The road less traveled
ChchchchChanges (With apologies to David Bowie)
In 1973, a man named Hillel Kristal (Hilly) opened a bar in the less than desirable Bowery section of New York City. At the time, Hilly was pretty much on his last financial leg. His artist and writer friends were listening to a lot of country, blue grass and blues music. Many bars had a country night, it was a popular genre on the jukebox. Kristal decided to open a club specializing in these genres to capitalize on the popularity of them. Kristal christened his fledgling club CBGB in honor of country, blue grass and blues. Maybe some of you were along for the ride when I mentioned Hilly or the Bowery. Some of you are probably scratching your heads and wondering just how far around the bend I’ve gone if I’m writing about a club in the Bowery on an auction blog. Stay with me, good reader, it will all come together, I promise.
There were a few issues with Hilly’s grand plans to operate a world famous country, blue grass and blues club in the Bowery. Chiefly among these issues was, people didn’t want to go to the Bowery on purpose. Pre gentrification, the Bowery was dirty, nasty and dangerous. It wasn’t the sort of place where you’d spy patrons in cowboy boots and ten gallon hats bellying up to the bar as the strains of George Jones played woefully in the background. It was more of the sort of place where if one ended up there by accident, one sought the nearest and most convenient way out. Hilly couldn’t book country, blue grass or blues acts. They all apparently had a healthier sense of self preservation than all of that. We’ll just assume for the sake of argument that 8 seconds on a mechanical bull were infinitely safer than a trip to the Bowery on any given Saturday evening. Bear in mind here that Kristal had sunk his last dime in to CBGB. The club was floundering; it had no musical acts to speak of and no prospects of booking any in the foreseeable future. If Kristal had cut his losses and folded up shop, I wouldn’t be sitting here on a Tuesday morning coffee in hand, dog on lap regaling you with the tale of Hilly Kristal and his little club in what was mostly Satan’s bellybutton back in the 70’s. You can assume that he did not fold up shop. From his own words “My first year was an exercise is persistence and trail in patience.”
What Kristal did was find a new way to bring musicians and people to his club. As I mentioned, there were few people who were willing to venture to the Bowery for any reason back then. One group of people was the exception that that rule. They’d go anywhere, they weren’t afraid. They walked through Bedford Sty alone (sorry, Billy Joel); they were the punks. Most of them lived near or in the Bowery anyway, it was cheap and not at all where most people wanted to live. Landlords didn’t really care if one spray painted the walls or played the stereo at 3 AM. It was the perfect place for people with not much use for the rules of society to congregate and congregate they did. After much local pressure, one can assume from punk bands and Hilly’s landlord alike, Kristal began booking punk acts. We’ll assume the landlord was supportive because, well, landlords tend to like regular rent payments. So, what began as a country, blue grass and blues club soon began hosting a type of music so far removed from those genres one would need a high powered microscope to spot any similarities.
In short order, up and coming bands by names you’ll no doubt recall began playing the club. It was the launching ground for The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads,Patti Smith Group the list goes on and on. From the early 80’s until the closure of CBGB in 2005, a who’s who of punk rock graced the stage. People who otherwise would have never set foot in the Bowery came in droves. By the early 80’s punk had far reaching appeal. Kristal had struck gold. He was, in his own way, one of the godfathers of the punk movement. He had spawned a vastly successful club which is still known the world over for being the birth place of punk rock. I myself own a well worn CBGB t-shirt. The imaging is iconic, everybody knows the logo. That was Hilly’s legacy.
Still wondering what this has to do with the auction business? I’m about to tell you. When our business began, we were a great deal like Hilly. We wanted to create a unique experience for our bidders. Up until this point, most auctions were conducted live. The auctions occurred in a variety of settings from conference rooms at hotel chains to the consignor’s home. People came and sat around waiting to bid on the items they wanted. When we began, we found it extremely difficult to keep the buyers in their seats for the entirety of the auction. We had kicked around the idea of using online methods to host an auction. Lee was never shy about embracing technology and I was comfortable enough with the thought to give it at least one try. When we first began discussing the idea, online auctions were a bone of contention for old school auctioneers. Many of them hated the idea of losing the face to face interaction with the crowd. Others were deeply distrustful of technology. We were, and still are, younger than most auctioneers.
