If there ever was an economics lesson that's fun to watch, fun to be part of, it's at the Springville Auction.
Every Wednesday from just past dawn to well beyond dusk, hundreds, even thousands of people engage in the stripped-down decisions of a free market economy.
The auction is a mish-mash of supply and demand. Do you want it or not? Junk or jewel, take it or leave it. Buy or walk away-- and maybe come back.
And what a show it is! First-time visitors can't believe what some people will drag out to sell. Better yet, what other people will buy.
For more than 50 years, Billy Gentner, the gravel-voiced successor to his founding father, has nudged visitors to buy. On Tuesdays, he and his staff accept auction merchandise at the Springville Commission Market. No item is too fancy, no box of dreary-looking objects too grungy or too weird.
"Nothing surprises me," Gentner said the other day. "Not even the two-headed stuffed calf that someone once brought in."
For a 25 percent commission, but not less than $3, he'll have it sold. Frequently a box of mixed whatever will bring only $3, leaving the consignor with nothing. That's the risk factor of the free market.
Occasionally, nobody may bid. "Then it's my job to get rid of it," Gentner says. "It costs people $3 to shake my hand."
He began attending his father's auction when he was seven years old. Fifty years later, he's a master of prompting auction-goers to put up or shut up.
Like the strippers in the musical "Gypsy," Billy does it with a smile. Why not? He and his family have done well.
But unlike the exotics of "Gypsy" fame, Billy sells without gimmicks. No soft-lit supermarkets with neatly stacked shelves. No automatic price scanners. No clip-out coupons. No rebates. No loss leaders or special sales. No music. Spring and summer breezes, when available, and fall and winter blasts provide the air conditioning.
"Only missed three auctions in 50 years," Billy Gentner mumbled the other Wednesday between the sale of some rusty lawnmowers and tired tires. Jack Kester, clutching a coffee cup, was the morning auctioneer. Jeanne Fancher, scribbling on a clipboard, kept track of who bought what and for how much. The outdoor auction lasted to nearly 2 p.m. Private deals are banned once an item is accepted for auctioning.
Kester usually is followed by Paul Kozma and Arnold Karg for the afternoon and evening sales, much of which is food, poultry and livestock.
By the time they've shouted Wednesday's last "sold," as much as $25,000 and merchandise have changed owners.
Complementing the auction and almost as much fun is the flea market that Bill Sahr runs. For $10 or $12 a space, vendors can sell food, tools, clothing, jewelry, cheese, household and kitchen gadgets.
The customers and the vendors come from all over Western New York and Pennsylvania. The other week, Supervisor Tom Thrasher of Persia (Gowanda) was an early bird shopper. Shortly after 10 a.m. he walked along Springville's Main Street (Route 39) to his parked car, swinging a New York Central Railroad lantern. "My son collects them" he said. "Cost me $22. She asked $28 to start. I offered $20. She came down to $24. I offered $20 again. She said 'no.' I walked away. I came back later. We agreed on $22."
Ed Layton and his 17-year-old son, Eric, of Cuba put on crowd-stopping demonstrations. The father was selling $21 plastic salad and vegetable processors that re-design potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage and apples a dozen ways. In the next aisle, son Eric was mopping with a miracle chamois cloth-- a $19 value $4 each, three of $10-- that solves spill, stain and car washing problems. They talked a lot, sold a lot.
You walk around. There's so much to see. Back at the auction, Kester had just sold a box of about 30 one-size heavy wrenches for $4 and a dozen heavy, slightly rusty files for $3 to Gary and Judy Rowley of Akley, Pa.
"We'll clean them and next fall take them to our Lakeland, Fla. home," said burley, bearded Gary, 48, who retired a few years ago and is a frequent auction buyer. "We'll sell the files and wrenches at Florida flea markets for $1 each. Items like this finance our trip back to Florida. Before we come north next year, we'll buy canned Florida citrus juice and sell it along the way."
Clint Salmon, the former Sardinia supervisor, at the flea market waved a bag. "Just bought three summer sport shirts for $5. You can't beat that price."
Nearby, Evelyn and Clifford Schwartz of Farnham were selling flats of flowers and hanging flower baskets they grew in their greenhouse. "We come every spring and sell out," said Mrs. Schwartz. He's retired from a Silver Creek plant.
Not every flea market vendor did as well. Joe Schwartz, a retired steel worker from Hamburg, had a display of polished shoes, tools and other items. No one was around.
"My wife told me to clean out the basement. "I'm doing nothing," he said late in the morning. "If they don't sell, I'll give it all away."
Food vendors do score at the flea market-auction. Amish breads and pies, cheeses, sausages and all manner of fruits and vegetables are hawked from stands.
Ann Petroski of Holland was holding her young son Joshua while her mother glanced at a flat of geraniums she had just bought. "I'll plant them in my garden. I paid $1. Did I get ripped?"
"You'll know in a couple of weeks," came the answer.
Standing near a 3 x 4 foot poster of Jimmy Slattery, the onetime Buffalo topnotch prize fighter, was John Burns of Springville. He was rapidly sketching the sales turmoil. "I've been painting three years," he said. "I'll take the sketches home and paint from them."
Burns, who's 26, said that he's an auction regular. The odd products that change hands at the auction sometimes inspire people to different activities. "Last fall, I bought a unicycle here for $5," Burns said. "Now I ride it and do a juggling act." It figures.