I’ve read many blogs about people who go to giant ‘Thrift Stores’ in their spare time, to find items for their homes or for upcycling or to sell on for a profit. A rather romantic image is created, of strolling and browsing and reaching under a table covered with quaint picture books and vintage tin signs to uncover something undiscovered, dusty, and perfect.
While that cliché can’t be true for most, I’m sure that most people’s bargain hunting is a far cry from the experience of shopping at the Jane Street lane sale in Leith.
Hosted by auctioneers Ramsay Cornish, the lane sale is sold as “Edinburgh’s best kept secret”, but the throng that assembles on Jane Street every Thursday would beg to differ. I used to live in a flat on Kirk Street overlooking the auction house, and the sight of the many many tables snaking around the forecourt of Ramsay Cornish was always intriguing (shown empty, above). Those many tables fill up with old jugs, vases, teacups, records, books, broken projectors, 2 foot tall wizard statues, 3 foot tall porcelain cats, crystal ashtrays, mismatched salt and pepper shakers, and so much more. Many of the tables themselves are for sale. The next few rows are made up of cardboard boxes filled with random assortments from kettles to old letters, postcards, broken frames and vintage books – some items so personal it seems that many of these boxes have come straight from an estate clear-out. And then the furniture: grand armchairs in dire need of reupholstering, whole sets of dining chairs and mahogany cabinets and sofas and wardrobes. It’s a different assortment every week, but every week it’s full to the brim.
With so much stuff and so much of it of low low (really, very low) value, the trick here seems to be to rummage deep within the boxes (casting out of your mind the likely recently-deceased former owner), hunt out your favourite picks and stake your spot at a table. The auctioneer moves down the row of tables, with only one active at each time. When bidding at a table begins, anyone who wants an item on that table passes it to the auctioneer. He begins to rapidly fire off prices in your conventional auction style, but with less order, more jokes, and absolutely no pauses. Items typically begin at £1. Sometimes they go up a couple of pounds, occasionally they go up lots of pounds. While one item is being sold off, the next is being thrust upon the auctioneer, while two other auction house workers shout over the whole hubbub to make sure those who win an item actually pay up. Once there aren’t any goods being requested for bidding, the auctioneer will usually assess the whole table of leftovers and declare ‘rest of table’ for sale for £2 or so, before moving on. If you win the table, you have to gather everything up quick smart before someone starts picking things up to start bidding on them.
There’s some friendly banter and plenty of smiles, but don’t be mistaken: it’s vicious. If you get a good spot by a prime table you’d better stand your ground or you’ll soon be gently pushed out of the way by a smiling old lady with a zimmer frame, only to realise she’s only using it to carry all her new copper jugs and vintage ornaments and is on the hunt for a serious bargain*.
I’ve been a couple of times before and just passively enjoyed the chaos and hilarity while my old work colleague Joanne set about buying all the available vintage teacups for her upcoming wedding. This time I went with another work colleague in her giant teal coloured surfing van, which we joked about filling up with boxes of useless paraphernalia. A joke, or a prediction?
Visiting the lane sale at lunchtime is not ideal, as it’s open for browsing all morning so that when bidding begins at 11am everyone already knows exactly what they want and have already nabbed the best table-side viewing spots. Arriving after midday, as we did, the crowd is tightly packed around the tables in play. In a rush of excitement to get involved, I neglected to take a single photo – next time I’ll try harder. Workmate Laura and I had a poke around the upcoming tables and then tried to get a peek at what was happening. She seemed to be far wilier than I and regularly ended up in the midst of the action – I meanwhile looked at a plastic gold Jesus ornament which would have been oh so at home in James’s sister’s gorgeously eclectic South American style flat. I popped a pound in my pocket just in case – because there is NO TIME at this thing for wallets and fumbling, and definitely not for using notes or getting change.
So, after some wandering and some watching, Laura emerged with a beautiful hand-operated Singer sewing machine, black, vintage and shiny, in a wooden case with the original instructions, all for £24. While she took it to the van I watched gold Jesus go in a job lot and realised it wasn’t really worth the pound anyway, and then found myself at one of the last tables before they started on the cardboard boxes and the furniture. After a few of the nicest items, the auctioneer was pretty impatient to get going so offered ‘rest of table’ for £5. No takers. 4, 3, 2, 1… well, I had that £1 in my pocket. So I bid. And I got it.
“What a bargain!” said one onlooker at the lane sale.
“What a box of crap!” said my workmates when I brought my haul in to inspect it.**
When I laid it all out, I had:
- 4 pewter tankards with Sheffield makers marks
- 3 glass sundae dishes
- 2 large china pots
- brightly painted clay vase
- shell shaped china dish
- an ornate china ashtray
- hexagonal china vase with Oriental patterns
- a couple of empty plastic jewellery boxes
- blue glass vase
- 3 decorative plates
- a slim decorated sunflower jug
- 2 small clay pots
- large blue and white china dish
- floral china butter dish
- 2 small crystal dishes
- a crystal ashtray
- a china bell (no ringer)
- a glass bell
- brass sunflower cufflinks
- set of very tarnished ESPN cutlery
I know nothing about valuing second hand bargains but there are many folks at the Jane Street lane sale who do, and who take it very seriously. So I strongly suspect that I don’t have any hidden treasures here. But I am sure there are some items that could still find a happy home, or provide me with some crafty fun. And the tankards I am definitely keeping.
I have some plans to upcycle a few of these items, the least fragile may make it on to eBay, and some will simply be cleaned and donated to a charity shop – a task that James is keen to point out totally undermines the argument of “but it was only a pound!” I think he has a vision of our flat filled with other people’s discarded things, as I prance around pointing to bits of dusty broken crockery pronouncing “50p!” and “what a bargain!”.
I may have to give it a week or so before returning to Jane Street – after all, I only have so many cupboards to hide these things in.
*This exact scenario happened to me the first visit to Jane Street. Never again.
**’Box of crap’ has become the go-to measuring point for financial value at work in the last few days. “I knocked £1,000 off the asking price!” “Why, that’s 1,000 boxes of crap!”