CARBONEAR, NL — It's an art form built around the rhythmic repetition of numbers and phrases designed to convince bidders to empty their pockets.
Walter Mercer of Harbour Grace and Carbonear's Tammy Wrice are both seasoned auctioneers and have sold countless items over the years.
Mercer, whose father and mother were both from Bay Roberts, was born and raised in Brantford, Ont., best known as the hometown of hockey's greatest player of all time, Wayne Gretzky. Back when he was still living in Ontario, Mercer handled auctioneer duties for a lot of Wayne Gretzky Foundation fundraisers.
"Dad loved auction sales, and ever since I was a little kid, I used to go with him, and during the night I'd go up on the stage and help the auctioneer out," explained Mercer, a retired engineer who moved to the southside of Harbour Grace a few years ago with his wife Linda.
"I sort of fell in love with it at that point. I thought it was so neat and I thought someday, I'm going to do this."
Approximately 30 miles away in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, Wrice gained exposure to auctions while working for a car dealership.
"When I first went to Ontario in my very early 20s, I worked for a car lot … and (the owner) always brought me to auctions," said Wrice, who was born and raised in Carbonear and now operates Ocean View Art Gallery.
She eventually found herself attending other auctions to buy antiques and other goods. Soon enough, Wrice was up on a stage.
"Someone handed me a mic a few times. I had no fear of getting up in front of a crowd, and then decided to make it formal and go to auction college."
While he was all set to make a good living as an engineer, Mercer maintained an interest in the world of auctions. He was drawn to the business side of it and the psychology behind selling to people.
With a couple of years’ experience already under his belt, he decided to go to an auction school in Iowa. After that, he set up a business with an old friend.
"As an engineer, I did not need auctioning to put food on the table," he emphasized. "So, I could afford to do it my way. There's a lot of sales we turned down because I just didn't like the smell of it."
Discussing what they like about being an auctioneer, Wrice and Mercer begin to list off the various skills involved in being good at the gig — discipline, cadence, use of filler words, rhythm, breathing technique, stage presence, instilling confidence in others and reading a crowd.
"A lot of it is crowd psychology," Mercer points out. "There's a lot who think you just go to an auction sale and the auctioneer just calls out numbers. There's a lot more to it than that."
"The best advice I ever got early on was to watch the eyes," said Wrice. "And then for me, learning the business side of it I already had down pat … That took the pressure off. When you did finally get up in front of the mic, I knew what was going on in the room and how to read the people."
The showmanship element is essential to the art of auctioneering, as is an awareness of who is filling the seats. At farm auctions, Mercer noted everyone present is already seasoned when it comes to attending auctions, therefore the expectation is for an auctioneer to work fast and sell two items per minute.
"They were great," he said of the farm auctions. "Every Saturday morning you'd get up and put on your boots and your blue jeans, and you'd go work with the farmers. But the neat thing is when you start selling, they're standing 15 feet away. Within a few minutes, they're right next to ya, which means you've instilled in them the confidence in you to come right up next to you. They've lost the standoffishness right away."
Wrice said for charity auctions, there's more of a need to be entertaining in addition to a good seller, as the folks filling the seats want a show.
"You have to slow it down so that the average person in the crowd can understand you," she said.
With decades of combined experience under their belts, Mercer and Wrice have sold a lot of different items. Wrice recalled selling a larger chair made entirely of deer and moose antlers.
"I've literally sold everything from a bucket of nails to a piece of art worth thousands – and everything in between."
Among the most surprising sales Mercer made came last year at a Quinn Butt charity auction. He sold a jar of discontinued Zest Mustard Pickles for $750.
In Brantford years ago handling a house sale, Mercer started taking bids on a box in the garage with old baseballs in it.
"I asked for a couple of bucks. Got it right away. It went to about $150 and I stopped the sale. I said, 'OK guys. Enough of this, what's in the box?' And one of them reached in and took out a baseball, and it was signed by Wayne Gretzky when he was 12 years old playing for the all-star team. I didn't know about it."
When he was working regularly as an auctioneer, Mercer would show up three hours in advance of a sale to make sure he was familiar with every item.
"They can sense if you're shooting a line of bullshit and don't know what it is," he said.
Wrice understands all too well the difficulty of trying to sell unfamiliar goods. Once in Toronto she was called in as a last-minute replacement for an industrial auction when the person initially tasked with the job became suddenly ill.
"I was selling pieces of equipment the size of this building. Literally, I was in a warehouse in Toronto … You just jump in and do your best and you make light of it."
Mercer and Wrice remain active as auctioneers locally, doing events for charities. Sometimes they work together. With the popularity of sites like eBay perhaps taking some of the shine off auctions, Mercer believes there's potential in the Trinity-Conception-Placentia area.
"There's not that many auctions down here," he said. "I'm very surprised there isn't one in this area — a light-duty commercial sale, say one every two or three weeks. I really think you've got the market for it here. I know most are switching over to online auctions now, but there's still a place for something like this, because up in Ontario, people watch auction sales all week long. It's a form of entertainment … And it's something I haven't seen down here."