By the final afternoon of a three-day estate sale for the great Maya Angelou, a few of the legendary writer’s neighbors had carved out their own piece of the action.
The author, poet and activist loved hosting parties, but it’s hard to imagine there had ever been this many cars lining the small side street where Angelou resided, wedged between Wake Forest University, where she taught, and Old Town Club’s golf course and country club in northern Winston-Salem.
Somewhere approaching 6,000 people lined up in front of the grand, fenced-off home before the sale opened on Aug. 6, waiting to enter in groups of 50 at most. With two hours remaining in the sale on the cloudless Saturday afternoon, the line of cars stretched all the way to the busy Coliseum Drive in one direction where local police had lined parking cones to stop attendees from pulling over along the thoroughfare.
The closest parking spot could be found almost half a mile down Bartram Road — free parking, that is.
Neighbors at three nearby houses had positioned themselves in collapsible lawn chairs at the edge of their stately circular driveways, with hand-drawn signs offering $5 parking. Coolers with bottles of water, going for $1 each, rested besides them, and in one case, umbrellas blocked direct sunlight.
If the same kids had set up lemonade stands at the edge of their sprawling front lawns when they were younger, they would’ve been lucky to bring in enough money for a bag of lemons. But these kids couldn’t do much better than an estate sale for the woman who won a Grammy and spoke at two presidential inaugurations, among a laundry list of other historic accomplishments. All three driveways appeared full, and soon police blocked non-residents from driving down the street altogether.
Only then did the line in front of Angelou’s massive home — one of two in the city — begin to dwindle as the multigenerational throng wove its way from room to room, circulating between three stories and taking the opportunity to gander at the complex’s magnificent backyard, patios and porches.
The day before it all began, Larry Laster and his family sat inside a front living room off the main entrance pricing paintings and sculptures while two more people sorted through belongings in the finished basement and an adjoining two-car garage, not far from another that could fit three next to a small greenhouse.
As they prepared, a large passenger van emblazoned with the insignia of the National Black Theatre Festival — based in walking distance from Angelou’s home and being held the same weekend as the estate sale — pulled up in front of the house. But with a gate and intercom system guarding the driveway, the van quickly turned around and left, offering passengers the type of view one would receive on a Hollywood tour of homes.
The celebrity status drove many of the purchases; a used typewriter would never fetch $5,000 otherwise, and some rather mundane kitchen items would be priced lower at another estate sale. Many of the countless pieces for sale were remnants, having already been picked over by friends and family. Laster sold about 200 more pieces of art from Angelou’s collection at his store, Laster’s Fine Art & Antiques, on Stratford Road in the months immediately preceding last week’s deluge.
By the time the public entered Maya Angelou’s primary residence, it hardly looked the same as she kept it. More than a year had passed, and in the interim much of what had made it hers changed hands. But considering how many things already left the expansive house, the residual pool of items still overflowed.
New books lined shelves, and despite hanging paintings and drawings on practically every piece of open wall space, a stack leaned into the space by the top of the open staircase down to the basement. Her bedroom had been blocked off by furniture, in accordance with her family’s wishes, but five upstairs rooms and three bathrooms would be accessible, as well as a former dining room, bookcase-lined basement and several other memorabilia-stocked rooms.
The stained glass chandeliers in a front room would be priced too, at $1,000 each, and Laster said he believed the house built in 1960 would eventually be sold as well.
Below: Photos by Amanda Salter
An appraiser had assessed the value of dozens of pieces of fine art, including a handful of sculptures, for the sale, but on the eve of the three-day affair, the team inside the house was still making judgment calls on smaller pieces. Someone carried a 12-pack of Fat Tire beer with a 2003 expiration date out to a dumpster in the front driveway, but a gold bottle of champagne gleamed next to six matching decanters. It would fetch $20.
Attendees gawked at the house itself — the pink walls upstairs, a raised screen porch off of a wraparound, a pool with stairs and a slide built into a rock fixture that had long since been filled in — but the colorful home, though impressive, isn’t grandiose or decked with frills. It wouldn’t stand out compared to the other expensive residential properties in the neighborhood on its own.
That isn’t why people stood in line, or lugged boxes down a hill to their cars, or turned around with intentions of returning later when the crowd might thin. They came, of course, because of the woman who lived here, to touch a piece of history before the brief moment slipped between their fingers.
They came to take part of that history — in the form of dish towels, autographed books, birdhouses shaped like church hats, Queen Anne’s side chairs, portraits of Angelou or a dulcimer — home with them.
The 10 coolest things at Maya Angelou’s estate sale
- Her personal typewriter ($5,000)
Maya Angelou’s typewriter, an Alder from Executive Business Machines in Winston-Salem, would’ve been easy to overlook on a table in a room towards the back. But given that writing is what Angelou is most known for, this tool of the trade deserved a neon arrow pointing to it. Despite the high price, it sold before the sale ended.
