Tapestry of treasures at garage, vintage sale

Vancouver family’s decade-old sale a booming success for buyers and sellers alike

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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RIDGEFIELD — In the beginning was the word, and the word was “downsize.” And they saw that it was good.

That’s the genesis for the many vendors who have gone forth and multiplied over the past decade at the NW’s Largest Garage Sale & Vintage Sale, a massive gathering of mom-and-pop sellers held thrice a year at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.

“Too much stuff. We call it `the abyss,'” Susie Lewis of Beaverton, Ore., said.

“We just had so much stuff to get rid of,” Diane Sigler of Dallas, Ore., said. She and her husband, Jim, were simply dedicated downsizers of an overcrowded home when they booked a little space at the first experimental garage sale event staged by the Buffum family of Vancouver about a decade ago at the Expo Center in Portland.

The experiment was a success at every level. The Siglers “did so well we couldn’t believe it,” Diane said, and so did the Buffums’ fledgling business; today, the sale attracts hundreds of vendors — enough to fill the Event Center and spill over into a neighboring building, too — and the Siglers have four little sales kiosks in curio shops in and around Dallas, where they deal in used furniture and interior decorations.

“It’s really developed into a career,” Diane said.

Some vendors are in it to make fast cash — for example, the ones flipping the contents of abandoned storage lockers they’ve won at auction. “It means nothing to them personally,” sale founder David Buffum said. But others really get into the hobby, he said, developing savvy about buying and selling, somewhat for profit but mostly for fun.

Many are truly fascinated by the familiar-yet-strange stuff they sell. What’s this wooden cylinder with a ring of soft felt at one end and a lid fastened by a leather strap at the other? It’s an antique capsule that would have carried money and forms back and forth between bank customers and tellers in a pneumatic tube — long before plastic replaced elegance with utility.

And what’s this worn cutting board with a movable blade? Maybe it’s a cheese cutter. Unless it’s a digit amputator? Vendor Susie Lewis of Beaverton, Ore., wasn’t sure. “That’s the kind of oddball stuff I like,” she said. Lewis loves answering the endless question, “What is it?” with a line she stole from legendary antiques collector and author Bob Rau: “I hope it is what you think it is.”

Alongside Lewis, Travis Diskin was showing off jewelry that he’s repaired. “I rescue jewelry that’s on its way to the smelter,” he said. “Jewelry has always been my passion. I don’t know why. It’s the Smeagol in me. ‘My precious,'” he added — not half as creepily as the creepy Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” who loves nothing in the world but one special, shiny object.

Used and new

Stroll the Event Center and you could score deals on everything from vintage tools to tie-dyed T-shirts, comic books to coffee mugs, rusty farm equipment to velvet-lined furniture.

Not everything was used. A handful of vendors were offloading surplus merchandise or even selling handmade artworks like the metal signs, symbols and messages — words like “Love,” “Family” and “Welcome” — offered by Lynn Latendresse of Branded Custom Designs of Brush Prairie.

Latendresse said she too started out as a humble home downsizer with a sideline making metal art; over the years that’s turned into a bona fide business. “This is what people want,” she said.

Some do. But others pine for genuinely old things, said Kathi Hall of Roseburg, Ore. Hall and her husband, Rob, deal in antiques and “primitives” — stuff that isn’t technically antique but still shows off its impressive age. The Halls’ booth was a tasteful selection of stylish wooden boxes, carrying cases, glass jars, kitchen gadgets and more.

“Yes, I’ll take $20 for that,” Hall told a woman ogling a box marked at $25.

“You always do that dance,” Hall told The Columbian. “It’s part of the fun.”

Gary Sanders of Vancouver has created a unique niche: he scans, expands and then sharpens, pixel by pixel, the colorful and suspenseful book-cover paintings that used to tease young readers of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery adventures. Sanders frames and sells the final artworks — with credit to the original artists, who never really got their due, he said.

“Those books were very important to me, growing up,” he said. “Those stories provoked the imagination. You started dreaming about adventures.”