March 09--CAMBRIDGE -- Some of Mark Bingham's earliest memories are of picking through the garbage for useful -- or better yet, potentially valuable -- items.
So it was only natural that when his construction business of 22 years dried up in the most recent recession, Bingham's thoughts would turn to his lifelong obsession.
The result is All American Sales & Auctions, his two-year-old business that recently relocated from Lake Mills to a larger space on Highway 18 on Cambridge's west side.
"The thing I knew best after construction was collecting and antiques," Bingham said. "My wife and I attended a lot of auctions over the years, some good, some bad and some great.
"The bad experiences made me want to get into this business because I saw some areas for improvement. We thought we could maintain the age-old auction tradition but put a little different flair on it."
So far, so good.
After outgrowing his original facility, Bingham entered into a two-year lease with Rowe Pottery that ultimately will triple his space. His new auction barn has seating for 135 and that will soon grow when he expands into the back half of the building.
In April, he also plans to open a retail shop -- Bingham's Buy and Sell -- next door in another building owned by Rowe Pottery.
"We're trying to make it an auction and buy-and-sell complex and tie everything together and make it more of a destination," he said.
Bingham, 42, has conducted more than 100 auctions in his first two years in the business. He does a consignment auction the first Monday of each month. He also has a fairly full schedule of weekend specialty auctions with items ranging from firearms to baseball cards to jewelry to antiques. He also does on-site auctions.
February's first-Monday auction pulled in a crowd of more than 100 people who ignored a morning snowstorm in their pursuit of a bargain.
Some come to auctions hoping to add to their personal collections. But most are looking for items they can turn around for a profit, either at their own shops or through antique malls or flea markets or online.
Bonnie Hesse of Merton in Waukesha County tries to make it to Bingham's auctions every month. She likes his auctioneering style, as well as the quality of items up for bid.
She generally buys things to sell at flea markets.
"You try to find something that might be appealing," said Hesse, who's been attending auctions for 40 years. "But you never know what people are going to look for. I divide it in thirds. One-third you're really going to hit a home run and get a nice amount of money; one-third you're going to break even; and one-third you'll be in the tank. That's just how it goes."
Among the hottest categories these days is vintage signs, particularly gas and oil-related ones. Less appealing are glass items, post-1960 furniture and NASCAR products.
"Things go in cycles," Hesse said. "We just hope that when we buy something that's on the downside that we're alive long enough to sell it on the upside."
Vic Elliott of Marshall buys some things for himself or his family, but he's also always on the lookout for items he can sell at the Columbus Antique Mall.
"I'd say about 90 percent here are buying to sell," said Elliott, who attended his first auction with his father in the 1960s. "It's a great way to recycle history. That's the way I look at it. Instead of going to a landfill, it's now being recycled."
That's a big part of the appeal of auctions for Bingham.
"There's nothing more green than the auction business," he said. "We're repurposing items that are 100 years old daily. There's something to be said for that.
"It's a disposable society, but auction-goers are not that way. They want to repurpose everything."
Bingham wasn't necessarily thinking in those terms when he began his career as a picker while growing up on Madison's East Side.
"I'm a picker at heart," he said. "I went garbage picking as a kid. We'd build our forts from the garbage."
He'd save up his money to spend at the flea market, which was part of the family's annual summer camping vacations in Black River Falls. He recently sold a duck call he bought there for $1 when he was 12 for $355 on eBay.
"It's always been in my blood," Bingham said.
Although a relative newcomer to the field, Bingham has big plans for his businesses. He wants to grow into his own facility and foresees a day when there could be a chain of All American Sales and Auctions.
"Nobody's franchised an auction business, that I know of," he said. "It might be a possibility down the road. I don't like to limit myself.
"We have bigger aspirations from where we are today, but today is what's going to take us to those aspirations."