By Julian Rankin
Photography by Marianne Todd
The material things we own, as sure as the chromosomes within us, are maps to who we are. Or, as Ben Box of the Meridian, Mississippi-based Benjamin E. Box Estate Sales puts it, “You learn more about people when you go through their house. It’s scary.” Take the elderly, mild-mannered lady – a friend of Box’s – who passed in her 90s. Not until he prepared her house for a sale did Box find evidence of his friend’s remarkable back story: her father, Tom Bailey, was the 48th governor of the state, and she’d been married on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion. Bailey died in office in 1946, followed in politics by his wife Nellah Massey Bailey – the lady’s mother – named state treasurer in 1947 as the first woman elected to statewide office in Mississippi.
But things have no memories of their own, only what we ascribe to them. Over time, beloved keepsakes are discarded, traded, lost, left behind. But no matter their prior journeys, when a new owner takes them up at one of Box’s estate sales, the old is made new once more. “It’s a service,” says Box of the business. “We work on nothing but reputation. When you’re in a small town, your reputation walks way ahead of you.”
Box’s military father, an OB/GYN, retired from the Air Force and settled the family in Meridian in the 1970s when Box was in high school. But the buying-and-selling bug bit him long before his Mississippi arrival, at a Tuscon, Arizona, swap-meet in fourth grade. “That’s where they’d take an old drive-in theater and rent the car spaces for five dollars a day,” Box recalls. The young entrepreneur carted a selection of his father’s old ties and records and his mother’s knick-knacks. Grinning widely, as loquacious then as he is today, Box made his first sale, sealed with a handshake. It wasn’t the transaction that gave him the rush, but the interaction, the knowledge that he could play matchmaker between orphaned objects and buyers looking for something to love. “The bottom line,” says Box of his career, “is that it’s in my blood.”
Through the decades, Box has amassed his own collection of ephemera and memento, items of the passed-over variety with special character, like chipped china or old photographs from times gone by. Destined for the trash heap, Box rescues them into his personal museum. But don’t go looking for valuable treasures in his own attic. “I always tell people, don’t stand in line at my estate sale,” Box jokes darkly of his eventual demise. “Because everything in my house is broken or glued or something nobody wanted.”
Only in the South could a business reliant on profit margins and inventory liquidation be imbued with such compassion and warmth. From his combat-veteran business partner, Trevor Miller, to his intergenerational patchwork team of pros, Box is drawn to people, like himself, who are duty-bound to the job and community. Miller is Box’s counterpoint, a three-decades-younger logistics man who, during his seven years of military service, was a truck driver in war-torn Iraq, a door gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter in Afghanistan, an accountant for the Army during tax season and a coordinator of ammunition handling and distribution; he keeps the sales on track and does the literal heavy lifting.
“Everybody here working with me is a collection,” says Box, a monogrammed apron cinched around his waist during a Saturday sale. “We all have these relationships. And we all come together to do this. I could take you around the room and tell you everybody’s story.” Box points to his colleague Judy VanVeckhoven, who is preparing lunch for the crew. She doesn’t have to work, Box says. She does it because she loves it. Rosalynn Naylor, his cashier, has been working for him since she was 16. Another employee, Vicky Hayes, works the Saturday sales and see Box at church on Sunday. They know their customers and clients, too. Box’s sales have an air of Episcopalian fellowship: hugs, laughter, (communion?), familiarity with trusted friends, and hearty welcomes for fresh-faced estate-sale-parishioners.
“Just yesterday,” tells Box, “a man came to look at a piece of exercise equipment. We just had this great conversation at six thirty at night…” The man didn’t buy the workout machine, but he and Box talked into the evening. The African-American factory worker told Box he wasn’t from the area originally. They spoke of the Deep South and race relations and the paradoxical beauty of place and memory. They talked of these things next to the Nordic Track in a stranger’s vacant bedroom.
Box will retire into the estate sale business, but he also has a day job in the office of Dr. Ronnye Purvis, OB/GYN. When Purvis arrived in Meridian in 1991, there were no black gynecologists in town, and he had trouble finding landlords who would rent to him. Box’s father advocated for Purvis and helped him find an office to begin his practice. Purvis hired Box to help run the office. What was meant to be a two-year posting turned into more than two decades. In the medical world, just as in the estate sale business, Box treats everyone who walks through the door as family. “He has a way with a lot of different people,” says Purvis, who stopped by the estate sale to look for new furniture for his reception area. “It doesn’t matter who you are. And in a small town, being able to be who you are, and not have to worry about it – I think that’s why we hit it off really well.”
At the sale, Susan Henry greets Box on her way out of the house. She’d recently started attending his estate sales and has experienced the excitement of discovering cherished surprises. She’s found some beautiful stained glass and a 1969 high school yearbook from the year her father graduated. “My dad had actually lost his,” Susan says of the book. “And so I bought it for him.” It had a name inside it from the previous owner. Susan’s father held his past in his hands and read the inscription. “Oh my gosh!” he exclaimed. “I dated this girl for a week when we were in junior high.”
Estate sales have changed over the years. In the beginning, the antiques, silver, crystal, and china that Box sold almost always belonged to the recently deceased. The chief marketing tactics were newsprint advertisements and handwritten letters that Box mailed to his customers. These sales were social events for fine ladies in fine hats wearing patterned blouses. But these days, he also works with homeowners very much alive and kicking, who retain his services because they are downsizing or moving away. Antiques have given way to more modern furniture suites and big screens and state-of-the-art kitchen appliances. The internet has brought estate sales to new audiences, like millennials in search of bargains, and buyers from across the country who peruse Facebook albums from thousands of miles away and have their purchases shipped from Meridian to New York. Part of him misses the antiques, but Box recognizes the progression of the industry and appreciates the ever-changing currents of time.
“When I was selling sterling I knew a lobster fork versus an oyster fork. Soon, people won’t know what those forks are for. Some people don’t even know what an antique is. But it doesn’t matter.” The magic of estate sales has always been in the eye of the beholder.
What would Box tell his fourth-grade self, if he could, about trends, objects, karma, and a lifetime of good works? “Everything comes around again,” he says, after a pause. “That’s the wonderful thing about this business."
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