• AJ Hawkins

Dead People's Things For Sale

“That was my grandmother’s purse,” He said, nodding towards the vintage bag in my hand.

“I remember she carried it everyday.”


He said it in that quiet sort of way that indicates he hadn’t planned on speaking. He was young, maybe two or three years younger than me.


“It’s beautiful,” I replied. “Is it okay to ask: is this an estate sale?”


“Yes, it is,” he replied. We’re standing in the rain.


“I’m sorry.”



I started going to estate sales when I was young. My mom grew up poor, and even as our life grew more comfortable, she was always frugal. It was not an uncommon way to spend a Saturday together.


I’ve always loved going into strangers’ houses. You can tell, or imagine, so much about a person by their home. You can interpret how old they are by their pots and pans and dishes - almost always gifts from their wedding. You sense their personalities from their closets. You learn about their values from their books. Sometimes, the price-tagged medical aids even tell you a bit about their deaths. All the pictures have been taken down, but here, in their home, in the scent of their cleaners and soaps, you feel you know them just a bit.


A couple years ago, I decided I wanted to start shopping at estate sales more. I’d recently learned that the average cost of an American funeral is between $9000-$12,000; it’s expensive to die. I’d already been primarily purchasing second-hand goods because of my concerns about ethical manufacturing and waste, but unfortunately, many thrift stores have their own records of exploiting workers. I started to feel like there were no financially accessible and ethical shopping options, until I realized that goods bought at estate sales do not financially support human exploitation, reduce waste and demand for new goods, and directly help families in my community offset the cost of death.


When I started KALMA, I knew I really wanted sourcing goods from estate sales to be a core component of the business model. So far, about 30% of the goods in the shop come directly or indirectly from estates; moving forward, my goal is to bring that closer to about 50%. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time at estate sales in the last 6 months. Sometimes, they are run by professionals, but many times the family members are present.



I often wonder what it feels like to host an estate sale for a deceased family member. How does it feel to watch strangers take away little pieces of this person you loved? Is it relieving? It is excruciating? It is soothing to think that these items will live new lives and new stories?


I always try to be especially polite and aware when the families are present. I treat things gently, and move slowly. I don’t rush about in a deal-induce frenzy like it’s Black Friday.


And above all, I never haggle at an estate sale.


Today, I brought my collection of treasures to the woman running the sale. We counted up the items with price tags ($20); she took a look at the handful of items without and said, “How about $25 all together?”


“May I give you $30?” I asked.


She stared at me blankly. “Um… yes, I suppose so.”


It’s curious how much it confuses people when I do that. I know that both $25 and $30 are equally good deals for what’s in my hands, but I’m able, willing and happy to pay $30. I’m holding your mother’s notebook, your sister’s teacup, his grandmother’s favorite purse.


What I ask of you is this:


If you purchase estate goods from KALMA, treat them with love. Sit with them for a moment and imagine the life they lived, and the humans that have loved them. Imagine what they planned to write in your new notebook. Imagine what blend of tea they drank from your new cup, and who they drank it with. Imagine all the places your new purse went every day at their side. Honor these items’ past, and give them a good future.

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