South Coast Auction in Santa Ana on a Wednesday night is no place for children.
"There's a lot of pushing and shoving," cautions auctioneer Billy Humphries. "It's action-packed. Leave the kids at home."
Humphries sounds as if he could be talking about mud wrestling, but the reason for his advice soon becomes evident.
As 6 p.m. approaches, more than 500 treasure hunters are jamming the three warehouse-size auction rooms at 2202 Main St.
A catering truck is set up for the night in the parking lot, and some people are balancing plates of rolled tacos on their knees or eating standing up.
Buyers must pay $100 in cash at the door to get a card that allows them to bid on items. The deposit goes toward a purchase; if they don't buy anything, the money is refunded. Auctioneers said they began the deposit system to discourage buyers from trying to back out of their deals.
Attendees quickly learn that a nod of the head is a binding contract, unless the auctioneer has somehow misrepresented the goods.
"Last week I said a TV was a year old," Humphries says, "but the guy who bought it said, 'Hey, this TV's 7 years old.' I made a mistake, so we took it back.
"But this isn't Sears. A lot of this stuff is used and sold 'as is.' The buyer has to inspect it before he buys. If he finds out later there's a problem, he has to be a big boy and take it."
In the room where Humphries is about to begin, all are hungrily eyeing the mountain of goods piled behind him. Oak dinettes, coffee tables, couches, bronze figurines, lamps, roll-top desks and china--even the crystal chandelier dangling from the rafters--will be getting new owners.
It's not exactly Christie's West--many of the used items up for bid would not qualify as art objects or even as collectibles--but the treasure hunters here are having a good time nonetheless.
South Coast Auction has been running its Wednesday sales weekly for 13 years at the Main Street site, formerly home to a lumberyard. As many as three or four auctions can be running simultaneously in the three warehouses or out in the auction yard. There is a total of 24,000 square feet in the three warehouses, and most of that space is crammed with stuff.
These are the leftovers of people's lives--of businesses and sometimes marriages that failed. Most of the office furniture is from companies that went belly up or remodeled. Some of the unused business equipment is from mail-order companies. You might see a 50-year-old filing cabinet next to a recent model still wrapped in plastic.
The stereo equipment, rugs, broken lamps and other things have often been abandoned in rental storage spaces or left for a landlord to dispose of. Buyers accept everything "as is."
Humphries gets rid of junk by lumping it together. One man, for example, made off with a lot consisting of a copper light fixture shaped like a wagon wheel, a pink polka-dot chair and a toilet. He paid $80.
Many auction houses are not interested in the kinds of things South Coast Auction will sell. "They think many of the things we sell are below their position in life," Humphries says.
Humphries and Les Taylor, who own South Coast Auction, call it California's largest weekly auction of general merchandise. Humphries says their closest competitor is Charlie's Auction in Whittier, which, he said, offers much of the same merchandise but on a smaller scale.
"There's nothing quite like us in the western United States," Humphries says. "Most auctioneers are amazed by us. It's kind of unusual to have three auctions going on at once."
On a typical night, the auctioneers will begin peddling "as is" appliances (in this case, ones that don't work) and miscellaneous other goods at 6 p.m.; office furniture and business equipment at 6:30; autos, machinery boats, "as is" TVs and stereos at 7; and working appliances, TVs and stereos, furniture and antiques at 7:30. With all the merchandise to be sold, it's not surprising that the auctions can sometimes run past midnight.
On a given night, Humphries says, they may ring up about $100,000 in sales. They describe their customers as bargain hunters, dealers of antique and used furniture and owners or representatives of businesses. Some of the things bought there, they say, will be shipped to other states or even other countries to be resold.
Steve Yanta is a regular. He has come every week for the past two years, he says, and he considers it the best auction around.
"Where else can you buy a used fire truck?" he asks. Indeed, a 1953 fire engine from Van Nuys sits in the lot awaiting auction.
"One time he had a whole boxing ring in here," Yanta added. "Nobody wanted it."
Minutes before the opening on this night, workers are still hauling couches and appliances into the warehouses, polishing pianos, assembling lamps and hammering broken table legs.
When the bidding begins at 6 p.m. for the office furniture and miscellaneous other goods, Humphries--a gray-haired fellow sporting a mustache and vest--stands atop a platform wielding a heavy mallet.