Buck Orndorff hitched up his brown corduroy pants to show off the pointy tips of his mud-colored boots, then turned to his audience of conservative farmers and frugal country matrons.
The 63-year-old auctioneer was fixing to sell this crowd a half-empty bottle of after-shave lotion, a used pair of crutches and a plastic bust of Abraham Lincoln and he professed to be as comfortalbe about the challenge as a gopher in soft dirt.
"I have sold just about everything that has ever been made," said Orndorff, a fast-talking, backslapping, spittin' image of a country auctioneer. "I'll sell anything from toothpicks to pea pots. For the right price I'll sell you the shoes off my feet."
While many merchants in America sit with dustcovered inventories, auctioneers like Orndorff are discovering that hard times can be good times for their business.
"People can't afford to pay new prices for things these days," said Orndorff peeking over a precariously balanced mound of old furniture, rusted farm tools and boxes filled with glassware and teddy bears. "There are times I don't have room enough to auction off a cat without getting hair in my mouth."
In Berryville, a small town in the Blue Ridge foothills 75 miles west of Washington, and a safe distance from what folks here view as the city's suburban plague, auctions are a weekly tradtion. When a neighbor cleans an attic, moves away or dies, his household goods usually end up with one ot a dozen area auctioneers.
For a healthy commission, in Orndorff's case 20 percent, the auctioneer recycles the goods and provides an opportunity for a bit of communal gossip on the former owners.
"There are six or seven men in here right now who wouldn't buy a loaf of bread if you were giving away ham," said Mike Birkett, who has been buying and selling at Orndorff's weekly Friday night Auction for 10 years. "They come here to talk to their friends, find out whose cow has calved and who died."
For his part Orndorff says he doesn't mind the tight-fisted faction taking up room in his building which looks like a hybrid between a wood barn and a concrete warehouse. After 33 years in the business, the 6 foot 3,220 pound pitchman uses a big crowd to whip up what he calls "auction fever" to the proper pitch.
"A good auctioneer is 90 percent bull and 10 percent human," says Orndorff, who has sold monkeys, used cars and once, though he swears it was unintentional, a bag of dog droppings for a dollar. "Auction fever," he says, is powerful.
Orndorff's auction does not attract as many antique dealers as some of the others in the area. Lisette Brodian, who owns an antique boutique in Berryville says, "I stopped going to Buck's because I didn't have the patience to sit through all the junk waiting for something really good."
But the low-rent atmosphere is one of the major draws at Orndorff's, where fifty cents will win a box stuffed with the unknown.
"Buck can sell things that I'd have to pay somebody to haul away," says Robert Fowler, an area horse trainer and regular at Orndorff's auction house.
"If Buck can't sell it, whether it's a Cadillac or a roast beef sandwich, you better motor on down the road with it, cause it ain't gonna get sold," says Birkett, who once bought a box from Orndorff he believed held an umbrella and two pairs of boots. But when Birkett took possession, he found that just an umbrella handle and boot tops had been stapled deceptively to the side of the box.
"You can't slick Buck," says Birkett admiringly. "If you've got your left hand in his back pocket, you can bet both of his hands are undoing your belt."
At Friday's auction, more than 200 people filled all the folding chairs and stood in spaces not already occupied by dishwashers, bicycles and Orndorff's dazzling variety of kitsch. With his wife Dorothy as cashier and his 21-year-old son David working the floor, Orndorff put on a three hour performance that one nonbidding member of the audience called "the cheapest Friday night show in town."
"Here's a real sewing machine," said Orndorff, gazing upon an contraption with unbridled pride in American workmanship. "That thing will run like a bobcat in a huckleberry patch." Sold, $17.50.
"Now this hotplate, you can put anything you want to get hot on it," said Orndorff, working the crowd like a Las Vegas comic. "You can put your wife on it if you want." Sold $5.
As the night wore on, Orndorff alternately scolded, cajoled and pleaded with his audience, calling most of them by their first names. Nothing went unsold, though at times Orndorff berated his audience in mock exasperation for letting some "dadburned good lookin' little item," escape for an unworthy price.
"Now right here we've got a beautiful set of diamond rings, expensive rings. I'd say they cost between a thousand and fifteen hundred dollars a pair," announced Orndorff, provoking a moan of opposition from the crowd.
"You're dadburned right they're real diamonds," retorted Orndorff, disappointed that his good friends couldn't recognize quality by sparkle alone. After five full minutes of tongue-tripping fast talk, Orndorff let the diamonds go for $310.
Never one to hold a grudge, Orndorff quickly returned to form when three gallons of paint were put up on the block.
"Hey Buck, What color is that paint?" called someone from the crowd.
"What color do you want?" answered Orndorff, his blue eyes made merry by the sight of another sold crowd.