Thursday nights are the new Saturday nights in Maugerville, NB, where people gather to act out a ritual dance at an auctioneer's warehouse-all with the hope of going home lucky.
Early one evening in late summer, just as the mosquitoes begin rising from marshes along the banks of the St. John River, we park our cars and pickups six rows deep in the dirt lot, two deep on the lawn, and shoulder to shoulder all the way out to the highway. We have come from points up and down the valley to a warehouse in the community of Maugerville, on the outskirts of Fredericton, to take part in what has become a weekly ritual in these parts: Mark Sloat's Thursday night public auction.
There's a buzz of excitement in the air - we're all here on a treasure hunt of sorts. Most of us don't know exactly what we're looking for, but we have faith the auction will help us find it.
Inside, the set up is always the same: stacking chairs in rows in the centre; hotdogs, hamburgers, doughnuts, tea and coffee in the canteen at the back. The regulars sit in the front; women are knitting on their laps, men snacking from their lunch boxes. At the counter by the door Cheryl Edney, Sloat's longtime colleague, hands out the catalogue sheet and yellow numbered bidding cards.
Serious bidders find seats in the back rows, stand on the sides, or roam the room restlessly, inspecting various lots, taking care not to draw attention to the items they want to buy. In fact, they often inspect with greatest care the items they are least interested in buying. I am not a serious bidder, although I would like to be, so I join the restless set on an inspection tour, trying not to look too interested in the L.L. Bean fly rod I find leaning against the back wall.
My problem as a bidder has been hesitation in the heat of the moment. Hesitate even for half a second and rival bidders stay in too long, thinking your resolve is weak. On this night, however, I have a wily veteran beside me. For Patricia Williams, the auction is her "Saturday night out." She is here almost every week, moving through the crowd in a floppy, broad-brimmed hat. She has a table at the Sunday flea market in Fredericton and is a bargain hunter, hoping to find someone else's treasure.
"If it's sold here, it's not forgotten," she says. "Here, somebody else gets to take it home and enjoy it."
Williams knows that hesitation is my Achilles heel. Acting as my coach, she tells me to get a number in my head, bid hard till I reach it and then get out. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be.
Shortly before 6 p.m., Mark Sloat enters the room and begins working the crowd, chatting with the regulars, welcoming newcomers. He is 44 years old, has short brown hair and is dressed casually in khakis and a golf shirt. His ancient form of commerce is a remarkably efficient way of buying and selling-he completes about 100 sales an hour. There are no returns. It's up to the buyers to inspect items before bidding, although Sloat is careful to point out the cabinet door that sticks, the old kitchen table "with some age on it" that needs refinishing.
Along with its efficiency, the auction is as honest as the day is long. The people who assemble on any given evening determine the market value of each item. Over time we find great buys, and sometimes pay too much for things we really want. Our house is filled with items of both kinds: we have a Leonardo daVinci reproduction in an old ornate frame that I bought for $175; we also have a $15 "like new" recliner in the living room.
There are many fine auctioneers in eastern Canada and New England, but few stage a weekly general sale. Sloat auctions cars, farm equipment, antiques, art, china and collectables, and that's often just in the first hour. The event draws together people from all walks of life: antique dealers and farmers, art collectors and flea market vendors, book collectors and tradesmen. For a time, we are all dancing together to the auctioneer's song.
On this evening, there are 419 lots, arranged in order around the front and sides of the room. On one side I find fuel cans and light bulbs, fishing flies and a motorcycle pocket watch, Royal Doulton figurines and baseball cards, a Maytag washer and Husqvarna chainsaw.
Along the front toward the auctioneer's podium there's a blueberry rake, a coil of rope and a church pew, a broad axe and trumpet, a Hardy Perfect fly reel and a history of the Miramichi Fish and Game Club.
Down the other side I find a cheque writer and a washstand, a bear trap and two Boy Scout hats, an old highback rocker and a new La-Z-Boy recliner, a Cornwall ornate pump organ and a Crown Staffordshire pedestal cake plate - and an L.L. Bean fly rod and case.
If you can't find something you could use in this room, you need to check your pulse.
At 6 p.m., Sloat turns on his microphone, welcomes the crowd and lays out the rules: it's an unreserved auction and therefore everything will be sold; all items must be removed from the building by noon the following day. He will perform for the next four hours without a break, and he will hold this crowd's attention with his voice that he trained when he quit his managerial day job at Zellers to attend the Southwestern Ontario School of Auctioneering.
After graduation, he worked full-time for Cameron Industrial Inc., a company specializing in industrial auctions. In 1993, Cameron started holding weekly auctions as a way to generate cash flow between industrial sales and four years later, Sloat bought the company. Now, the weekly auctions are his main business. In recent months he has landed some of the most valuable estate sales in New Brunswick, selling fine original art and antiques for tens of thousands of dollars, taking international bids on the phone.
