From Antique Bureaus to Battling Heirs... Good Riddance to All That

The mavens of the high-end tag sale game lure throngs of shoppers to their estate sales – and a couple of guys to run their business of bargains.

School Street in Edgartown resembles a ghost town, and well it should: It’s 7:40 on a Saturday morning in May, and it’s cool and drizzling. Yet suddenly a woman in a yellow slicker appears. With paper coffee cup in hand, Chris Mayhew moseys up the sidewalk a few paces, looks around, then walks back the other way. Down the block, she spots another woman under a golf umbrella, standing before an old, shuttered house. Chris approaches.

“Is this where the sale is?”

The stranger nods affirmatively. Tag sale customers can smell each other. The two new soul mates join forces outside the garden gate. They’ve arrived nearly an hour ahead of starting time, which is fine with them. It means they’ll be first in the door, first to get a crack at the mystery merchandise inside. Had the weather been more inviting, they’d be jockeying for position with perhaps a dozen more shoppers by now. For this is no commonplace basket-and-book yard sale. This is a sale under the auspices of Good Riddance Girls Estate and Personal Property Liquidation Services – an Island brand that promises the event is worth getting out of bed for.

Today’s tag sale is the first of the 2006 season for Good Riddance Girls partners Nancy Billings and Judy Bruguiere. It’s their slowest start ever, due to a sluggish season of real estate sales and therefore fewer homes in need of emptying. On the plus side, the slump granted Judy an extended winter break in Florida and gave Nancy ample time to recover from a painful illness. “I don’t want terrorists to be shot or killed,” says Nancy with a sinister smile. “I just want them to get shingles.”

Tag sale demand would pick up in the ensuing months, thrusting the Girls into the usual cycle of sorting, researching, pricing, tagging, advertising, selling, donating, and/or chucking the belongings of a succession of new clients. Nancy and Judy nevertheless stuck with an earlier, bittersweet decision – to ease out of their longstanding business venture. “We’re getting too old for this,” explains Nancy, despite appearances to the contrary. Thus ends a chapter of a business story that, on Martha’s Vineyard, has never had a peer.

The good news for Vineyarders is the enterprise isn’t exactly going away. At the end of this June, it’s morphing into the Good Riddance Group, with two new principals: Tim Rush and Tom Fisher. Tim and Tom are known to many as the owners of Lamplighter’s Corner, the Edgartown lanterns and antiques emporium, which recently underwent its own transformation into Rush and Fisher, an antiques business only. For the past year, Tim and Tom have been working as liquidators-in-training under the expert tutelage of the Girls. “Judy and I will continue to help out,” says Nancy.

Speak of the devils: Nancy and Judy emerge from a car looking sunny as ever, despite the elements. They’re dressed for success in roomy jeans, hooded jackets, and rubber soles. They cheerily greet the early birds by name and get on with setting up shop.

“They know all the characters,” says Chris. “They never let anyone in early, whether the person’s a seasoned dealer or a first-timer. They’re very professional, very fair.”

Nancy and Judy raise the double doors of an old garage heaped nearly to the rafters with needy-looking furniture – “a restorer’s dream,” according to their forthright newspaper ad. Tim and Tom have a well-deserved day off after lifting and shoving much of the stuff into relative order. From the car, the Girls unload the “office”: a folding metal table, a wad of Sold tags, some extra price tags, a receipt book, pens, a tape measure, push pins, twine, calculators, bottled water, cell phones, the All Sales Final sign, the if-you-are-sure-you-want-to-purchase-an-item-tear-off-the-bottom-of-the-tag sign, a metal cash box that has endured the business for as long as the Girls have, and – in case of a need for crowd control – a stack of numbered cards. A rubber stamp stands ready to imprint the checks of customers who may be fuzzy on the spelling of “Riddance” – or even on the name of the business. Says Nancy: “We’ve been called the Goodbye Girls, the Get Rich Girls, the Good Time Girls . . . ”

More early birds arrive. They’re invited to cross the threshold of the garage to get out of the drizzle-turned-downpour. Liquidation has taken on new meaning. Nancy returns to the car for a box of shopping bags. “What are we going to put in a bag?” asks Judy. “A bed?” So starts yet another day of non-stop repartee between two partners who are as blended as an old married couple.

It’s 8:30: Let the sale begin. Already planted in the grass outside the gate is the familiar red-and-white Good Riddance Girls sign that was painted long ago by Island author Norman Bridwell of Clifford the Big Red Dog renown. “I don’t think Norman even charged us for it,” says Nancy. “If he did, it wasn’t much.”

That’s just one of the tidbits of Good Riddance Girls history that has grown hazy over time. The two grandmothers say they “probably” first met in the 1960s, and they’ve been doing tag sales together for “about” twenty-five years. The business originated with the recognition that there was a market that was going begging. Judy, an Edgartown native and former nurse in the Boston area, is a long-time Vineyard realtor. “After I’d sell someone’s house,” she says, “they’d ask, ‘Now what do I do with my stuff?’”

