‘Packrats’ at Pilsen find a way to profit from their play

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
A Lincolnville couple have found their niche.

Sharing the enjoyment of bargain hunting at garage sales, Joe and Tish Vinduska have channeled that interest into an auction business in Pilsen.

“We love it,” Tish said. “We’ve found something we both love to do. And we’ve met a lot of wonderful people.”

One Friday evening a month, the Vinduskas operate The Pilsen Packrats auction service in the Pilsen Community Building. Their goal is to auction flea-market items at bargain prices and offer an evening of entertainment in the process.

“We want people to come and have fun with us,” Tish said. “Come see what we’re all about.”

During any given auction, bidders and onlookers can discover an assortment of items for sale, such as glassware, toys, furniture, fishing and hunting gear, kitchen appliances, and books and magazines.

Joe works full time for the city of Lincolnville, and Tish is a self-employed house cleaner. Their blended family of five children ranges in ages from 7 to 22 years.

Their side-business venture into the auction world started about six years ago when they purchased storage-unit items to sell on eBay.

Public storage-unit operators who have bins filled with unclaimed items are required by law to dispose of those items at public auction, Joe said.

“We buy through Public Storage, that’s a nationwide chain. Our experience with them is they’re honest, and they will work with people. But there comes a point in time when it has to be sold.”

When unclaimed items from a unit are purchased, the buyer has 48 hours to remove them. The couple discovered each bin would typically contain about three or four collectibles or antiques to sell on eBay, but that meant that the remaining bin items were fast accumulating.

“We’d have a truck load of stuff left over,” Joe said.

Joe’s family owns a storage building formerly used for automotive repair in Pilsen, and the couple cleaned the interior to make room for excess items accumulated off and on since 1996.

“Then it just hit us both at once-kind of like a lightning bolt-we ought to have our own auctions” in the building and sell the remaining items, Joe said.

After purchasing folding chairs and constructing display tables, the couple offered their first auction in the spring of last year. But they soon outgrew the family storage building.

“We’d run out of room to seat people,” Joe said with a chuckle.

The couple approached the Pilsen Community Center board members about renting the center, located in a former Pilsen school building.

With more auction space, a kitchen and two bathrooms, the community building was the new site for The Pilsen Packrats at the beginning of this year.

The couple still purchases unclaimed storage-bin items from Wichita and Kansas City, but will also treasure hunt at garage sales and estate sales on occasion.

One Friday a month, beginning at 7 p.m. and continuing until as late as 10:30 p.m., the gymnasium of the old school building echoes with the sounds of 75 to 100 bargain hunters from surrounding communities, such as Hillsboro, McPherson, Newton, Abilene and Salina.

The members of the community-center board and Joe’s mother sell refreshments during the auction.

“One time, they had a delicious beef stew, and another time it was hot beef on mashed potatoes,” Joe said.

“And my mom will sell homemade kolache and pies. They’re really good concessions, and the price isn’t bad either.”

By 4:30 p.m. the day of the auction, 175 to 200 items are arranged on 16 tables that measure 8-feet long each. And any large furniture is displayed toward the back of the gym.

The week prior to the auction, the Vinduskas welcome people who want to stop in and view items as the couple prepares them for display.

People can also check online at www.flrtbert.tripod.com/auctions for a list of current auction items.

Admission, auction activities and a bidding number are free of charge.

The number of active bidders ranges from 35 to 60 people in an evening, and those bidding can pick up a card with their assigned number.

Perched on a stool behind an auctioneer’s podium he made, Joe takes on the role of auctioneer as he speaks into a microphone to be heard above the crowd. Although he talks quickly as he monitors the bidding floor, he doesn’t use an auctioneer’s chant.

“I’ve had people tell me that’s why they like coming here,” Tish said. “They can understand the auctioneer.”

The job of holding up the items displayed during a sale goes to Tish, who describes the condition of each item up for bid.

“I tell them if it works or not, if it’s chipped or cracked,” Tish said. “We try to be honest right up front and have a clean product.”

Six other employees help-bringing the items up to the podium, taking items out to the bidders, recording the bids and collecting the money.

Joe chuckled as he recalled the bidding postures of people actively participating in the auction.

“Some people raise their arm up high and really let you know, and then some give this little nod or a flick of the finger.”

Recalling the most expensive item sold to date, Joe described a 6-foot china hutch with large glass doors.

A potential bidder told Joe he would consider buying it if it were a gun cabinet.

“I said, ‘It’s missing two drawers, so you could make it into anything you want,'” Joe said.

“He scratched his head and said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ And he bought it for $145.”

The most unusual item sold to date at auction was a heavy rod-iron lion’s head with a hole in its nose.

“After it was sold, the lady who bought it said that it was from England, and it was a door knocker,” Tish said.

“I didn’t think anybody would buy it because it was just this head. But they were fighting back and forth for it” during the bidding.

Only a few items in the past weren’t selling for a reasonable amount, such as two pieces of furniture and a silver set, Joe said. And those items were put aside.

Joe’s general rule is to put a minimum bid of 50 cents on each item on the bidding floor.

“I won’t go under that,” he said.

“If an item isn’t sold, it’s placed on a designated table until the end of the auction. The items left-people can take a beer flat and mix or match a box. And it goes for $1 a box.”

Auctioneers have a choice of starting a bid high or low, and Joe chooses to start low and go up from there.

“At other auctions, people get confused and lose track. This way, I don’t have to back up,” he said.

The Vinduskas do not accept items on consignment, preferring to purchase all items before they reach the auction floor. And they don’t have any qualms about letting most auction items go for a bargain price.

“I want them to bid because they want the thing,” Joe said.

“And if they buy it for $5, and they know it’s worth $250 and sell it for $300, I’m happy for them.”

But a pervasive dose of realism hangs in the air for the two entrepreneurs, who know they have to see a profit in order to continue their shared venture.

“Right now, we’re not getting rich, but we’re doing OK,” Joe said.

And if the future continues as they plan, they are considering finding their own large auction building and expanding auction days to twice a month.

“If we would go to two a month, it would maybe be in a different location,” Joe said. “One here and one somewhere else.”

But for now, the present situation gives them a sense of satisfaction.

“We enjoy it, we have fun, and we’ve got a wonderful bunch of repeat customers,” Joe said.

“We try to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they want to come back.”

The next auction will be held Friday, Nov. 21, in Pilsen. For more information, the Vinduskas can be reached at 620-924-5286.

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