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ibook cover The House That Ebay Built

The Nantucket House That Ebay Built

Three years ago I wrote a book about furnishing my Nantucket house on eBay. That’s right. I’d bought an antique house on Pine Street and decided that the best way to find (and afford) the antique furnishings I wanted was to buy everything on eBay—every rug, chair, curtain, lamp, painting, pot, faucet, bed, sailors valentine, bark bottle, taxidermy chicken…on Ebay, knowing full well that the idea was absurd enough that I could then write about it.

At the time I emailed Joyce Wadler at The New York Times to see if she wanted to write about the venture and she did. The article appeared as a two-page cover spread in the Home section titled “The Instant Heirloom House”. You can Google it and still read it. It brought me my 15 minutes of fame.

Soon thereafter I began working with a graphic designer to create an ibook. To work, my book needed lots of photographs and drawings and I knew that it could benefit from being interactive so the new electronic medium seemed to be the way to go. It’s been a labor of love and frustration but finally it is finished and can be purchased and downloaded at Apple’s ibookstore for the bargain basement price of $9.99.

Here’s the first chapter:


I always longed to inherit an old wind-battered, wonky-floored seaside summerhouse, but I didn’t. I dreamed of being shepherded into an attic one Sunday afternoon by a spotted, aging aunt, breathless and palsied but eager to reveal the hidden treasures of a checkered past that would soon become my inheritance: snuff boxes, tea caddies, needlepoint samplers, folksy whirligigs and miniature portraits (on ivory) of rakish great uncles. But I had no aunts, no attics and no one in my family happened to own anything but a 1960s Rancher.

I grew up in Philadelphia’s blue-blood suburbs--the Main Line-- where my classmates had grandmothers with cabins in the Adirondacks and the Great lakes, or ocean front properties in Northeast Harbor and Prouts Neck, Maine.  The calendar read 1963, but my prep school classmates still called boots Wellingtons, raincoats Macintoshes and record players Victrolas because their summerhouses contained these things. Being newcomers from Florida, my family called things what sales people in department stores called them. And they bought whatever version of raincoat was the least expensive (not durable) because in their home town, St. Petersburg, Florida, people just died, they didn’t live on forever in their heirlooms. So it’s highly likely that I developed my coveting impulses from being a child on the margin of inclusion, a child always two or three name brands removed from her peers. Psychologists encourage this kind of self-awareness, and I’m happy to oblige, but this book is a testimonial to my own personal credo –which is that you should never take the fun out of dysfunctional.

That being the case, I spent my early twenties cluttering my apartments with bits of broken blue and white china, threw an old quilt over the seat cushions on my standard-issue, Haitian-cotton sofa, and watched from the sidelines as retail home furnishings caught up with me. The Archangel of my kindred spirits was Ralph Lauren, of course. When, in 1982 he unveiled his first line of blue blood accessories, leather suitcases and trunks full of camp blankets and herringbone riding jackets, it began to seem possible that anyone could be to-the-manor-born. Moreover, you could pick your bloodline, by region even. Freed from the shackles of a legitimate heritage, you could inherit, by credit card, a hunting lodge in Southwest Utah, complete with Aztec Indian style blankets and deerskin jackets or a shingled house on the coast of Maine complete with walking sticks and needlepoint pillows. But it took a lot of new money to buy the old moneyed look. Which, well, once again I didn’t have.

And then, in 2003, I discovered eBay.

EBay was the stairway to the attic of my dreams.  EBay made inheritance possible through adoption --of other people’s unwanted inheritance.

Given the yin and yang of the world, why was I surprised to find how many people want to unburden themselves of their great aunt’s clutter? My fantasy of a room filled with odd mint tins, Victorian needle cases, perfume bottles, family tintypes, scratchy homespun and civil war journals is, it turns out, someone else’s nightmare.

Indeed, on reflection I realized I had a friend for whom Biedermier furniture is yet another cross she has to bear for being married to a man who inherited it from German grandparents.  While I always found happy kinship with a family that crated up and shipped out grandfather’s ivory inlaid secretary before hitting the ground running from Nazi persecution.