Nancy, a wash-ashore from Maine, taught in the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury schools and later ran an antiques shop on Circuit Avenue. “People kept bringing more stuff into the store than I wanted,” says the Oak Bluffs resident.

So . . . after executing one tag sale on her own and another with a woman who later left the Island, Nancy found a new partner in Judy. They dubbed themselves the Good Riddance Girls, and the rest is history.

“We could write a book,” says Judy. If they ever dared to do so, they would surely mention these tidbits: the lady who saved dead bugs, wrapped carefully in tissue, in a coffee can; the closet full of boxes of human ashes; the litter of kittens in the hayloft; the trapped bird; the battling heirs; the friendly ghosts; the customers who arrived for the Polly Hill estate sale at 5:30 in the morning, waking poor Polly up.

“It’s the funny stuff that’s kept us going all these years,” says Nancy. The early years were sometimes trying, however. “Some people we knew were nasty in the beginning. They understood the idea of stores making a profit, but not us.”

The business took off nonetheless. Over the course of a typical year, the Girls have conducted eight to ten sales – almost never in July and August, when client homes tend to be occupied and when parking can be an issue, and almost always on Sundays, to steer clear of competing Saturday yard sales. The Saturday sale on School Street was an exception: Nancy’s family insisted that she take the next day – Mother’s Day – off. Sales have been prompted by off-Island moves and occasionally by divorce, but the majority of jobs have been for the liquidation of the possessions of the deceased.

Faraway relations in charge of estates were often referred to the Girls by local lawyers or realtors.

“Sometimes we’d think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be great working with this client,’” says Judy with a laugh. “Then later we’d wonder: ‘How’d we get into this?’”
Working for a percentage of the take (which varies based on the amount of work and saleable goods), the Girls would take on only those sales that were worth their while – whole households, in other words. “Furniture is the draw,” says Nancy. Exceptions have been made for small inventories of big-ticket items. The biggest – and most lucrative – job the Girls ever staged was the 2004 sale at the Daggett House inn.

School Street was hardly small potatoes. Nancy and Judy were at the service of two sisters from an old Edgartown family that once owned several in-town properties. Much of the contents of those properties wound up squeezed into the garage, the house next to it, and the attic of a neighboring home. To spare their heirs the trouble of clearing everything out, the sisters decided to downsize in advance. Considering the volume of possessions, the Girls decided to do the sale in two stages – one weekend for the garage, a second weekend for the nicer things in the house. The task would ultimately take three weekends to complete.

“See how hard we work?” quips Judy, snacking on crackers during a brief slump on Day One. She recalls one sale that was so boring she stripped a piece of furniture to kill time. At the other extreme, a really busy sale might begin with a line of more than a hundred shoppers, continue with a steady stream of people throughout the day, and end with a surge of late-afternoon bottom feeders in search of markdowns.

Today, the people trickle in even as the rain keeps trickling down. “Is this Randy?” Nancy launches into a long, merry chat with a former student. A well-soaked man tethers a wicker sofa to the roof of his Ford sedan. A woman ponders an iron headboard. Another woman measures a painted-pine dry sink. Someone calls from off-Island to shop by phone. A man scores some bottomless chairs for his caning hobby. A young girl discovers that the old oak cabinet she admires houses a sewing machine. Curiously, for a nickel apiece, a woman buys three red-and-white china saucers sans cups.

“They’re the same colors as my kitchen,” she explains. “They’ll look pretty under my herb pots.”

The Girls say country furniture sells well on the Vineyard; fine furniture doesn’t. They’ve seen many a shopping fad come and go. “All it takes is a write-up in Country Living or Martha Stewart,” says Judy, a board member of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Shopper favorites include mirrors, old oil paintings, anything marine, and anything Vineyard – souvenirs, postcards, books.

Tara Larsen is a regular customer. “When I buy something at one of Nancy and Judy’s sales, I’m purchasing a piece of history, a piece of someone’s life,” she says. “I sometimes wonder: Who owned this dish? How many holidays were celebrated with it?” She adds that she also gets to visit some beautiful Island homes.

Behind the scenes of a sale

The devil of liquidation is always in the pre-sale details. Fortunately, the School Street job wasn’t one of those short-notice assignments, driven by a fast-track settlement of a house sale or estate that would occur in, say, a week. “Sometimes we haven’t even had time to place newspaper ads,” says Nancy. “We’ve had to place notices around town.” Moreover, they would have to rush to one town hall or another to expedite sales permits. Regulars know it’s best to keep in touch with the Good Riddance hot line – an answering machine that delivers recorded spiels about upcoming sales. It also enables people to register for by-appointment-only sales – a tactic employed whenever maximum crowd control is warranted. “We get 50 to 100 calls about every sale,” says Nancy, “at all hours of the day and night.”