- An old radio ($395)
A Philco floor model radio was one of the first, and certainly the largest, item greeting visitors as they entered. Standing more than waist high, it would appeal to young hipsters and aged antique collectors alike.
- Duke Ellington figure ($27,500)
A statue of musical pioneer Duke Ellington, his tuxedoed torso rising out of the base, shows the legend playing a set of flying keys. It’s a beautiful piece, to be sure, but the work by an unknown artist costs as much as two new cars.
- The lounging Pink Panther ($30)
It’s hard to say whether Maya Angelou used the cube-shaped container to store cookies, or at all, but it’s amusing to think about her chuckling about its design. The Pink Panther, lounging in a bathrobe in a modeling pose holds up a martini glass, acts as the handle for a jar painted like a black die with green dots.
- Eggbeater plates (6 for $50)
A set of six small, white side plates featuring a simple black illustration of an eggbeater was one of the more accessible choices that would’ve been worth it regardless of the previous owner. Another set, with a drawing of a rolling pin, was also available to a good home for the same price. Angelou loved to host, so it’s also easy to imagine these saw their share of action in a highly cultured circle.
- Crosley Select-O-Matic ($58)
A table in the rear dining room sported a much smaller, and more affordable, radio. This one is more like a mini jukebox, with select hits from artists such as Fats Domino, the Shirelles, Marvin Gaye and Chubby Checker. Nice.
- “Sun Down at the Hole” painting ($6,600)
I don’t know what it is about this Alonzo Adams acrylic painting of a man, facing away from the viewer, fishing, but the piece is alluring. If money was no object, I might possess it.
- The books (various prices)
An entire room — and not a small one — off Angelou’s bedroom had been turned into quite the library. And even more titles populated shelves in the basement, as well as a few in a front room on the first floor. With the National Black Theatre Festival in town, the $33 Blacks in American Theatre History by HD Flowers likely sold. Others of interest included I Have Risen: Essays by African-American Youth, dozens of Angelou’s own writings including signed copies, a book on Tibet, a few by Tavis Smiley and the ubiquitous Original Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul guide. Laster said that last he heard, the remaining books would be given to Wake Forest University, where Angelou taught.
- Poster-board quote ($200)
Shelling out this much for a quote on poster-board isn’t advisable, but the Maya Angelou quote emblazoned on it summarized why the whole event resonated so deeply with the thousands who turned out, and is worth remembering. “People live in direct relationship with their heroes,” it said. The night before the sale began, the piece hadn’t found a prominent place yet, instead tucked aside and barely visible in the front foyer.
- Berry Gordy cards ($40 each)
Christmas paraphernalia filled two tables in an upstairs bedroom. But besides the usual tchotchkes are two holiday cards from Berry Gordy, the 85-year-old founder of Motown Records. The first, from 1998, reads, “Let love, laughter and music light up your holidays!” while another from 2003 is longer, yet still impersonal. Both look like plaques, and are among the only items from celebrities that remained after family and friends sifted through Angelou’s things.
Four things the TCB team took home
- Chopsticks ($10)
Freelance photographer Amanda Salter, who took most of our pictures of Angelou’s estate sale, bought a pair of $10 chopsticks with detailed blue design work at the base. The solo set ranked among the most affordable, yet pretty, of the sale. Salter bought a notebook, too.
- Empty Champagne ($20)
It seems a little stupid, really, to buy an empty bottle of Champagne, but I like to imagine what Angelou celebrated as she popped the cork on this shiny gold bottle of Armand de Brignac. Decorating with empty booze bottles is pretty passé, even for modern frat boys, but this token still took up residence next to a tap handle and a few other fancy empties on a shelf in my guest room. Side note: The line “Gold bottle of that ace of spades,” in Jay Z’s 2006 hit “Show Me What You Got” is about this bubbly, and the video prominently featuring the beverage upped the drink’s profile.
- Kentucky Derby shot glass ($10)
Angelou liked to go to the Kentucky Derby, sale manager Larry Laster said, so in a way, this 2010 memorabilia is significant. Like the Champagne bottle, the allure of imagining Angelou using it is strong, but it’s still functional. Imagine a guest using it and asking if you had been to the derby and nonchalantly remarking, “Oh no, that was Maya Angelou’s.”
- Cocktail shaker ($10)
What good is a shot glass without a cocktail shaker? This plastic mixer, with the recipes for several cocktails listed along its sides, is pretty generic, but given that it’s perfectly usable, I thought it would pair well as a takeaway gift from the sale for my girlfriend, who couldn’t attend.
Larry Laster’s loves
Larry Laster, who ran the estate sale, said two portraits of Angelou that he hung on either side of an armoire were his favorites. He priced one, a colorful oil-on-canvas piece from 1999, at $6,600.
“I love that one because that’s how she smiled,” said Laster, who knew Angelou from her visits to his fine arts store in town, where she would come and sometimes pass a couple hours.
P. Ryan painted the second — a black, white and gray oil-on-canvas portrait with a red background — which Laster priced at $4,400 and which graces our front cover.