Making a Bid

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on December 24, 2000

If your shopping list includes a bedstead like grandma had, a box of buttons, and tractor parts, you’re likely to find them at a country auction. Entertaining and seldom dull, auctions are alive and well in small towns all over the Northeast.

A prime example is Roger Chesley’s in Corinth, Maine, (pop. 2,400) about 40 miles northeast of Bangor. Many Saturday nights it’s standing room only as hundreds cram into Chesley’s to bid on everything from firkins (wooden butter tubs) to furniture. And they’re not all locals; license plates on cars in the parking lot reflect many out-of-staters. “They know they have three auctions every weekend,” Chesley says, referring to two others on Friday and Sunday about 40 minutes away, further proof of auctions’ popularity.

Dressers, cabinets, paintings, glassware, sporting goods, old advertisements, all go on the block. Chesley’s hall opens at 4 p.m. and the auction begins at 6, giving patrons time to examine merchandise. One of Chesley’s rules suggests you bid on nothing you haven’t looked at first.

Prices don’t go below $5 and, Chesley laughs, “will go as high as you want.” He describes as “pretty exciting” one big estate sale. “Some dressers made in Italy went for $15,000, $16,000 apiece.” But such high-priced objects are not the norm. “We sell a lot of pine, oak, and mahogany furniture, lots of country items, old cupboards, kitchenware, toys, things like that.”

Chesley describes each item up for bid and a helper holds it up. “Someone give me $100 for this table,” he’ll announce, then lower the price”$75, $50, $25″until the cards start popping up. When Chesley says “Sold,” an assistant records the purchase, charging it to the winning number. He doesn’t have time to say going, going … gone. “We sell 800-900 items,” he says, “so we have to go fast.” At the end of the evening, customers pay the cashier.

Other auctions differ, but Chesley uses a 10 percent charge on sales; bid $100, pay $110. Leave the plastic home; payment is by cash or check. Rarely does a check bounce. “If it happens, they call me right up and say they’ll make good.” Many buyers are dealers who resell items in their shops. “If they didn’t come,” says Chesley, “I don’t think auctions could run around the country.” But auctions also serve as entertainment.

“Everyone is looking for a treasure,” says one man from Bangor, “but it’s also a good Saturday night out.” Another likens not going to Chesley’s to “missing church on Sunday.”

Dave and Cecilia Maney, Rhode Islanders who always vacation in the area, go to shop and have fun. “Over the years, we’ve purchased furniture, tools, and paintings, and we enjoy participating, watching the people and Roger.”

Part of the attraction is Chesley’s friendliness he knows and jokes with customersand a sense of humor. A newspaper hanging on a wall bears the mock headline, “Roger Chesley sells wife along with other antiques.” But he certainly wouldn’t part with Jean. “She’s the main person, checks in the people, keeps the books, and she’s a computer whiz.” Chesley’s is a family affair; his three daughters and two grandchildren also assist.

Chesley began his auctioneering while employed in the produce businessrising at 3 a.m.deciding there had to be a better way. That turned out to be running auctions. The going was rough, but eventually it became his livelihood, which he expects will continue. “If you have nice goods, they’ll be there.”

He’s observed a few changes since he began. “Some customers want to get in, get what they want, and get out. Used to be they’d sit the whole evening; now everyone’s in a hurry.” He’s occasionally surprised at what people buy. “Toys surprise me a lot. Sold some for $2,000, $3,000. But I’m also disappointed sometimes at what an item brings,” he laughs. “It’s a two-way street, but that keeps it interesting.”

Chesley, who often works seven days a week, has been an auctioneer for 21 years. “I’m in it for the long run,” he says contentedly.

Do I hear 22?