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Total Estate Liquidation: Selling the goods with soul

on July 25, 2012

Kathy Pimpan stood at the door of a garage on Talbot Avenue in Albany all day one Saturday in February. Her job was to make a dent in the jungle of stuff, which the homeowner wanted to dispose of, and make a profit, too.

Dana Miller sat in front of the garage on a sofa that he wanted to get rid of. He had owned and lived in the house for twenty years. As a general contractor in Albany, Miller discovered construction projects hard to find during the recent recession. He had to retire early and move to Cloverdale.

This may not be a good season for a contractor, but it might be the perfect moment for Oakland liquidator Pimpan. “It is a recession-proof business,” said Pimpan. With cheap prices, she attracted hundreds of customers with tight budgets to the sale.

From the time she was a sociology graduate student at University of California, Berkeley in 1990s, Pimpan has been fascinated by the relationship between people and things. Now her Oakland-based business, Total Estate Liquidation, helps clients dispose of things they’ve collected over a lifetime and find hard to part with, or assists families when they are overwhelmed by dealing with their late grandmother’s cluttered residence. An estate liquidator for more than 14 years, Pimpan can tell you at a glance the value of just about anything, including the tiny earrings you dig out from the homeowner’s night table.

Dana Miller hired a liquidator to help clear his for-sale home of objects, even his beloved paintings, imported table and chairs, and terracotta figures.

In order to sell his house, Miller needed his objects to be cleared, even his beloved paintings, imported table and chairs, and terracotta figures. So he hired Pimpan, whom he had known for five years. “She knows the price of everything,” said Miller. “And she has the mailing list!” With over a thousand subscribers, Pimpan’s emails draw a loyal group of customers from all over the Bay Area.

To prepare Miller’s stuff for sale, Pimpan had sifted through the objects—clothes, furniture, construction tools and others—and crammed them into four different rooms on the first floor of Miller’s house and truck, where customers could line up and rummage for treasures.

Hundreds of people showed up for the sale, but that didn’t make it any easier for Miller to part with his belongings. “I don’t want anyone to take that!” Miller said, staring at a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, which had hung on his wall for years but had just been bought.

One of the shoppers was Livermore resident Louie Hesemann.  He drove for an hour and was glad to find a bucket of metal wires he got for $50. He knew he would make a good profit by resale, he said.

Heseman, a regular TEL customer, said Pimpan is good at taking neglected houses, and cleaning and organizing them in a week.

Pimpan’s four-person crew does this almost every week—organizing the house, putting up ads and sending out emails, and finally holding the sale.

Pimpan declined to disclose how much TEL makes in each estate sale. Typically, however, a liquidator claims about half of the revenue as commission. The company has a store on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, too, selling higher end items and antiques.

“That’s the way I shop. I don’t go to the department stores,” said Rose Jones, an Oakland resident and a regular customer of Pimpan’s store and TEL’s estate sales.

Jones has been shopping at estate sales nearly every week for almost 10 years. She goes to estate sales in Oakland, San Francisco and Piedmont. During her productive visit to Miller’s house, she got nearly 20 pieces of clothing and accessories for $70.

Cheap goods attract customers, and Pimpan says she never lacks shoppers in the current recession.

Weekends are prime time for Pimpan’s liquidation work. When her first son was born in 1998, Pimpan started TEL and discontinued her graduate studies at UC Berkeley.  Pimpan said her business has grown as she built her reputation. “It’s a trusting business. You talk to people for an hour and they decide to hire you or not,” said Pimpan.

Liquidators meet clients at their most vulnerable moments, often when their loved ones have passed away. “They talked for half an hour and started to cry,” Pimpan said of some of her clients. “Sometimes we are a filter between the public and the family.” She said she sometimes feels like a therapist with her clients.

And sometimes she has to be the person to deliver bad news: grandma’s “fortune” isn’t really a fortune.

A box of old photos at the Total Estate Liquidators store in Oakland.

For the last decade Pimpan has found the most intimate and embarrassing part of people’s lives: from $27,000 in cash wrapped in garbage papers, to secret jewels, sex toys, and even guns in the couch of a suicide victim.

While Pimpan has seen the chaos that collects in old homes, she admits that she has collected stuff herself, too. “My house is crazy,” she said. She has also collected antique goods for her store for two and half years since opening it on Telegraph.

TEL’s Oakland store is full of stuff with history: Japanese furniture, photos taken in 1974, buttons collected in little bags, Chinese papercut figures and pocket watches whose owners are unknown.

Pimpan often see people standing there and making up their own stories about the people posing in a picture they are admiring, or about who they’d guess was the owner of a piece of furniture.

“I just love weird stuff,” said Christine McDermott, an El Cerrito resident as she shopped at TEL. “Those things have souls in them.”

Text by Xiaoqing Pi

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