South Coast Auction in Santa Ana on a Wednesday night is no place for children.
"There's a lot of pushing and shoving," cautions auctioneer Billy Humphries. "It's action-packed. Leave the kids at home."
Humphries sounds as if he could be talking about mud wrestling, but the reason for his advice soon becomes evident.
As 6 p.m. approaches, more than 500 treasure hunters are jamming the three warehouse-size auction rooms at 2202 Main St.
A catering truck is set up for the night in the parking lot, and some people are balancing plates of rolled tacos on their knees or eating standing up.
Buyers must pay $100 in cash at the door to get a card that allows them to bid on items. The deposit goes toward a purchase; if they don't buy anything, the money is refunded. Auctioneers said they began the deposit system to discourage buyers from trying to back out of their deals.
Attendees quickly learn that a nod of the head is a binding contract, unless the auctioneer has somehow misrepresented the goods.
"Last week I said a TV was a year old," Humphries says, "but the guy who bought it said, 'Hey, this TV's 7 years old.' I made a mistake, so we took it back.
"But this isn't Sears. A lot of this stuff is used and sold 'as is.' The buyer has to inspect it before he buys. If he finds out later there's a problem, he has to be a big boy and take it."
In the room where Humphries is about to begin, all are hungrily eyeing the mountain of goods piled behind him. Oak dinettes, coffee tables, couches, bronze figurines, lamps, roll-top desks and china--even the crystal chandelier dangling from the rafters--will be getting new owners.
It's not exactly Christie's West--many of the used items up for bid would not qualify as art objects or even as collectibles--but the treasure hunters here are having a good time nonetheless.
South Coast Auction has been running its Wednesday sales weekly for 13 years at the Main Street site, formerly home to a lumberyard. As many as three or four auctions can be running simultaneously in the three warehouses or out in the auction yard. There is a total of 24,000 square feet in the three warehouses, and most of that space is crammed with stuff.
These are the leftovers of people's lives--of businesses and sometimes marriages that failed. Most of the office furniture is from companies that went belly up or remodeled. Some of the unused business equipment is from mail-order companies. You might see a 50-year-old filing cabinet next to a recent model still wrapped in plastic.
The stereo equipment, rugs, broken lamps and other things have often been abandoned in rental storage spaces or left for a landlord to dispose of. Buyers accept everything "as is."
Humphries gets rid of junk by lumping it together. One man, for example, made off with a lot consisting of a copper light fixture shaped like a wagon wheel, a pink polka-dot chair and a toilet. He paid $80.
Many auction houses are not interested in the kinds of things South Coast Auction will sell. "They think many of the things we sell are below their position in life," Humphries says.
Humphries and Les Taylor, who own South Coast Auction, call it California's largest weekly auction of general merchandise. Humphries says their closest competitor is Charlie's Auction in Whittier, which, he said, offers much of the same merchandise but on a smaller scale.
"There's nothing quite like us in the western United States," Humphries says. "Most auctioneers are amazed by us. It's kind of unusual to have three auctions going on at once."
On a typical night, the auctioneers will begin peddling "as is" appliances (in this case, ones that don't work) and miscellaneous other goods at 6 p.m.; office furniture and business equipment at 6:30; autos, machinery boats, "as is" TVs and stereos at 7; and working appliances, TVs and stereos, furniture and antiques at 7:30. With all the merchandise to be sold, it's not surprising that the auctions can sometimes run past midnight.
On a given night, Humphries says, they may ring up about $100,000 in sales. They describe their customers as bargain hunters, dealers of antique and used furniture and owners or representatives of businesses. Some of the things bought there, they say, will be shipped to other states or even other countries to be resold.
Steve Yanta is a regular. He has come every week for the past two years, he says, and he considers it the best auction around.
"Where else can you buy a used fire truck?" he asks. Indeed, a 1953 fire engine from Van Nuys sits in the lot awaiting auction.
"One time he had a whole boxing ring in here," Yanta added. "Nobody wanted it."
Minutes before the opening on this night, workers are still hauling couches and appliances into the warehouses, polishing pianos, assembling lamps and hammering broken table legs.
When the bidding begins at 6 p.m. for the office furniture and miscellaneous other goods, Humphries--a gray-haired fellow sporting a mustache and vest--stands atop a platform wielding a heavy mallet.
"Someone give me $10 for this nice desk," he says. "Ten dollars. Fifteen dollars. Fifteen. You're out. Sold for fifteen. Pull it outta here. It's history. Give me something else to bid. Move it." Humphries is talking nonstop.
