NORTH TAMPA — Every weekday morning, scores of seasoned bargain hunters gather at an inconspicuous Nebraska Avenue warehouse for a chance to bid on a variety of merchandise, from appliances, furniture and electronics to huge waist-high boxes filled with hundreds of used books.
On a recent morning, a half-hour before the 9:30 auction, a male-dominated group of nearly 100 prospective buyers examined the huge collection of merchandise. Some came with a singular mission: to buy a huge box of assorted used books, or one of the large bins full of vacuum cleaners.
“A lot of people come in here searching,” said Mike Williams, longtime processing center supervisor for the 8,000-square-foot auction warehouse tucked behind the Salvation Army Family Store, 13910 N. Nebraska Ave. “They know what they’re looking for; they don’t always find it.”
Willams estimates 80 percent of the customers are regulars. Most he knows on sight, if not by nickname and primary product of interest.
As is customary, auctioneer Gaylloyd Olds follows a schedule that starts with electronics and appliances and finishes with furniture. “We’re not tying up their time,” that way, Williams said of auction regulars, like the owner of three Dade City appliance stores who attends most days to bid on refrigerators, washers and dryers to repair and resell with guarantees.
Patrick Schuman of Apollo Beach is always at the five-day-a-week auction to bid on the huge boxes of books on the block. On this Wednesday, he is examining one holding an estimated 600 to 700 books of all types and conditions.
Armed with a hand-held scanner that reads each book’s barcode, he plucks one after another from the top of the waist-high heap. Within seconds the gizmo reveals Amazon’s lowest price for that particular book in used condition. “The last book I scanned was a penny,” the next was $6.70, he said. There are many penny-valued books in the box, he added.
Schuman, 31, has been selling used books on the internet for 11 years; eight years in Buffalo, N.Y., the last three here. “I do a lot better down here,” he said. “There’s more books.”
He expects to reap 50 saleable books from each of two huge boxes he bought with a combined bid of $110, but won’t know for sure until workers move the hefty boxes outside to the warehouse loading dock, where he begins the tedious sorting. Books not valuable enough to warrant listing for sale he returns, on the spot, to the Salvation Army, which sells them by the ton to a Land O’ Lakes recycler.
Newer textbooks and some nonfiction titles bring the best return. “It’s all about supply and demand,” he said, citing a medical book he once found elsewhere that netted $800. The day before the auction, Schuman mailed 162 used books to online buyers.
Another auction regular, Joel Rogers of Tampa, is to vacuum cleaners what Schuman is to books. The West Tampa resident has attended the Salvation Army’s “as-is auction” for 15 years.
The 56-year-old is eyeing two bins of vacuums this day, bidding on one but dropping out when the price tops his $100 ceiling. He repairs vacuums he buys and sells them at his stall at Wagon Wheel Flea Market in Pinellas Park.
Mark Asse of Brandon and his associates come to buy bulk quantities of clothing, shoes, linens, purses, wallets, radios and other items to ship from the Port of Tampa to Haiti. Another auction regular buys bins containing hundreds of pairs of shoes, for resale in Honduras.
Regular buyers include many re-sellers who shun publicity and decline to be identified in print, possibly not wanting to reveal their merchandise source.
Linda Kropp, administrative assistant for the adjacent 120-bed Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center that benefits from the auction and provides its volunteer workers, said merchandise on the block is a combination of overstock items, things that didn’t sell in the nonprofit’s thrift stores or are not offered there, such as toys, stuffed animals, appliances and used mattresses.
Monday’s auction is the biggest of the week, for both merchandise and attendance, because it includes weekend donations at five regional Salvation Army stores: North and South Tampa, Brandon, Wesley Chapel and Lakeland.
Clothing that does not sell at auction is bundled in bulk and sold, by the pound, to buyers who ship it overseas.
The best thing to be found at this auction, says one regular customer, is the compassionate assistance provided clients of the Salvation Army’s Christian faith-based mission, dedicated to “serving the whole person, body, mind and spirit, with integrity and respect, using creative solutions to positively transform lives” marked by substance abuse and other afflictions.
“All of these guys in here are trying to get their lives back together,’’ Frank Hartman said of Salvation Army rehabilitation center residents who volunteer at the auction to fulfill part of their community service obligations. “I see absolute results,” said the retired business owner in his 70s who visits almost daily to find household items for friends.
“This place gives them a job to start interacting with the public, to see how a business can run,” Hartman said. “I’ve personally known many individuals who walked out of here and go get a job and never ever have another drink.”
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