After a few live auctions that sort of fell a bit flat, we weighed the pros and cons of moving to an online only style auction. In some ways, an online auction contains more work per item than a traditional. Each item must be photographed from various angles. Each item must be described well and thoroughly. The formatting must be consistent throughout so as not to appear disjointed. People often say there’s less heavy lifting associated with an online auction. I’ve found this to be true only a small percentage of the time. It is true we no longer have a runner holding up heavy items for the crowd to see, we now photograph the items thoroughly which also requires some heavy lifting from time to time. We no longer have to move an item several times over prior to sale. We still have to contend with various types of weather conditions which play a role in how the preview and pick up are attended. The saving grace here is that we’ve found a pick up can be rescheduled more easily than a live auction.
Our biggest fear in conducting an online auction was where the bidders would come from. Many bidders were used to the traditional way of bidding. We feared that they would not adapt to the new methods. We had one saving grace on our side. Most people were familiar enough with EBay to grasp the concept of online bidding. We were still feeling things out in terms of online auctions when a potential consignor reached out to us. He needed the contents of a well appointed home liquidated and since the home was on the market and it was the dead of winter, he didn’t want a traditional auction.
It was at this point where we sort of looked at each other and said “let’s do this.” We had been tinkering with an online auction platform for a short time prior to this meeting, so we did what we normally do, we went all in. We spent hours photographing, cataloging and researching items. We spent many more hours uploading pictures and building out our first online auction. We lost sleep, lots and lots of sleep. I think Lee handled that last bit better than I did. I hibernate in the winter; I think I’m part groundhog. This was totally different than the way we had been handling our auctions in the past. It was nerve racking at times, it was downright infuriating. But, it was fun. We got to spend more time actually seeing the items we were selling. We got to invest more time in research. We really got to get a feel for the items and what how we were going to market them. That’s not to say that we didn’t have any worries. We once thought that an entire batch of photos was lost while uploading. Luckily, they weren’t. They were saved externally in case of such an event, but hours of lost work are never a happy thing. When that auction finally went live, we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We had passed the first several hurdles. Our largest hurdle was still right in front of us, where would we find bidders? We found them online. Our reasoning was if we were using the internet to present the auction, we should also be using it to market the auction. This we did. We used Facebook, Craigslist and several other online marketplaces to reach potential bidders. We also created and mailed out post cards. The post cards helped dramatically. They went out exclusively to furniture and decorative items stores. They did drive bidders to our auctions, but most of the winning bidders at that time were individuals. That auction did very well. So well, in fact, that it made us reevaluate how we did our auctions.
Much like Mr. Kristal in the story I told you, we saw that we needed to change how we did things. We knew that the tides were changing in terms of how auctions were conducted. Our own live auctions were indicative of this. People didn’t stay for the entirety of the auction; they just didn’t have the time. They would bid on what they came for and then settle up their bill and go about their day. Some stayed until the end, but this doesn’t always translate in to more bids on items. Some stayed home altogether. When you’re planning an auction in an area known for its love of sports, you really have to consult a game day calendar just about any time of the year. Nobody is attending if The Steelers or Pirates or Penguins are playing. This is especially true if it is playoff season. If you plan your auction on the same day and time as another auction, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. If it’s a gorgeous day, people are out doing outdoor activities. If it’s snowing or raining heavily, the crowds dwindle. Even if the auction is indoors, people don’t want to brave the elements. And who can blame them really? If I’m buying an antique piece, I don’t want to take it outside in the rain and risk ruining it either. By holding an auction online, we eliminate many of these variables. Very few people bid on game day, but that’s OK, there are other days. We never end an auction on game day if we can avoid it. The weather is generally fine in the privacy of one’s own home, so bids will come regardless of weather conditions. With these new fangled apps people use for everything, bidding is simple. It can be done on your cell phone even if you’re in Tulsa on business. It’s great.
We did our trials in patience and many exercises in perseverance while making the transition from live to online auctions. We know exactly what Hilly Kristal was talking about there. We also know exactly how he felt when he took his goal of a country, blue grass and blues club and morphed it into something else. We did that too. When I look at Hilly’s story and the monumental contribution he made to music history, I find parallels. I’m not egocentric enough to say that we are shaping the future of the auction industry here in Beaver Falls, but we are doing exactly what Kristal did back in those lean years of the 1970’s. We are continuing on our journey in the same spirit as Hilly and those like him. We are trying to open new doors and maybe forge a new path of our own. That path has changed course a few times, it will no doubt change course a few more. That is the nature of life. If you’re still asking, “Why write about Hilly Kristal?” I’ll give you two reasons, one I like to find things which on the surface don’t appear to be connected and point out how they are. It’s in my nature. Maybe I’m just fitting my own narrative by talking about a person I admire. That’s possible too. And two, on that first online auction I mentioned, I spent the entirety of the cataloging, describing and researching blazing through the entire catalog of The Ramones.