The first things Ron Brough looks for each Saturday at Main Auction in Boise are porcelain dolls to add to his 60-doll collection.
But Brough, who placed winning bids on two dozen items last Saturday — including two vacuums, antique backpacks, a TV stand, and, yes, four porcelain dolls — admitted he cannot resist a bargain.
“Most buy to resell, like on eBay,” Brough said. “I’m more of a hoarder. I buy to keep.”
That was around 11:30 a.m. — 90 minutes after two auctioneers began their prattles at each end of the auction house near the corner of Main and 29th streets. The temperature was in the 80s and rising.
An average of 500 auction-goers register each week to place bids, and the sparser morning crowd creates an opportune time for deal hunters, said Dennis Robinson, an auction regular.
“It’s all timing,” he said. “When it starts, everybody is half asleep and not really paying attention. You can get some incredible buys.”
Robinson, a 65-year-old retired general contractor, said he moved to Boise from California to get away from liberal politics. He comes to Main Auction each week to look for items to flip for a profit — he sold several tools at the Saturday auction — and to cherry pick bids on the best deals. Previous steals include a $10 like-new couch and love seat set that matched his home decor, and a $61 solid-oak dining room and bedroom set he said would retail for more than $5,000.
It’s something to do. People who sit and watch TV all the time when they retire fill up with cholesterol and die.
Retired general contractor Dennis Robinson
If you’re willing to invest the time to check out items during the week and come back for late bids — which sometimes go until midnight or later — the auction will reward you, Robinson said.
“People on average income, retired people, people on small budgets, you can pick up some incredibly nice stuff,” Robinson said.
Main Auction opened for business in Boise in 1937. Its founder, Paul Owens, sold the auction to a nephew, Robert Wesley, who sold it to his son, Danny Wesley, who ran it for 32 years.
In 2001, Robert Wesley’s nephew David Wesley Jr. joked to his uncle that he could do the work of a Main Auction employee for a lot less money. Three months later, “Junior,” as he’s known at the auction house, quit jobs working as a warehouse clerk for Associated Foods and an assistant manager at Idaho Pizza to work at the auction.
“It was kind of a tough one for me, taking a $2-an-hour pay cut with no benefits to come work for the family,” he said. “But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the people.”
In 2008, he bought the business. A fire in 2010 at a neighboring business, Eberlestock, damaged the Main Auction building, though it reopened a week later.
Main Auction takes a 25 percent cut of all sales. The owner declined to disclose total sales.
Like many of the auction regulars, Randy Buckley, a 64-year-old retired auto mechanic with a grayer version of Santa’s beard, comes in part for breakfast, sold at the walk-through kitchen. He worked on a farmer’s plate: a bed of hash browns topped with bacon and two fried eggs smothered in gravy and egg yolk as a binder.
Buckley bids when he thinks he can flip items for a buck or two on eBay. Some items, such as antique transistor radios, are reliable moneymakers, he said. Sometimes he buys boxes of stuff for a couple of bucks and finds gems. Other times, he strikes out.
“You might make $50 [flipping an item]. You might not make anything,” he said. “It’s better than putting two dollars into a slot machine.”
Business stayed fairly consistent throughout the recession, but buyer behavior changed. It went from collectibles and antiques to things they can use.
Main Auction owner David Wesley, Jr.
Buckley sat across from Ken Clark, a 74-year-old retired Boise schools custodian and an Army veteran. He came for breakfast and to drink coffee from a Styrofoam cup, paid for with a dollar in quarters, dimes and nickels.
2,500 Average number of sales each Saturday at Main Auction
6,000+ Items sold some weeks, accounting for multiple items in some sales
Clark said he bought lumber and building materials for a song when he added onto his nearby Boise home.
Showing up each week means he won’t miss a chance at an unusual or desirable item, he said.
“Sometimes, they sell old coins. Sometimes, they have a big box of funny books. I wouldn’t mind having some myself. I love the ‘Lone Ranger’ and some of the older comics, but you have to pay more money for them.”
Nothing piqued Clark’s interest Saturday. He stayed the morning for the conversation.
“My wife is working right now,” he said. “My son is sleeping at home. He stays up and plays video games. I come here to have somebody to talk to.”
Main Auction is also popular among antique dealers looking for inventory. One of them is Shirley Weaver, owner of Shabby Attic at 4544 Overland Road in Boise.
Weaver has checked the auction most weeks for the past 15 years for furniture. Several years ago, she bought an armoire for $120. After sanding and applying a fresh coat of paint, Weaver sold the piece for around $400, making for one of her most profitable renovations.
“Dinged-up is fine. That’s what I go for,” Weaver said. “If an antique is in really good shape, it would go for more than I wanted.”
The auction attracts a mostly older crowd, but young faces pepper it. Saturday’s crowd included 24-year-old Christi Avery, a therapeutic horseback instructor. She wore a cowgirl belt buckle.
Avery said she and her fiance, Chris King, have missed just one Saturday since they started coming to Main Auction two months ago in search of affordable building materials to remodel their Emmett home. They had purchased a refrigerator, tables, lighting fixtures and hardwood floor and deck materials. On Saturday, they eyed floor tiles.
King, a construction worker, finds other homes for materials the couple cannot use. He estimated they had saved $15,000 on materials by shopping at the auction.
“Things you can find at Home Depot for $17 a square [foot], we find here for $5 a box,” Avery said.
We get here at 10 and have stayed as late as 7:30. That's where the fun comes in. You are willing to wait for something you have your eye on, but then you see something four bays farther down.
Main Auction bidder Christi Avery
Avery also plays the resale game, posting items for sale on Craigslist, at garage sales and on her Facebook page. She said she always has a limit in mind for how high she will bid but sometimes gives in to excitement and bids more.
“You get competitive. That’s the real fun of the auction,” she said. “But no matter how high you go here, 99 percent of the time it’s 50 percent cheaper than in the store.”
Not always, said Wesley, the owner.
“I’ve seen a microwave in like-new condition go for 50 or 60 bucks when the exact one is on the shelf at Wal-Mart for $39,” he said. “But the next [item] might be worth $200 or $300, and I can’t get 20 bucks. It’s an average game.”
SEE YOU NEXT WEEK
The auction is a social circle, especially for the retirees, Wesley said.
“If somebody misses a Saturday, somebody’s on the phone calling John or Steve to see why they didn’t show up,” he said. “It’s a network thing. Everybody keeps an eye on each other.”
I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. I’d call it a hobby that I’m fortunate to make money at.
Karen Carrington, antique dealer and occasional Main Auction bidder
It’s a safe bet that Brough will be at Main Auction this Saturday. He arranged his treasures in a careful pile in an empty corner of the auction house.
Brough looked at the four porcelain dolls he bought for $4. He likes the clothing on several, saying it looks hand-stitched. He thinks the dolls were made in the 1970s, one of his favorite eras for dolls.
But the prize of the litter is a like-new doll in a frilly dress, a Princess Catherine collector’s model, complete with its original tag.
Brough bought some items for others, such as baseball bat for his nephew, a vacuum for his brother.
“I’ll give some things away,” he said. “The dolls, I’ll keep.”