On School Street, Nancy, Judy, Tim, and Tom started work about three weeks in advance, separating wheat from chaff and sentencing trash and trash-wannabes to the dump. Two helpers and two trucks made several dump runs. Meantime, the team inspected, sorted, and tagged literally hundreds of saleable goods. If the main house hadn’t been a long-time rental property – empty of clothing, hair curlers, and other personal effects – the preliminaries would have taken even longer.

Upstairs, Judy and Tom sorted through two small bedrooms and a dim attic with an assortment of dressers, bed frames, rugs, aluminum mess kits, the
inevitable canning jars, a heap of chenille spreads, and some soft wool blankets, which are popular with hookers. “Not those kinds of hookers,” says Judy. A pretty wooden bed frame is missing a part. A curvaceous settee has a small boo-boo in its veneer. A mystery tail may have belonged to a mouse. One can’t be squeamish about critters, mold, or dirt in this business.

“Hey, does anybody know what these are?” Tim held a mysterious-looking bunch of long, crooked sticks. He alone knew the answer: piano keys. Probably Bakelite.

The Good Riddance guys come in handy not only for heavy lifting but also for their knowledge of antiques. However, Tim claims he’s neither the expert nor the muscle of the operation. “I’m the good looks,” he says.

Judy struggled with a heavy bag of trash that was ready to tumble down the steps. “Nancy, I need your help!” she calls down.

“Is she hollering at me?” Nancy feigned annoyance. “I try to keep as far away from her as possible.” She was working the rooms downstairs, positioning to maximum effect a host of cottage tables and chairs, a glass-eyed rocking horse, a wind organ, a massive carved seat worthy of a medieval monarch, an old Coca-Cola advertising thermometer, and a host of “smalls” – kitchen implements, lamps, a large set of Carnival glass in iridescent orange. Three war bonds posters, pristinely preserved in their 1943 postmarked envelopes from the Treasury Department, were set aside for professional appraisal.

Had the inventory included fine jewelry, sterling demitasse spoons, or other tiny treasures capable of slipping into unscrupulous palms, the Girls would have placed them in display cases for easy supervision on sale day. That supervisor is often Pat Brown, a cheerful but no-nonsense sales associate who has worked with the Girls for so long, many regulars assume she’s a partner. Pilfering has never been a big issue, but it’s happened from time to time. So has the occasional bad check. The Girls have never carried business insurance, relying on clients to have homeowner policies in force.

“How many calories do you suppose we’re burning?” asks Judy, who doesn’t hesitate to shove big things across the floor. “The trouble is, I go home hungry and eat more than I should.” But food would at least fuel her for the next phase – working the attic in the sisters’ other house. There the Good Riddance team sorted vintage trunks, a vast collection of old books and magazines, a wardrobe that might have fit down the steps, and a stash of liquor bottles. Absent a license to sell alcohol, the Girls have been known to give liquor away to their customers.

Once the organizing was done, Nancy and Judy joined forces to price everything. For the most part, they’ve relied on their own, seasoned judgment. As needed, they’ve also consulted catalogues, the Internet, or off-Island appraisers. “We have a reference book for everything on this earth,” says Nancy. Generally, a price tag has ended up somewhere between the bottom and middle of an item’s estimated range. For a piece of Vineyard memorabilia, the Girls would sometimes set a price above the estimate – and get it.

“We’ve had our disagreements,” says Judy. “Whenever I’ve wanted to price something higher than she does, she would accuse me of being ‘Edgartown.’”
After the third and final – and successful – sales day at School Street, the team delivered leftovers to the Boys and Girls Club Thrift Shop, the Good Riddance Girls’ long-time beneficiary of things unsold. “Sometimes they’ve told us ‘We had a thousand-dollar day on account of you girls,’” says Nancy. To dispose of any items that were – bluntly speaking – too good for the thrift shop, the Girls would find buyers off-Island.

“We’ve learned from every sale,” says Judy. “You think you’ve got it all covered, then there’s always something new.” Among the many lessons of a quarter century: Spell out the rules to clients early in the agreement process. Find out if a client’s subdivision has restrictions on sales, signs, or parking. And avoid snacking on doughnuts on the job.

Tim stresses that Rush and Fisher and the Good Riddance Group will operate as two distinctly separate businesses, to avoid conflicts of interest or appearances thereof. “It would be unethical for us to price someone’s possession for an estate sale and then turn around and buy it for the store,” says Tim. And besides, they don’t want dirty looks from fellow dealers who may suspect they’re getting first crack at estate sale merchandise. Nancy and Judy built the Good Riddance Girls on a foundation of fairness and trust with clients and customers alike. Tim and Tom aim to keep the reputation alive.

Nancy and Judy have tried to insist they’re on the road to retirement. Thus far, the neophytes are having none of it. “We’re in this together,” says Tim. “I told them we’ll pull them out of Windemere Nursing Home if we have to.”