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After 50 years of auctions in Bradford, Vt., Ernie Stevens is ready to close shop

Crowded auction house with auctioneer at front and two men in cowboy hats showing a rug to the attendees
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
A scene from the Friday night auction in Bradford, Vermont, with Ernie Stevens. Stevens is getting ready to retire.

Ely Commission Sales is an auction house in Bradford, Vermont, run by Ernie Stevens. But Ernie’s hanging up his gavel.

Reporter Erica Heilman went down to talk with Ernie in the weeks before closing shop.

On Tuesday and Friday nights for the last 49 years, Ernie Stevens has run auctions. He sells the contents of entire houses, from pots and pans to personal photographs and hutches. Once he even sold a stump he found in someone's barn that they used as a chopping block. He got $125 for the stump. People come from all over the area to Ernie’s auctions. They come for the auction, and they come for Ernie’s wife Carol's homemade macaroni and cheese and chop suey and cake, and they come to visit.

But Ernie’s 74 now, and he's getting done. So before the close of this important institution, I went down to talk with Ernie and record one of his last auctions.

Here's Ernie Stevens.

Ernie: "We’ve got a nice pair of bar stools that swivel, and they're black. How much for the pair? Who will give 50 for the pair?... We’ve got a roasting pan. It’s got the rack in the bottom and everything..."

Erica: "When you walk into somebody's house and you see all their stuff, I always feel like there's something kind of strangely sad about seeing people's stuff. Do you feel that way? When you're looking at stuff?"

Ernie: "No, I feel that what we're doing is helping them, because it's helping them move to the next step. They're getting rid of Grandma’s and Ma’s stuff. And I mean, it's a whole generation thing. You know, but most people can't afford to hang on to those luxuries anymore. They're doing it so that they can survive. So they can pay their taxes, so they can buy their oil, so they can buy the medication, because they're all older by now. So this is why a lot of people are doing this. Not all of them. But a lot of them are doing it just to survive. You have three hands — you have food, prescriptions, heat. Which one do I pick this month? I mean, do you want to eat and be warm? Or do you want to eat and live?

"I mean, they've got $600 or $700 a month that living on. That doesn't even fill their oil barrel. You know? So what do you do? And that's why they're selling a lot of this stuff, so they can survive. That's the way it is. That's life. But there is no upper, lower and middle class anymore. You're just surviving. That's all you're doing."

Crowded kitchen with multiple crock pots and piles of stuff
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Carol's kitchen at the back of the auction.

Erica: "I mean, is it emotional? When often when you're going to these houses to buy stuff?"

Ernie: "I've had some real tear-jerkers. We're doing a lady tomorrow, and she just lost her husband to cancer. Every time she turns around, something is there to remind her of him. And she wants to do away with all that, so that every time she turns around, he's not there."

Ernie: "This is a really nice, early, early painting. And the back is all good. And how much will you give on the painting. $300? When you go three, when you go $350…"

Erica: "So you’re having a hard time finding people to work for you?"

Ernie: "Everybody is, you kidding? Yeah. If I lose one of my guys on a permanent basis, it puts you out of business. And you can't replace them. Before COVID, there used to be five to seven guys a week coming in here looking for a job. When COVID hit, there was no one. No one's been in here since COVID hit. There is nothing. I don't know what happened to our workforce. What happened to them? Where did they go? I don't know. I don't know."

More from Vermont Public: 'We Have It All': A Night At The Auction House

Ernie: "OK, whatever the hell that is. OK, we’ve got a milk can. It's all decorated for you. Anyway, we'll give $30 on the milk can."

Erica: "You’ve been doing this twice a week for a really long time. What’s everybody going to do from now on?"

Ernie: "One of my guys said, because somebody asked him that question, ‘What do I do?’ And he said, ‘Well, here's the deal. Friday night you go to Walmart, Monday night you go to Burger King.’ What else you gonna do? This is a social gathering for every Friday night. This is where they come to gossip, they see each other and everybody knows everybody, you know, and it's a great place to meet. And a lot of people come just for my wife's food. She's got the best damn macaroni and cheese anywhere. So they come for the food, and this is their Friday night out, because there is no place else to go. All the restaurants around closed that are any good. So you know, it's the Friday night out."

Auction table with rugs and vases and backs of heads of attendees and two men in cowboy hats
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
A break between auction items.

Ernie to crowd: "It's been wonderful. If I don't see you again, if you don't happen to come to the next auction, it's been a great ride. Forty-nine years of it. I've met a lot of really, really good people and that's what makes this business. It's not this crap, it’s the people that make this whole business. And it's been a really, really good ride. And I've enjoyed every bit of it. But I can’t do it anymore.

"And I'm gonna miss every one of ya. OK, next up…"

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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