No Such Thing as Junk
EARLY on a Sunday morning in March, a crowd of people hovered anxiously outside a modest Long Island home in Floral Park. A few of them had been there since before daylight — one since 3 a.m. — alternately dozing, pacing and peering through the windows of the house. By 9, those closest to the front door were starting to pound on it. Finally, the door opened a crack, and Mona Scavo, a tall woman with blond highlights, looked out at the crowd. “O.K., we’re going to stay calm, right?” she said in the friendly but firm tone of a kindergarten teacher. Ms. Scavo was there to run a tag sale, and it was clear she didn’t want any trouble. Her customers have been known to shove their way through the front door as soon as it opens; on one occasion, a dispute between a few of them brought half a dozen police cars to the scene.
Along with baseball, taxes and tulips, spring brings the start of prime tag sale season in suburbia. It’s the busiest time of year for serious collectors and sellers, and for entrepreneurs like Ms. Scavo — women and men, but mostly women, who supervise not just the sales but every stage of clearing out a house in preparation for its sale.
Around the country, wherever there are houses with old things — and especially in densely populated suburban regions like Long Island — these professionals act as matchmakers, finding eager buyers to scoop up every last piece of bric-a-brac, as well as grief counselors who help family members part with their loved ones’ possessions.
Tag sales, which came into vogue in the ’70s, have never generated more revenue than they do now, according to Helaine Fendelman, the former president of the Appraisers Association of America. “These days everyone and their mother is having a tag sale,” she said. “Everybody wants to cash in.” As for the people who run the sales, she said, “New names crop up every week.”
Ms. Fendelman, who is based in New York City, estimates that there are probably 20 such professionals on Long Island alone. But few are as busy as Ms. Scavo, the founder of Junkbuster. (“Don’t let the name throw you,” said Ms. Scavo, who has lived on Long Island for most of her 49 years, and has the accent to prove it. “No one thinks their stuff is junk, so I’m changing the name to Tag Sales by Mona.”)
Ms. Scavo, who has been in business for 11 years, has gathered speed in the last five or six, overseeing a staff of six sales people, and running as many as four sales a week in the spring and summer. (Most of her competitors max out at three, and only on rare occasions.)
Some of Ms. Scavo’s sales happen at high-end properties in Locust Valley, others in middle class homes in Levittown. “I think she’s the most professional I’ve encountered,” said Camille Pisciotto, owner of Great Neck Realty, who estimates that she has recommended Ms. Scavo to 50 clients in the last five years. “Other people who run tag sales can be really snooty — they sort of pick over your things, turn their noses up. Mona takes everything.”
And that means everything. In preparation for a weekend sale, which lasts one or two days, depending on the value and amount of the contents, Ms. Scavo typically asks homeowners to remove anything from the house that they might want. After that, it’s all up for grabs, from the dining room credenza to the kitchen’s half-used bottles of spices. “I tell my clients, don’t throw anything away,” she said. “You never know what people will buy. I once had a lady buy a used shower cap.”
A few days before the sale, she will start calling her regulars — her china guy, or her quality antiques guy, or her vintage hat lady — if she thinks there is something that would make their trip worthwhile. Once the sale is under way, if some goods aren’t moving, she starts working the phone. “You’ve got to get over here, there’s some stuff you wouldn’t believe,” she will tell dealers; more often than not, she said, they show up.
When the sale is over, Ms. Scavo brings in a charity to haul out anything left of value, which gives the client a tax deduction. Then she sends in her clean-out crew, charging anywhere from $600 to $3,000 for their services. Although her competitors will also bring in a clean-out crew if asked, Ms. Scavo makes it a central part of her business.
“Mona is the clean-out queen,” said Ann Peggy Carillo, an associate broker with Prudential Douglas Elliman in Locust Valley.
As odd as it might be to have strangers haggling over beloved mementos, some say it’s a relief to have someone else take the whole thing off their hands.
Dimitri Gedda, a 30-year-old Manhattanite, couldn’t bring himself to undertake the onerous task of emptying the contents of his mother’s Great Neck apartment. “It was too draining,” he said
The Salvation Army balked at lugging the furniture down seven flights of stairs; he contacted a Manhattan moving company, but it said it wasn’t a service it provided. His real estate agent finally put him in touch with Ms. Scavo, who didn’t run a sale, but within hours of arriving at his home had called in individual dealers for his mother’s Meissen china, his father’s record collection and some of the older furniture. The goods he couldn’t pay someone to take away ended up grossing some $15,000, which astounded Mr. Gedda. “I didn’t even know any of it was nice,” he said.
Ms. Scavo’s own life experience has prepared her for the delicate task of working with people who, like Mr. Gedda, are trying to cope with grief as they settle the estate of a parent or downsize after losing a partner. She started working in tag sales when her husband, Joseph, a contractor who ran a side business cleaning out homes, had a heart attack at 37. He was too ill to continue his contracting business, so he and Ms. Scavo began running a tag sale out of their driveway, selling items from Mr. Scavo’s clean-out jobs. Seven months later, he died, leaving Ms. Scavo to support their two sons, at which point she took over his clean-out service and started running other people’s sales.
