Going, going, gone: After 96 years, Bushell's auction house will close its doors

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These are melancholic Tuesdays for the regulars who go to Bushell's, the literally hundreds of Seattleites who plan their week around the firm's auctions. There will be only 10 more Tuesdays when they'll drive downtown to 2006 Second Ave., near the Moore Theatre, to spend leisurely hours bidding on everything from kitchen utensils to exotic carpets to that odd-looking ceramic vase.

Within hours of when the handwritten sign was taped up a couple of weeks ago on the readerboard by the entrance, the news spread throughout the world of Bushell's auction house regulars.

"To all of our loyal customers and extended family members," the sign read. "After 96 years of business the Bushell Family has decided to close its doors. Our last day of business will be June 30th, 2002."

Ninety-six years. It is an astonishing feat. There are few family-run businesses that reach the fifth generation, and I can't think of any that have done so at the same business location. The entire family has to agree to keep the business going; when that doesn't happen, you sell.

Those "loyal customers and extended family members" they're talking about include quite a few antique-shop owners.

They come here and sometimes bid against each other, and also to socialize and maybe exchange a little gossip about the latest in their small community. There also are just plain old bargain hunters who regularly surprise their spouses with their latest Bushell's find.

There are people who, for example, refuse to go to a regular store and buy a new bed for that spare bedroom. Why do that, when for sure sometime soon, they could pick up a pretty nice bedroom set at Bushell's? Like at this week's auction, a guy got himself a solid metal bed for, let's see, "$10 ... $15 ... $20 ... do I hear the $30? All through now at $30."

And as the Bushell's folks pointed out, barely able to move the bed, this was a solid metal bed. You try and find that for $30 at the supermall.

It really will be as if a close relative is passing away. One more landmark, one more reminder of what Seattle was, one more family-run business that's calling it quits.

On Tuesday I talked to a bunch of the dealers, and I kept hearing the words "honest" and "trustworthy" about Bushell's.

"Oh, they're honest," said Jim Wear, an antique dealer from Federal Way. "You can leave a bid with them, and you know you'll get the cheapest price." He was talking about absentee bids, in which you can leave a bid with the Bushells, stating the highest price you'll pay, and your bid gets executed just as if you were in attendance. The honesty part is that if your absentee bid was for, say, $70, and the bidding only goes to $40, you get the item for $40. "Not in some other places," Wear said.

I was talking to Lisa Tasdemir, a dealer from Bainbridge Island, and she talked about how, at the Bushell auctions, the auctioneer actually made sense and didn't rattle you. It's a low-key auction, no shouting or rat-a-tat-tat bluster like at a cattle auction.

Tasdemir said, "And they don't go from bids of $50, $55, and then suddenly jump to $75. It's a steady, comfortable flow. And they also tell you if something is broken or cracked. And the family is so nice. They're always helping you load your car, whether it's raining or cold."

On Tuesday I was watching Dave Ownbey individually wrap in newspapers dozens of pieces of glassware to take home in cardboard boxes. He and his wife have an antique business that specializes in glassware, and he had spotted this good deal. He had the high bid of $215 for the 140 pieces, and then $330 for another 68 pieces. He figured they'd resell for between four and six times that much.

He held up one of the antique glasses. At some other auction houses, you'd bid on that one glass, and then, if there were eight, pay eight times that much to buy the set. At Bushell's you simply bid on the lot.

"Put this in big letters in your story," he said. "WE WANT ANOTHER ONE!" He meant another Bushell's.

It won't happen, because this kind of history doesn't repeat itself.

John Bushell arrived in Seattle in 1889 with 35 cents in his pocket, and held his first auction in 1906. By 1916 he had done well enough to have built near Second and Virginia the Bushell's auction house that's been there ever since. In the office, you can see the old newspaper page with his tiny ad. He was a prohibitionist who was supposed to be too honest to succeed as an auctioneer.

But Bushell said that his business would survive because he'd be fair and not sell defective goods. Five generations later, that still is the principle guiding the auction house.

These days, Mary Bushell, 80, is the trustee of the business. There are two other sisters, Margaret Boyle and Salle Hardman (a fourth has passed away). One of the auctioneers, Bill Boyle, is married to Margaret. Two of Salle's sons work full time at the auction, a third works part time. The only two outsiders working there have been longtime family friends.

They've never wavered in how they conducted business. No minimum bids, because if you're going to put a price on things, then that's a retail store, not an auction house. No credit cards. If you have to pay cash or check, maybe you won't bid on something you really didn't need.

The schedule never changes. On Fridays and Mondays are the previews. On Tuesday at 10 a.m. the auction starts, stopping for a lunch break and then continuing until 3:30 or so. About once a month there is a night auction on Tuesdays for the higher-priced items, and because it requires so much work, there is no day auction the following Tuesday.

No computers. Receipts are kept in alphabetized shoeboxes in the basement. In the cramped office at the front, the most modern piece of equipment is a well-worn fax machine. One of the counters is a piece of board on top of an ancient metal safe.

"Right before World War I, the German consulate was moving out of town, and we sold all the office furniture. The safe was too big and heavy, so we kept it," Mary Bushell said.

Mary tries to act like a no-nonsense type. But the customers keep coming and telling her how much they'll miss it all, and Mary's eyes well up just talking about it.

"I'm sad," she said. "I'm sad."

The main floor of the building is about 6,500 square feet. The property has an assessed value of $842,400; the old building, only $1,000. A rule of thumb is that assessments are 70 to 80 percent of the selling price. If the property were combined with a parking garage that's adjacent, then that would make a big enough parcel for a high-rise.

The Bushell's regulars know that's progress. Some have been coming here for decades.

Now there are only 10 more Tuesdays at Bushell's, and there isn't much else they can tell each other, but to keep repeating, "I'll miss it."

Eric Lacitis can be reached at 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com.