kara Cross Braswell will take the house apart and put it back together again.
Kara has been managing estate and tag sales for the last two years. She got into this business during the COVID-19 pandemic when – after corporate lay-offs – she started working part time for a friend, found that she had both the tenderness and talent this kind of work requires, and launched her own company, Estate Sales by Kara. Since, business has been booming. Kara hosts an estate sale like the one on Virginia Avenue almost every week. “This is the busy season,” she says. “Right now, we’re in it.”
Before – with the help of her sometimes associate Mike Dean – Kara begins the physically taxing work of getting a house in order (taking items out; cleaning and sorting them; scrubbing the floors, walls, and other surfaces; setting aside and protecting photos, letters, and other intimate items for relatives; getting rid of any – ahem – embarrassing items; and finally pricing and merchandising), Kara observes a ritual. She walks through the house, surveying each room, finds a quiet place, and then she listens.
“This house, to me, there’s a lot of love here,” she tells me. We’re sitting with Mike on the covered back porch at the Virginia Avenue house, and rain is starting to fall hard. I wonder out loud how many days just like this have been spent on this porch.
“I actually know this family,” Kara says. “I was in school at the same time as their son and his wife. Their mother kept everything. She loved her kids.” Kara says she’s found elementary school report cards, letters, and family photographs. She’s made a practice of designating a private place to store these things. Here, she’s chosen the laundry room. Later on, I find a class project in an old photo album that features 1988 Democratic Party presidential primary campaign mailers from Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, and Dick Gephardt.
Kara has a special connection with the women who’ve lived in houses like this one, and she talks about them as if they were old friends. “I learn from these women,” she says, “and some of the things I learn are sensible things.” There is a warmth in Kara’s eyes while she’s saying this. “For instance, in some of these houses … these women … the way they organized their kitchens, I’m like ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’”
“I really admire women like this.” Now, Kara is talking about Patricia, the woman who made this Virginia Avenue house a home, a true Appalachian matriarch. “She was a business-owner when women didn’t really own businesses. She had a thriving hair salon, and ran a successful household, and raised good children. It’s a hard balance. It really, really is. And you can see it come full circle. You can really see when she left here, because of all the little things women do that might have been let go a little bit after.”
In the crowded basement, Mike and Kara find boxes and boxes of G.I. Joes, Ninja Turtles, and other 80s-and-90s-era toys. Patricia’s son Chad, who is managing all this the best he can, tells me these are things his mother bought for the children of cash-strapped clients for birthdays, and Christmases, and just because. That’s the kind of woman she was: A giver.
Mike, an antique dealer/collector and live auctioneer who supports Kara by valuing and finding buyers for collector's items and by helping with the job’s most physically demanding aspects, says this work has him reflecting on his own life lately. Mike is wearing a Yankees cap and crouching with me in an attic that Chad and his father Philip turned into a sports memorabilia paradise. Mike lost his own father three years ago. Then, unexpectedly, he lost his brother. He says he’s started to think differently about mortality and what’s left behind when we go. “When you go back,” he says, “and you think ‘what would I want to remember them by?’ I’m simple. I wear my dad’s shorts or whatever just to remind me.”
Items that are considered valuable in life are often transformed by loss, Mike says, and I think about the things I hold closest to my heart: my grandfather’s reading reports, a polaroid my grandmother took of her front yard blanketed in snow, a plastic owl figurine the size of a thimble I played with as a child in my grandparents’ living room floor, a fossil that sat for years on my great uncle’s picnic table under the great walnut tree. These are valuable to me only.
On the first true day of the sale, the house on Virginia Avenue is transformed. The front porch is host to some of the sale’s larger items. The formal dining room is a love letter to nostalgia, practically bursting with baseball cards, Michael Jordan pennants, and at least one Jose Canseco wood carving. The coffee cups are out from their cupboards. And concrete Buddha and Jesus are ready to find homes in new hearts.
The place is teeming with people, many at retirement age, and it’s mostly respectful. (That’s not always the case at these sales. It can give you a jolt to see people grabbing and trampling with the face of eternity so nearby.)
Many of the patrons here have made estate selling a kind of regular social outing. These houses are gathering places for them, and they feel at home here. They’ve come from or are going to a sale across town that’s being hosted by Kara’s friends at Southern Belle’s Estate Sales & Liquidators. They know all their favorite (and least favorite) sellers by name.
A few of the women here say they are friends of the family, and they say that having something from this place as a memento is a kind of last tribute. I take home a bracelet with colorful stones mounted to silver hearts and a painting of the Blue Ridge Mountains in fall.
“I try to show people,” Kara says, “I try to represent them the way they were at their best.”
“We are all fighting time. I try not to think too much about it, because we can’t avoid it, and if you focus too much on it, it can hold your heart hostage.”
Kara takes my hand in hers and squeezes it.
“It really is what you leave behind.”