WENDELL — The crowd arrived early primed to hunt for bargains, milling about the entrance to Elizabeth’s Antiques before the auctioneer sold the first Chippendale chairs for $25 each.
Customers emerged throughout the day Saturday, bearing candelabra, divans, highboys, settees, goblets, andirons, timepieces and a hand-carved looking glass – among other artifacts – at a fraction of their value.
The proprietor, Elizabeth Henry, 97, passed much of the day in the store’s drafty back room, where she couldn’t hear the dollar values for her wares – going once, going twice …
“I haven’t the heart to go in and face it,” she said in a silky Old Southern drawl. “I would have never believed my business would have been lost like this.”
After 71 years in business, Henry said she is in talks to sell the building to a distillery that would produce Wendell’s own brand of gin and vodka, but the deal is not final.
Hopefully, that would lend the town the cachet to keep attracting visitors and shoppers – and an economic lifeline.
Wendell, just 20 miles east of Raleigh, is a small community, the kind where the mayor and town grandees still meet daily for breakfast at their regular “Table of Wisdom” at Aubrey’s Grill and assess the world from their vantage point on North Main Street.
On Saturday, Elizabeth Henry and her business partner, son Marshall Henry, 65, held a fire sale to unload their stock of porcelain, mahogany, brass, wicker and whatnot. They had tried to keep the business going by changing their hours from six days a week to just three, but they too often found themselves sitting alone in the dusty showroom.
Elizabeth Henry, who got into the antiques business at age 26, said she survived the Great Depression but couldn’t beat this economic downturn. Now, she was reduced to selling her inventory for as low as 10 cents on the dollar.
“Young people are not interested in older things,” she said. “Young people just don’t have the same values. They just want to pick up something at Wal-Mart.”
“In a way, she’s selling memories,” said Justin Williams, a regular customer who lives in Garner.
“When you look at that piece of furniture,” Williams said, motioning at an upholstered chair a few feet away, “that was not made in a factory; it was commissioned for someone’s wedding or for some special occasion.”
The auction was emceed by George Godwin, owner of Godwin’s Auction Gallery in Spring Hope. He turned bystanders into new owners in double-time, typically taking less than a minute for each sale.
“That’s authentic Wendell dust,” Godwin declared when introducing an English secretary desk. “Needs a screw on it.
“All the original knobs on this one, folks,” Godwin said of a step-back chest.
And of the china cabinet: “A bee-you-tiful piece of furniture that will enhance anyone’s living room, dining room or bathroom.”
His auctioneer, Richard Edwards, perched on a ladder and boomed through his AmpliVox portable speaker in a rapid-fire puree of vowels and consonants.
Edwards glided down the pricing scale and right back up again as soon as he secured his first bid.
“Who’ll give $500 bucks?” Edwards encouraged the crowd, as if leading a square dance. “$75 and let’s go; $50, and we all jump in.”
Sold, to the lucky lady in the back.