A team of workers parades the goods before the crowd--vacuum cleaners, ironing boards, chairs, lamps.
"Who wants to ski?" Humphries asks, not missing a beat. "You wanna get rid of a kid? Here it is--ski boots and skis. Give me $20. Give me $20. Now $30. Thirty. Sold!" He slams down his gavel.
A half-finished painting goes for $8, a microwave oven for $10.
As soon as Humphries empties one corner of a warehouse, he goes to another, tackling another pile of things to be sold.
"I bought a beautiful Indian rug here," says Chris Kromer, who came with Yanta from Lake Elsinore.
"The one with the cigarette burn?" Yanta asks.
"Did it have a cigarette burn? I didn't see it," Kromer says, suddenly dejected.
Seasoned buyers know to inspect things thoroughly before they bid. Shrewd ones know how to make money on their purchases. Yanta looks for what he calls "sleepers"--things that few people realize are valuable.
He tells about the 300 yards of Spandex he bought for $175. "I can probably roll it over and make a lot of money," he said. "A fabric store will buy it, or a swimwear company."
None of the other bidders knew what to do with it, he said.
In another warehouse, auctioneer Kenneth Glasgow is making his way down a row of washing machines, a dozen handymen and junk hounds in his wake. He sells about 500 washers, dryers, refrigerators and stoves each Wednesday night, he says. Most don't work, he says, but for $20 a dealer can get a broken dryer that he can fix and resell at a profit.
Across the way, a third auctioneer is hawking TVs from a folding chair. Every one of the sets is sold, even those that were dead on arrival. These can be fixed or dismantled, their parts used to fix other TVs.
By 7:30 p.m., the items Humphries calls "the good stuff"--the antiques and the used furniture--are going up.
The crowd squeezes into the "Antique Gallery" before the bidding begins, heading for the orange vinyl chairs on the floor. Those who aren't quick enough perch on anything that doesn't move--pool tables, couches, tables, desktops.
Around 7:30, two men hold up a larger-than-life poster of Marilyn Monroe. The crowd whistles and hollers, and another round of bidding begins.
Kathy Schiada, who owns an antique shop in Anaheim, comes here regularly to buy for her store.
"I bought a wonderful pine dresser and sold it right away," Schiada said. "I can double the amount I paid here on some things.
"I've bought furniture for all my children too. It costs considerably less than if I'd bought the stuff new, and it's better made."
Prices can fluctuate wildly.
"How about $3,000 for this sideboard?" Humphries asks. It goes for $450. The chandelier fetches $525, a red Victorian hutch goes for $185, an antique phone brings in $120, a roll-top desk is sold for $550.
"Some things go for more than in the stores," noted Robert Quinlan of Santa Ana, a regular buyer.
"What happens is people come in here with their dates," Quinlan says. "They want to impress somebody. They get in a frenzy. They get to where they want to buy anything.
"I've seen lamps go for $50 each. You can buy them cheaper in a department store."
Quinlan says he sets a price limit for himself whenever he is thinking of bidding on something, but he admits that even he can get carried away. One night he decided to try to get a pool table for $550. By the time the gavel fell, he was paying $700.
"Fortunately, the woman who bid against me came up and offered me $50 if I'd let her buy the table," he said. "I made $50 for doing nothing."
Quinlan says he has made a hobby of picking up items at swap meets, then taking them to South Coast Auction to be resold. South Coast gets a 30% commission, Quinlan says, but he still comes out ahead.
"Last week I had three things that cost me less than $10 go for $45," he says. Lamps he buys for $1 at flea markets often fetch as much as $20 or even $30. "On the down side, I had a beautiful antique sofa that sold here for $65."
But there was the time he picked up a sofa at auction for $5, and the time he bought an antique record player and radio in a handsomely carved wood cabinet for $15.
"It was tucked behind the televisions, and when it went up for bid, there were only some repairmen hanging around," he said. "As soon as I bought it, someone came up to me and offered me $60 for it."
When Quinlan got it home, he discovered that the cabinet was full of vintage records and that the radio even worked--sort of.
"I can get Germany and France but not Los Angeles," he says.
Humphries says one of the appeals of an auction is that the buyer has a sense of control of what he or she is going to pay for something.
And the regulars at the auction say Humphries strikes a fair deal.
"He'll cut the bidding off if the price gets too high," Yanta says.