Arts & Culture » Culture

Do I Hear $100?

The Main Auction is a slice of Idaho life

by

Inside a converted warehouse on the corner of Whitewater Boulevard and Main Street, among thousands of objects, from lumber and rusting bicycles to boxes of Beanie Babies and John Wayne collectible plates, is where Iraq war veteran John Greene goes to get his fix.

"It's an adrenaline rush for me," said Greene, a tall man with a shaved head, cradling his therapy dog--a shaky Dachshund named Coco--in his arms. "Once you get hooked on adrenaline like us military guys, you have that need for it. You have to find something that's going to feed the excitement."

Greene found his adrenaline outlet in the Main Auction, where for most Saturdays over almost 10 years he has bid on, well, whatever: tools, car parts, tables, antique military items.

"Doors upon doors upon doors," his wife, Lurinda, added. John is still trying to find the perfect one for his shed at home.

"My nightmare started in 2005," Lurinda said with a laugh and a glance at her husband.

That's when John came back from his second deployment in Iraq and discovered the auction. He burned through two credit cards, so now Lurinda comes with him every week, watching him and the checkbook closely.

"Beating someone else out of an item is a thrill," John said.

"I watched him do that at a landscaping auction, and I had no idea. We ended up going home with seven pallets of landscape rock," Lurinda said. "Those sat out in front of my house for over a year."

The Greenes arrived at the auction last Saturday morning and waited around until 1:30 p.m. for a Ford Bronco they wanted for their son. They got it for $1,500.

Like John Greene, a lot of the folks milling around the Main Auction on Saturday never miss a week. David Wesely Jr. took over the Main Auction from his uncle in 2008, becoming the fourth generation of his family to own the auction. It has been passed down in the Wesely family since it first opened in 1938.

Wesely doesn't want to be the "neighborhood junk auction"--he wants to build the Main Auction to where it could handle something like the Velma Morrison estate. And for his 11-year-old son to take over someday.

For now, Wesely sees about 1,000 people come through every Saturday, and he sells close to 3,000 items a week, taking a 25 percent commission on most things. Anything that doesn't sell goes to the landfill. But with a 95 percent sell rate, that isn't much.

Wesely puts on his fedora and opens the auction at 10 a.m. every Saturday, then he and three other auctioneers trade off selling more than 100 items an hour in a whirl of fast-talking, tongue-rolling, bid-calling chants.

Over the years, Wesely has seen some strange stuff come across his auction cart. A hospital once dropped off attachments to an MRI. A hotel brought all its old furniture; stacks of duplicate armchairs piled on each other, next to piles of identical, cliche wall art. Another time, he pulled out a bag full of formaldehyde. Floating inside it: a house cat.

"It was supposed to go to a school for dissection research," Wesely said. "Oh, it was disgusting. It was horrible. But we sold it. And that's the deal. If we take it, we sell it."

Wesely's earliest memories include helping his family run the auction, but he fell in love with bidding, too. A few years back, he bought an old machine that would stamp a person's name onto a rewards card and create a barcode. He wasn't sure what it was for, but it only cost 25 cents and it seemed too nice to throw away. He put it up on eBay and it sold for $1,434.

"For three months, I couldn't buy a thing because every time I raised my hand, the auctioneers would say, 'Hey, this might be another one of those thousand-dollar deals Junior's looking at,'" Wesely said.

Many of Wesely's bidders come for that same reason. They buy, fix up and resell anything. Dennis Robinson has only missed one Saturday in two-and-a-half years. He arrives around 9 a.m., scopes it out and stays until every object has sold, which could be as late as 3 a.m. Robinson wins bids on about 20 objects a week, fixes them up and sells them on Craigslist. He particularly likes to buy fans and air conditioners when they're cheapest in September, clean them up and sell them again in the first hot week of summer.

"I buy anything I can make a dollar on," Robinson said, going on to talk about profit, taxes, commissions and percentages. "It's better than sitting at home and getting fat."

The auction attracts all kinds of people: farmers, school teachers, women in blazers, immigrants, tatted-up 20-somethings. Middle-school teacher John Socia has been going to the auction since he was 23 years old and put it best: "This is a slice of Idaho life."

Reading the crowd and deciding how much they'll bid on something is an artform, according to auctioneer Byron Healy. He's been an auctioneer for 15 years and owns two auction houses in Nampa and Ontario. He spends every Saturday "shuffling" items off the Main Auction platforms and into buyer's hands.

"I can see it in their eyes, in their faces. They're waiting for that number. I know they're going to hit it before they even bid," Healy said.

The first time he heard an auctioneer, Healy knew that's what he wanted to do. He got a job with an auction company and begged the owner to teach him to auction.

"[The owner] said, 'Go down the road counting phone poles: I got one. I got two. I got three,'" Healy recalled.

Once he could do that, his boss told him to count the trees and the mailboxes. When he could count at 75 mph, he was ready.

Despite the long hours, Healy loves his job more than any work he's ever done, even when he has to auction something weird, like a box of sex toys. But there's another side of it, too.

"The saddest thing about this job is, a lot of it is people making money, but a lot of it is people down on their luck," Healy said. "They've lost their homes, they've got nowhere to go. They've got no money so they've got to sell everything they own."

But the Main Auction is most like a community, where people see their friends and eat a breakfast of bacon and eggs together from the little kitchen tucked in the warehouse. When there's a lull, auctioneers fill the silence with jokes and by calling out bidders by name.

Even though the Greenes got their Ford Bronco nearly 10 hours earlier, they hung out at the auction late into the night. They sat, talked and watched items go by, resisting the urge to bid on anything more.