Sloat launches into his cadence, "OK, here we go, item number one, a box of ceramic figures, lots of good pieces in there, what do you say, $20 for the little box of ceramic, 20, 20, 20, $10 for the box. . ."
"You want to get a sort of a beat going," Sloat says. "You're singing but you're not singing. This helps create some excitement in the room.
Trevor Smith is standing to the right of the podium. He operates a small antique shop and the auction is his main source of inventory. He says the sound of Sloat's voice is the draw. I look down the front row. People are tapping their toes to the rhythm.
"What do you say, $10, we've got 10, now 15, we've got 15 in three places, you're all out, 20. . ."
Smith would rather come here than go to the movies. "Every week there's something exciting," he says. Last week he purchased a "box of miscellaneous," a favourite buy for bargain hunters. He bought the box for a china teacup that turned out to be cracked. But when he dug to the bottom he found a new portable vacuum cleaner and a salad chopper.
"It happens regularly," Smith says. "It's the story of auctions."
Sloat is hitting his stride. The items are arranged so that the first are just warm-up sales to get the audience used to the sound of his voice. The most valuable pieces are sold in the middle of the evening, the bargains at the end. It's all about energy and pace, and the standard auctioneer jokes.
On a cracked porcelain mixing bowl: "A nice item for a high shelf."
On an end table with a cracked leg: "Good from afar, but far from good."
On the commode: "You'll need that. It's a long drive home."
Sloat works the room with his voice, eyes-and intuition. Serious bidders communicate with him using almost imperceptible nods and shakes of the head.
"Once you've been doing it long enough, you can be looking in the totally opposite direction, you can feel it in the air and you turn around and make eye contact with someone and know they want to bid," he says.
Gary Price and Roy Bowmaster are standing on opposite sides of the room, picking up items without breaking a sweat. Price, 58, a retired CP rail conductor, and Bowmaster, 73, a retired cattle rancher and heavy equipment operator, are best friends.
Early that morning they loaded Price's 1985 Chevrolet pickup with its black and white camper and drove the back roads from Perth Andover to Fredericton, a three-and-a-half-hour drive south through the river valley if you're in a hurry, which they weren't.
"There's some beautiful communities along the back roads," Price says. "Today was perfect." A light breeze was blowing when they parked underneath a stand of sugar maples. They broke out the camp stove and fried steak, mushrooms, potatoes; they boiled tea and had doughnuts for dessert. They arrived in Maugerville about 4:30 p.m., with lots of time to inspect the items and boil another pot of tea on the tailgate.
"You never know what you're going to see," Bowmaster says. "He's a real good auctioneer. If it calls for a joke, he puts it in there."
"He's one of the best," says Price. "I've been going to auctions all my life on both sides of the border. I've never seen an auctioneer like Mark."
During the course of the evening they purchase an old lariat that was once used for roping cattle ($35), a set of cast iron corn bread pans ($15), some hand-painted dishes ($10) and two old wood planes that were once used to make moulding ($20).
Outside the big bay door, Tim MacAfee is sitting with friends on handmade wooden lawn furniture (it will sell later in the evening), eating hotdogs and drinking coffee. He collects pottery, old stoneware and earthenware. "We're all custodians of things" he says. "We'll pass them on to the next generation. We are doing a service to society." The group on the bench laughs.
Late in the evening, I move on the L.L. Bean fly rod I've been watching. I put the number $50 in my head. Patricia Williams tells me to get into the bidding at about half that number. Start too low and I'll bring too much company along for the ride. Bidding is competitive and some people buy things at auctions they never intended to buy (we've all done this), getting in at the bargain level and then forgetting to drop out.
I'm in at $25. I make good eye contact with Sloat. No hesitation this time. And then about a minute later I'm the owner of the rod, for $55, plus tax and a 10 per cent buyer's fee.
Half an hour later, the last item sells and the curtain falls. In the parking lot, Price and Bowmaster are loading the old truck for the trip back up the river valley. MacAfee is walking out to his car with an armload of bread pans, an electric griddle and a stoneware crock. Another man is carrying an old cream can and a bag of golf clubs.
Every week little pieces of Atlantic Canadian history are dispersed back into the community. These are all local estates that are being auctioned off and, rather than the collections being trucked off to another part of the country, they remain in the community. Each piece has a story, and there's a sense that the auction of an estate is the beginning of a new chapter instead of an ending.
I toss my new fly rod into the back seat, ease the car off the grass and turn onto the highway. The city lights reflect off the river as the auction dancers drift off into the darkness of the night.