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"Who'll give me a dollar?" shouts the auctioneer through a loudspeaker. His twangy voice rings out from a warehouse's open bay door and into the street out front.
It's bidding time at J-B Auction on Central at St. Stephens in southwest Detroit. On deck is a box of assorted glassware. A dirty sock somehow made its way in there. "The sock comes free!" he tells the few dozen in the crowd. Some chuckle. The bidding stays at a dollar. Going once. Twice. Sold. J-B gets a buck. Someone gets a used sock.
It's a typical scene at the quirky auction, which takes place every Friday night in a high-ceilinged room where the audience sits on old, wood church pews and the auctioneer sits on a makeshift stage, facing them. The items for bid are lined up on long tables at the front.
But it's grown from just an auction into a night of lively entertainment starring a sarcastic auctioneer, an enthusiastic and vocal crowd, and hundreds of resale items moving cheap and fast. Snacks and soft drinks are sold at the main counter, like at a movie. The show lasts four hours, starting at 7 p.m. Most of the audience — a mix of ages, races and income levels — stays from beginning to end, transfixed by its unpredictability. In fact, after some particularly drawn-out bidding on an item, the audience will break into applause when it finally sells.
"I have people that come here just to enjoy the auction," says Dave Salha, the building's gregarious 49-year-old owner. "A lot of them are older, they don't have nothing to do, so they come to the auction, and it's a night out for them. They enjoy the company, they have coffee, they have hot dogs, they have chips and little munchies. People come just for the fun."
Last year Salha bought an old creamery building, which once sent horse-drawn wagons through the neighborhood to sell milk, named it using his son's initials, and opened a resale business that one night a week moves things one at a time to whoever wants each the most.
Admission is free. There's no smoking or drinking allowed. No swearing, either. Buyers register and are assigned a number. To bid on something, they hold up a card with their number on it, though some prefer to bid with a wink or a nod, to keep their identity private. "We have family that bid against each other," Salha says, "and sometimes they don't like them to know they're bidding against them."
Driving the action along is Mike Bevard, 56, maybe the most smart-mouthed auctioneer north of the Mason-Dixon line. He cracks jokes. He makes fun of bidders. He pokes fun at shoddy items. And the audience eats it up.
"If a guy's bidding on a box of lady clothes, I usually say something to him like, 'Are you sure they're gonna go fit you, bud?' And he'll kind of get a giggle out of it and they'll laugh," he says. "You gotta loosen them up and let them relax."
Brevard's a mild-mannered, retired Detroit cop who got his start hosting police auctions nearly 30 years ago. He learned the trade from a North Carolina auctioneer who took him under his wing, then added his own style when he started working the auction circuit in Michigan.
There's a rhythm to bid-calling that varies from North to South and from one auctioneer to another, and Brevard's is a paced Northern style. Some audience members from this part of town are Spanish speakers still learning English, so he speaks slower as a courtesy.
He times the beat of his bid calling to music in his head. "It's kind of like you try to think of a song in your head and then you try to keep the rhythm of that song and go with it," he says. His favorites are '70s classic rock like Bob Seger and Rod Stewart.
Those things auctioned come from storage units whose contents are sold off when their owners default. They run the gamut, and there's no connection between one item and the one that follows.
On a recent Friday night, in a span of 15 minutes, the items auctioned were, in order: a teacup set, a drywall drill, a box of hockey cards, glass marbles and a marble apple, a blurry photo of Hillary Clinton, a dart board with darts, a pair of 3-pound weights, a subwoofer, a cordless phone, another cordless phone, a clown doll, an electric fan, ladies size-10 shoes, a box of shawls and scarves, laundry detergent, a sword, a CD boom box with remote, the unnamed CD that was found in it, and a curling iron and peroxide, together. Almost everything sold for less than a few dollars.
Sometimes the item's just a box with random, unrelated elements thrown in, like the one with a vase, a travel steamer, some loose envelopes and Halloween decorations in it. Bidding starts at $8. It sells for $5. This auction is one of the few where the price goes down, not up, as the bidding proceeds. It's a reflection of this place and these times, Salha says.
"For this kind of economy, that's the kind of business that is going right now, 'cause people can't afford to go buy expensive stuff right now, so they just buy things to get them by, especially in this neighborhood. It's a low-income neighborhood."
Next up is a stack of pictures of cars. "Gimme a dollar bill for them," Brevard says. Silence. "Who wants them for free?" A man's half-heartedly pokes a hand up. "Right back there, No. 11, come get your junk." Laughs.
Then there's a lull, and the audience grows impatient. "Hold onto your panties," Brevard admonishes. Several older women in the audience gasp and start yelling at him, but playfully. "Have a nacho, you'll be all right," he drawls. His delivery is so droll nobody ever gets mad at him.
Now and then, someone inadvertently hits the jackpot. Brevard remembers several times when buyers won a bid for old books and later found money taped inside the covers. Burglars rarely steal books, the thinking goes, so they're one of the best hiding places for cash.
Years ago he auctioned a box of books for $2. It turned out they contained $2,000 in hidden bills. Another time a co-worker took some unsold books to the garbage dump and found $15,000 hidden inside. Needless to say, every book that comes through now is checked meticulously.
Sometimes, Salha discovers surprises in the storage units. "One day we found a sex toy and I auctioned it off," he whispers with a laugh. It was a dildo. "I didn't want to open it in front of the kids so I said, 'It's a surprise box and only adults can buy it,' and I made it where they know what's in there. "Everybody went nuts. And you know who bought it? An old lady bought it. Ten dollars. That's why they love the auction. Everybody was laughing and having a good time."
Other than Friday night, it's a huge resale shop with no price tags on anything. Salha makes up the prices as he goes along. Sometimes he tells people just to take something for free. He obviously enjoys this, mixing it up with the crowd or hanging out by the door and talking for hours to everyone who comes through.
"This is more of a fun thing," he says, than his day job in real estate. "It's a good, clean, honest business, and it's a necessity. People in this neighborhood are in need of stuff like this. They can't afford new stuff, so when a single mother who's trying to make it needs two beds and you give it to her for $50 a bed, she's very happy, I'm happy, I make a few dollars and I feel good about it 'cause nobody leaves here unhappy.
Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.