Her approach to the sales is a little different from that of her competitors, many of whom spend days or even weeks putting price stickers on every compact mirror and bed sheet, staging the furniture, maybe even bringing in a rug to dress up a bare-looking room. They usually won’t accept a sale unless they think it will bring in at least $10,000 (a commission is typically 25 or 30 percent), whereas Ms. Scavo, who spends less time on preparation and holds more sales, may require a minimum as low as $3,000 or $4,000.
“Oftentimes, Mona takes the sales that no one else will,” said Carol Goodman, who also runs tag sales on Long Island, with a hint of dismissiveness in her voice.
Rather than pricing individual items, she prefers to eyeball the goods, eyeball the buyer, and come up with a number based on a calculation involving known value, intuition and the time of day. And rather than elegantly folding every tablecloth, she is likely to leave them in a pile on the floor, or even in the closet where she found them.
“It’s chaos, but a good chaos,” said Susan Young, a co-founder of Redo Tag Sales on Long Island. “People are going to Mona’s sales for an experience.”
For those who have the patience, Ms. Scavo’s quick and dirty approach — particularly her inclination to leave the excavation to the customer — only adds to the sport. “Sometimes her sales are more interesting,” said Vincent DeSimone, a driver for The New York Post and a collector of 19th-century Americana, some of which he sells at flea markets. “What everybody says about Mona’s sales is, you know you’re going to dig.”
At the sale in Floral Park, one woman, an eBay “power seller” who deals mostly in vintage clothing and jewelry, uncovered a perfectly preserved ’50s-era pink linen dress with a matching beaded cardigan, as well as a bias-cut brown dress from the 1930s. She piled them, along with a few more dresses and a bucketful of costume jewelry, including a highly collectible Bakelite bracelet, into a heap and left in less than an hour, paying $175 for the lot.
Mr. DeSimone spent a good hour and a half opening closets and pulling out drawers. On the floor in a bedroom he found a 45-star American flag, vintage 1896-1908. In an old chest of drawers under the stairway was a papier-mâché Halloween skeleton from the 1920s, the sort of item popular among collectors of holiday memorabilia, as is the turn-of-the-last-century German feather Christmas tree he spotted among cheaper knockoffs in the basement. The cost of those items, plus a few others: $100.
Ms. Scavo, who said she is more interested in emptying the house than in arguing over every $35 increment, ends many haggling sessions with the line, “Take it, it’s gone, goodbye.”
Three years ago, at a Great Neck tag sale Ms. Scavo was running on a snowy day, Mr. DeSimone wandered into a garage sale and found eight Hitchcock-style dining room chairs from the 1830s, for which he paid about $100, a price he could probably command in some markets for each of the individual chairs.
Ms. Scavo said she does research, but that inevitably, some items slip by her. Besides, she is cultivating return customers. “The whole idea is that the homeowner has to make some money,” she explained, “but so do the people who are buying the stuff. The whole point is that it’s fun — you’re going to get that deal, or whoever buys what they buy is going to love what they got because they got a score.”
For many of Ms. Scavo’s regulars — the eBay resellers, the pickers (who sell their finds to other dealers or designers and decorators) and the obsessive collectors — the sales are indeed fun, but also cutthroat. As they do throughout the region, dealers who come to her events have been known to hire sleepers, who arrive as early as two nights before to reserve the first spots in line.
It has become customary for the first person in line to keep track of who arrives afterward and in what order, passing out numbers from a torn-out calendar, 1 through 31 (after the first 31 buyers, the best goods are usually gone). Occasionally, two sets of numbers start circulating and shoving matches ensue. “They fight over the numbers,” Ms. Scavo said. “It’s a terrible thing.”
A few weeks after the Floral Park sale, at a historic shingle-style house in Garden City, Ms. Scavo greeted her regulars like family. “Where you been, how you been?” she asked one collector, a man with his shirt unbuttoned to his waist. She approached another to offer condolences about his brother, who had recently died; she asked another how her knee surgery was healing.
First in line that day were Brian Nilsen and his wife, Nikki, who make their living reselling tag sale finds on eBay, and had arrived at around 2 a.m. They had come for the tin toys they had seen advertised on Ms. Scavo’s Web site (tagsalesbymona.com), including a highly collectible early-20th-century Ferris wheel. They ultimately passed on the Ferris wheel, unwilling to pay the $200 Ms. Scavo was asking. An hour and a half later, when the Ferris wheel still hadn’t moved, Ms. Scavo sold it for $150 to Bonnie Steinbach, who lived nearby, for her son’s bedroom. “It’s decorated with antique toys,” Ms. Steinbach explained, holding her 7-year-old son’s hand. “Oh yeah?” Ms. Scavo said to the son. “I’m going to give you my card.” He took it and left with his mother.
Easy come, easy go. The Nilsens will be back for Ms. Scavo’s next sale, they said, partly because they never know what they will find. About three years ago, they opened a burlap bag in a closet at a house in Hewlett where Ms. Scavo was running a sale, and inside was a pile of human bones. So what did Ms. Scavo do? What else? “She sold them to us,” Mr. Nilsen said. “One twenty-five.”