Rob Crellin casts his eyes into the crowd at Andy Kaye's Auction House and singles out the wealthy books that don't look like their rumpled covers.
"This guy," says Crellin, pointing to a 70-something gentleman wearing a fishing hat, who was just recently napping in his chair, "he's got a LOT of money. Look, shoes are worn out 10 times over and a wallet this thick."
Crellin is holding his thumb and forefinger a few inches apart.
True, looks can be deceiving. And nowhere is that adage more telling than the scene at the Stanley Street institution on any given Thursday, a night when everything from eyeballs to diamond rings can be purchased by the highest bidder.
And that bidder can be a doctor or lawyer. A nurse or long-haul trucker. All you need is the cash and an eye, not glass, for value. Or a sudden urge to purchase a fish ornament.
They sell everything at Kaye's, first opened by owner Andy Kaye some three decades ago on Stanley Street, just off Main. The place smells of stale cigarette smoke, coffee and the hotdogs sold at the small counter just beside the auction area. The company itself was born in 1976.
On a recent Thursday night, it was standing room only at 7 p.m., when Kaye put the first item up for bids: A Harley-Davidson leather jacket. Before the evening was over, Kaye and son, Jason, would sell everything in sight; Tonka toys, a snowblower, an SUV, Beatles figurines (circa 1964), a living-room set and grab boxes of miscellaneous items "too numerous to mention."
Everything but the kitchen sink. This time.
But it's not the stuff that makes Kaye's a curious place, it's the assembled treasure-hunters whose stories are as varied as the objects they buy.
Take Chris Boyko, 27, who bowed out of bidding on a hockey stick autographed by former Montreal Canadien Yvan Cournoyer that eventually sold for $90. "My girlfriend really likes the Montreal Canadiens," he explained. "I thought it would be a good gift."
But Boyko comes to Kaye's once a month for a different reason.
"My dad used to take me here when I was just a little kid," he said. "And I used to go to garage sales with him. I thought it would bring back some memories. Usually we meet here."
Boyko's father, Brian, wasn't in the house that night, but Clinton Vinet was there with his wife, Amanda.
Why? "Four kids," he replied. "This is a night out. I'm not kidding."
Vinet is new to the auction game. Not long ago, he was a restaurant kitchen manager. His father died, leaving him an inheritance of over $2 million. Now he renovates houses and looks for items to fill them.
A veteran of only three Thursday nights, Vinet has already purchased five bedroom sets ($400) and two china cabinets ($100 apiece). Oh, and a box full of VHS tapes for $30. "Because they're all Sopranos and Godfathers," he said. "I'll watch every one of them."
But do people still own VHS players?
"I do," the young millionaire replied.
Crellin was attending his first auction at Kaye's before Vinet was born, when the inaugural crowd lined up four deep north to Logan Avenue. Over the years, Crellin, a long-haul trucker by occupation, would bid for gold and diamonds. Jewelry that could be flipped, if possible, "before I left the building."
But Crellin gets tight-lipped on the subject of profit. "I fed my family," he said, "let's put it that way. Whatever turned a dollar."
In that regard, not much has changed at Kaye's. Many of the bidders are antique dealers or furniture-store owners and fellow retailers looking for a bargain. There's independents with the same goal, who post their latest purchases on eBay or Kijiji.
However, Kaye's has not been unaffected by the recent proliferation of reality-television shows spawned by Pawn Stars and Storage Wars, which are now fixtures of cable television in North America. Turns out, finding hidden gems in somebody's else's junk is now a preoccupation of the cool kids. (Memo to Winnipeg garage-sale mavens: Who knew?)
And while that might be a boon for houses like Kaye's -- the only in-house auction remaining in the city -- the regulars are miffed.
Bob and Alice Mensforth started attending storage auctions eight years ago. But in the last three years, the influx of newbies turned on by the tube has risen significantly. Where there once were 100 people in the crowd, now there are upwards of 400 at local locker auctions -- where folks bid on boxes of who-knows-what for the most part. "And the price goes through the roof, too," Bob noted, because everybody thinks they're going to make a fortune."
Added Alice: "It used to be so much fun. But now with all those TV shows... It's ridiculous. You can't buy anything cheap anymore."
But that didn't stop Alice and Bob from buying a locker at a Kaye auction just the day before. The parents came home with a batch of boxes and they opened them up together with their two teenage kids. "My daughter said she thought it was like Christmas," said Alice.
They broke even with a gold, heart-shaped necklace ($200), school supplies ($400) and about 100 DVDs.
It also didn't stop the Mensforths from buying a boatload of china on Thursday night, either. Their motto: "It's a cheap night out. You never know what might happen."
Like when Kaye auctions off a giant wooden airplane propeller for $200. Didn't win the bidding war? No worries, there's another propeller on the block next (sold for $100).
Near the end of the night, Dennis Statz is leaving with a ceramic action figure of a young Bobby Hull in a Blackhawks uniform, complete with a certificate of authenticity.
"I started getting into it watching TV," said Statz, who was with his daughter, Brittney, and son, Kyle. "I thought, 'I should get out there again.' It's the excitement of the treasure and what you can get."
Ah, yes. And treasure can be in the eye of the beholder. At least when it comes to the woman who bought a wooden fish with brass fins.
Or that aforementioned glass eyeball. "He (the buyer) was going to drill a hole in it," Jason Kaye recalled, "and hang it on his rear-view mirror."
So it goes. The father-and-son Kaye's will auction off one item (a diamond ring) for $16,000. The next for 10 bucks. Whatever they don't sell, they give to the first person who raises their hand.
On Friday morning, next Thursday's auction is already taking shape. There's a pile of hair-salon equipment and a bankruptcy sale that includes boxes of Air Jordan sneakers.
"It's just a pile of weird stuff," Jason Kaye said.
Some come for the memories, some for the memorabilia.
Let the bidding begin.