Every Sunday morning, a Belfast woman wakes up at 4 a.m., grabs a cup of coffee and leaves her home in the dark for a 40-mile drive to Burnham. She is a member of a devoted community from around central Maine and as far away as New York and New Brunswick.
Eyes peeled for deer that can emerge from the darkness into the beams of her headlights, she weaves her way through Brooks and Unity on Route 139 until she reaches Horseback Road and the barns that house Houston-Brooks Auctioneers in Burnham.
“It’s my church,” she says of her weekly pilgrimage.
In truth it is her addiction. She loves the camaraderie, diversity and quirkiness that pervade the atmosphere, and she is continually amazed at the volume of stuff that moves through the place every week. Here she meets similarly addicted buyers who, like her, turn their purchases into profits in shops across Maine and Canada.
Hers is one of the first cars in the parking lot that will fill in the next two hours and overflow onto both sides of Horseback Road. It is 5 a.m. The auction begins at 7.
“I used to try to arrive by 6,” she said, “but if I get here before 5, I can get a better place to park.”
She lifts a folding wooden chair from the back of the car and schools her companion on one of the “unwritten rules” of the auction community: claiming a seat in the lower barn. “Just this once” she would like a chair for a guest. Permission is granted by another regular who generally arranges front-row seating for himself and friends.
Owned by Pam Brooks and Dan Brooks, Houston-Brooks Auctioneers was founded 40 years ago by Pam’s father, Everett “Junior” Houston, a native of Burnham.
He started auctioneering in Hartland, then bought the old grange hall in Burnham in 1970. He made many improvements on the site, but insisted on keeping it simple, with outdoor plumbing and no well. Pam and Dan helped him operate the business, and bought it in 1986. They continued to make improvements, installed indoor plumbing and built a second barn in the 1990s.
Since then it has “just kept gaining and gaining” and “the crowds get bigger and bigger,” Pam Brooks said in an interview.
“We are unusual in what we handle,” she said, explaining they sell everything from mediocre, low-end items to those that bring hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars each week. “We have built a following of dealers looking for all grades of merchandise,” she said.
Between 50 and 100 consignors regularly bring goods from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, as well as Maine.
“They arrive with everything from one item to a 24-foot truck,” Brooks said, adding that sellers (technically “consignors”) must book ahead to make a delivery.
In the summer, Houston-Brooks will sell between 1,300 and 1,500 items every week to crowds of about 200 dealers, collectors and casual buyers. The number drops to about 1,000 in the winter. About 55 consignors had delivered lots for the November 22 auction.
The two auctioneers are a synchronized team that quickly establishes momentum for the daylong auction that begins outside between an upper barn and a lower barn. Dan mounts a kitchen step stool for better visibility of the crowd, and bidders follow the auctioneers from place to place.
A rapid procession of runners holds up one item after another, while Pam keeps a record of every purchase, writing on a movable table supported by a single leg. Runners carry the purchases quickly to piles in the parking lot and mark them in chalk with the buyers’ numbers.
“Dan has extreme stamina,” Pam said, adding that her task is to “write fast.” As items are sold, she records the lot number, item, buyer number and price.
Regular buyers don’t even display their number cards for successful bids. Dan knows the familiar faces and just identifies them by name or, for those who always have the same number, by number. A jovial rivalry punctuates the bidding among people who know what to expect of each other and who make a sport of the competition for some items.
The bidding moves from the yard to the lower barn filled with furniture and an array of other items in boxes and hanging on the walls — from snowshoes and dishes to tin signs and novelties, like a framed University of Maine hockey jersey. The final site is the upper barn containing smaller items (some quite valuable): artwork, jewelry, china and on this particular Sunday an enormous collection of dolls.
Dan may start the bidding at $10. Into the silence that follows he shouts, “Ten dollars, five dollars, one dollar.” Hands go up. “One to two. One to two. One to two, I have two. Do I have three?” and the bidding continues, often to a final price well above the initial $10. If silence follows a call for $1, Dan says simply, “Can’t sell it.”
But there is not much Houston-Brooks can’t sell. Consignors, including dealers and other auctioneers, from as far south as Rhode Island haul what they can’t sell up to Burnham. The business also receives consignments from the general public — people seeking to sell an estate or collection or just clean out the attic or garage. Every item receives a lot number identifying the seller.
Buyers who can’t attend an auction may leave bids during the week for items they want, which are then flagged with red stickers, indicating an absentee bid has been offered. If no one bids higher, the absentee bid wins.
The auction lasts from dawn till dark every Sunday. Then Pam processes all the transactions. By the time she goes to bed Sunday night, she has written all the checks and stamped the envelopes for mailing to the consignors Monday morning. The efficiency and the organization of the Houston-Brooks team justifies the distances some consignors will travel to deliver goods. They know the items will sell and they know they will get paid — promptly.
Monday morning the halls are empty, except for a few things people may have delivered after the auction Sunday. Monday and Tuesday are the busy days, when two additional workers come in just to help unload items.
Wednesday is ad day, when Pam writes advertisements listing all the week’s items for their Web site and for the daily newspapers. They are closed Thursday and open again Friday and Saturday for people to view the rows and rows of neatly sorted discards from households, garages, workshops and construction projects, as well as other auction houses, that now fill the buildings and grounds.
After the full day Sunday, the team starts the routine all over again, “Just like a little gerbil on a wheel.”
“It’s a social place,” Brooks said, identifying one reason the Belfast woman rises at 4 a.m. and drives in the dark to her “church” every week. Not only does she enjoy the people, but “I look forward to that egg and cheese sandwich all week long.”
She greets other regulars and asks about family members, as they gather around the snack bar maintained by Robin, Hattie and Kayla. She spots another shop owner who routinely covets the same items she does during bidding. She leads him to her car, lifts the hatchback and presents him with a special gift, symbolic of their rivalry. Her gesture is an example of the sense of humor she appreciates in the relationships that grow from week to week.
“People enjoy themselves,” Brooks observed. “It’s a family place. I see a lot of these people more often than I see my own relatives.”