The first thing I ever bought on Bay was, however, not a family heirloom. It was a stuffed gorilla that rocked from side to side, played bongo drums and sang “I don’t wanna work, I just wanna bang on the drums all day.”  My son had been given just such a slice of heaven for his birthday and I observed the shy envy of his cousin, his smile always a little too taut as he pressed its “on” switch, over and over again. I wanted to buy him one for Christmas. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. “Did you try eBay?” suggested someone from the 21st century.  So I opened the site and typed in “gorilla bongo drums sings” and poof there he was. For $5 plus shipping. It was like Disney magic. Bibbedy boppedy boo and my little nephew’s dream came true.

And then I asked myself the inevitable, fateful eBay Pandora’s box of a question: Could my own little materialistic dreams come true as well?  So I typed in “rubber cigar with blowout worm” and poof; then I typed in “vintage pinecone elf with lantern” and poof; then I typed in “vintage Rushton Zippy monkey” and poof.

Initially, the fact that I was no longer eleven didn’t occur to me.

Thinking of my nephew, I was in a rush to fulfill all the painfully pent-up longings of my disadvantaged (because denied something) childhood. Two Christmases in a row I had asked for Zippy the rubber faced chimpanzee doll. The cool cigar with blow-out worm had broken within minutes of its life with me .These wounds must have been throbbing just below the surface of my fortitude because at the mere hint of a salve they had come screaming through my synapses channeling down into my racing fingertips. Moreover, the purveyors of this eBay magic knew precisely what they were doing because there in front of me, under a gelatinous smiling Zip, complete with overalls and beanie, were these words:

“I’ve been listing my entire lifetime Zippy monkey collection, wanting to make sure they all go to the right people… people who had one as a child, who lost him and want him back, or people who were never lucky enough to have one.”

Through the magic of eBay, you could resurrect your childhood, and make it right; you could improve, repair, replace whatever chink there had been in your armor of “things I need in order to feel loved.”

Fortunately I had children, albeit fully grown, inside whose birthday and Christmas and Easter, and Valentine “wishes” I could smuggle what had clearly been the contraband of my childhood. And fortunately my children are both obviously better sports than I was about getting things they don’t want, because, as my daughter pointed out with irritating sobriety, who could want stuffed animals called “Steiff” that you can’t hug because they’re hard and they prickle.

It was an inexplicably long time before I shifted my coveting obsessions away from the 1950s and 60s of my childhood and in the direction of a past I had never owned—the impulse, in other words, that paved the way to this book.

It started because I needed to create a guest room in my house, from scratch. Heaven be praised, there was not a stick of furniture in the space. I had never had the luxury of a room fully dedicated to welcoming outsiders. Liberated from the requirements of permanent residency, it was the perfect stage for a set redolent with connotation.

For some, wanting to make a guest room feel warm and welcoming means lace frills and scents. (photo or drawing) I’ve always been suspicious of scents.

I was more drawn to the great escape notion of a guest room. Maybe it’s my own “run-away” instinct, but I assume guests are, first and foremost, happy to escape from wherever they have come. If I could have put together a large enough tent with canteens swinging from support rods, I might have….or the interior of an Orient Express train car… or an AM/PM gas station store complete with glass doored refrigerators…

Instead I created a one-room lakeside cabin in center city Philadelphia.  You are supposed to imagine yourself in a very bad painting above the bed. (photo of painting).

When I was twelve a classmate of mine had invited me to the Ausable Club in the Adirondacks for a “play week”. It was my first encounter with twig furniture and leather stitched lampshades and walls made of chocolate colored tree trunks layered with vanilla frosting. Later in life, when Robert Redford came out with his Sundance catalogue, I scoffed at his hammered metal moose hooks. Really.

I used “antique Adirondack” as a search term on ebay

I purchased everything in the room (except the bed) on ebay

All of these nostalgic impulse purchases were good practice. They prepared me for my eBay marathon—the recovery of the greatest loss of my childhood. She was simple and sturdy, like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud, companionable, like Zip the Chimp…only unfortunately much bigger. Because she was a house.

Sherry Lefevre is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing for Film and Television at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa.  The Nantucket House That eBay Built is available here.