Kai Ryssdal: We got on the interstate this morning, came down to the city of Commerce a little ways south of downtown L.A. to try to catch a break, honestly, from all the ups and down and backs and forths in the market this week. To get started on a project we're calling The Breakdown -- our economy, one step at a time.
So we've traded the comforts of our usual studio life for the wide open warehouse of Abell's Auction Company, one of the many small- and medium-sized companies here in a city whose very name means business. It's a tad quiet here now -- winning bidders coming in to pick up their lots from yesterday.
Ryssdal: Here we are at the Abell Auction House.
But when I was out here yesterday, it was anything but.
Auctioneer: Thirty, now 40, now 50, now 60? Sold 6421!
There are a couple hundred people here: collectors, dealers, just the curious. And some regulars as well, like Amanda Loverin.
Ryssdal: How much do you pay attention to the economy and what's going on?
Amanda Loverin: I pay attention to the economy -- it's been quite a roller coaster.
Ryssdal: Are you feeling personally any economic squeeze?
Loverin: Of course I am, yeah. And the need to find a good deal is definitely important.
Ryssdal: So let me ask you this then: how long do you think it's going to be before things are better?
Loverin: How long do I think? I have no idea. I wish I was a psychic and I could tell everybody.
There's the certain element of going through people's attics, which makes it a little weird.
Ryssdal: What is that? Composition bust of a man. Yeah, I don't need that.
As I browsed, I ran into Michael Gray. He was looking for art.
Michael Gray: I liquidated my stock portfolio in October of last year, and I've done better in art than I ever did in stocks, so.
Ryssdal: So you rode it down to the bottom of March 2009, and it got back up and you said, that's it -- something bad is coming?
Gray: Yeah, I got out at I think just the right time, it looks like.
Ryssdal: So the good thing is, they do label things but they just don't have any price tags. There's all kinds of -- look at this thing -- what is this? So this is a, it is called a 19th-century French buntier and I don't even know what that means other than it's a big closet kind of thing, lined in very unattractive wallpaper.
Todd Schireson's the fourth generation of the Abell family running this place. He started sweeping the floors here back when he was a kid.
Ryssdal: How's business been?
Todd Schireson: Business for us has been pretty good, actually. We've had a lot of luck, knock on wood. Some things are down and other things go up. The auction business is a funny business.
For instance, a good instance would be armoires. Ten years ago, armoires were going for a lot of money -- easy sellers, everyone needed an armoire. And now armoires are worth nothing.
Ryssdal: I actually used to have an armoire with a TV in it.
Schireson: And now you can buy them all day long here for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand.
And how, you might wonder, does an auctioneer know when things are picking back up?
Schireson: When they start to buy more merchandise, it means they're selling more merchandise. If they're selling merchandise, it means the housing market has been affected. It's really tied to the housing market through a few degrees of separation.
Even at an auction house 10 miles outside of Los Angeles in one of the industrial hubs of Southern California, the new real economy shows its face. Listen to more of our coverage live from Abell's of how people are dealing in this economy.