Estate Sales and Old Junk

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Yesterday I went to an estate sale in Morristown, NJ. I have begun going to these sales on the weekends, because I am either interested in buying random ephemera or I am simply bored.

To be honest, it’s hard to tell you exactly what I am hoping to find.

This particular sale was at the home of a man who ran a small recording studio out of his basement, garage and shed. It appeared, from looking at the detritus of what was left, that his main business was corporate clients; all throughout the basement studio, which featured not only a vocal booth but a live room as well, were CDs and tapes of sound libraries, many of which he had either made himself or was using to facilitate his process.

A lot of the clients were corporations that still exist today, television networks and movie studios, and clearly the man who had once owned the space had been successful.

He was said to be a professor, though that part of his life, the educator, didn’t really reveal itself. There was a desk and there were books, but it wasn’t the main attraction. Instead, what you saw was a series of hand-made radio devices, sound recording machines, big blocky metallic objects that looked like they had been made for a nuclear power plant in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

One of the items was a device for measuring decibels. You can do this now with your phone, in two seconds; this device, for what it was worth, had a microphone on it, and was at least fifteen pounds heavy, a foot wide and deep. To measure sound, you see, you would have had to hook this thing up, and it amounted to carrying a brick around with you. Primitive stuff.

As for myself, I purchased three Tascam DA-88’s. I didn’t exactly need these, but I had recently spoken to a friend who said he needed them to pull some audio from tapes he’d recorded with a legendary rapper in the 90'’s. Knowing the way people are, he’ll probably never claim them, but I took them anyway, because they were cheap — 150 total, for which I paid even less, considering the guy running the sale just wanted to get rid of them.

There was also a reel-to-reel machine, a Sony APR-5000. It cost $900, and I wanted to get it, but I felt that, given its size and the difficulty of working with analog tape, I wasn’t sure I’d use it. Years ago, when I was actually in the studio business, my partner and I acquired a reel-to-reel. We took it from a Manhattan studio that was closing, and it had been used on recordings by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and many others. We loved the idea of owning this little piece of history.

But when it was all said and done, the reel-to-reel just went into storage, trailing us around like keyboards, drum machines, mixing boards and so much other useless junk we had gotten. The thing with all this stuff was that it had been replaced by cheaper, more efficient technology. This technology was small and compact, it took what at one time was an hours-long process, requiring a million different devices, and all kinds of institutional know-how, and made it so that an average person could do it.

Even now, I sit and think about that reel-to-reel, wonder about how cool it would look in my home, in the basement, where one day I hope to have a studio built. Maybe that’s the centerpiece. Maybe I use it to record some things to tape, then dump back into the computer. But the kind of conversion you need for that to make sense, the sophistication in the audio chain; it’s really hard to imagine I’d ever use it. In the end, laziness takes over.

But I imagine, in his day, this guy who owned it was probably a very smart man. He was clearly someone who understood physics and advanced audio ideas, he was an engineer, not just a guy who pushed buttons. Back in the day, you had to be that kind of person to know how to to record music — it was the scientists who had all the advantages. And I guess, even today, that’s the case, only the engineers have changed; what they work with now is not big blocky machines but codes, and the software is made to mimic the analog gear.

Time had clearly passed by this guy and his studio. What a time it likely was though. It looked fun. It looked like he had worked with some interesting people, and it looked like he had a good life, even though now it was over. He had lived a whole life, collected all this stuff, done all these things, and when it had ended we had arrived to pour over it like the consumers we were, haggling over price and wondering if taking these things second-hand was “worth it.”

I had a similar thought last week, at another estate sale. The person whose home we were in was clearly a collector, he had so many different things — books, magazines, records, the works. The house sat on a hill that looked out at the Manhattan sky, and I thought of all the effort expended to account for this “stuff.” Now it was here and the house was flooded, people coming and going as they wondered aloud whether here anything was actually worth it.

And when the estate sale was over the contents of the home would be sent to second hand shops, priced accordingly, and sold to people like myself who were often too lazy to go to estate sales directly. The rest would be discarded, tossed into the dust bin of history, never to be looked at again. In each magazine, each book, each recording — heck, in each piece of furniture — there was, as far as I could see, a kind of labor, be it intellectual or physical, and what it amounted to, in the end, was simply nothing.

When it was all said and done, everything was just what it was — junk.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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