Celebrity auctioneer Laura Michalek deploys humor and a piston-fast chatter to raise money for worthy causes. See her drop the gavel at the Spaceworks NEON auction this Saturday, June 10 (info at www.spaceworksneon.com)!
By Lisa Kinoshita
In the fascinating world of auctioneering, Laura Michalek is a standout for her spitfire patter, her skill at moving the energy of a crowd, and her generous work for charity. She is an antiques expert, the former owner of a clutch of beloved Seattle vintage shops, and a style icon who has been showcased in Seattle Magazine. Oh, and she also won the Chicago Marathon at age 15. It’s no wonder one admirer calls the Tacoma-based auctioneer “the perfect blend of heart and a calculated money machine.” Michalek responded to a recent Spaceworks Q&A via seven rapid-fire voicemails sent while on a roadtrip in eastern Washington. Fueled by “a strawberry brioche and a banana and an iced latte from Colville Patisserie, in Walla Walla,” she gave us a glimpse into her busy world. (Spaceworks has edited the chat for length and clarity).
Spaceworks: Hi Laura! How many auctions do you do a year?
Laura Michalek: 65 auctions a year. I started free for years, in places like the Everett Antiques Mall.
SW: Auctioneering is an art form that requires more than raising and dropping a gavel. There’s homework, the need to develop an almost encyclopedic knowledge about many different kinds of offerings – and psychology, a feeling for who’s in the room and why.
LM: You have to have an encyclopedic memory, for sure. I study my catalogs quite religiously for my work. I have a very specific set of information I need before an auction which requires some work on the part of the auction organizer. But it allows me to be fully prepared.
SW: Are there more intangible qualities involved in getting people to bid?
LM: You have to be authentic. Authenticity is something you can’t buy, or commodify. So I’m just me. I have to care about the organization’s mission so I can feel connected personally and emotionally. I very judiciously choose which auctions to do. The cool thing about living according to your values and working according to your values is then you are among the likeminded.
SW: Auctioneering is a male-dominated field. How did you rise to the top?
LM: There were 12 out of 125 of us [women] at auctioneering school [Missouri Auction School]. You know, there are a lot of lovely men, and I know plenty of them, but my business – it is a men’s business. At auctioneering school, I don’t think they took the women very seriously. And I think women are very successful sellers because they are able to do more than one thing at a time. In the beginning, the men ignored me. But later, a few would come to my auctions, and they would take notes….The younger generation of men have been very generous with me; they call for advice and to spend time with me. The old timers value just a really great auctioneer and a hardworking auctioneer. It’s been a real joy to connect with the younger men, and women, too.
SW: What’s the best part about being an auctioneer?
LM: My favorite part is working with organizations that are just beginning fundraising, but haven’t always seen the potential of what they’re capable of. Then, after an auction, when they do, it’s a beautiful surprise. Some of the naysayers shift gears and realize maybe they could’ve done more work. It’s helping people go from point A to point B; it doesn’t matter if it’s $10,000 or $150,000 or $500,000. Usually though, it’s the smaller amounts where they start to see their potential. Sometimes the smaller organizations are more [flexible], they don’t have to be stuck in the “big gala” format.
SW: When you’re on the platform, how important is timing?
LM: When I’m auctioneering, it’s all about timing. Regardless of how the situation is moving through the evening, whether it’s super flowy with money or very difficult, I have to move the energy of the room with me. I want to relieve the guest of their involvement right before they get a little irritated….I always want the experience to be comfortable for people. A great part of what I do is making sure I get the money the organizations need, but people feel good about it, they don’t feel harassed. It’s not a fraternity party, I’m not some belligerent drunk auctioneer calling them a cheapskate.
I love what I do, but it’s not like I just show up and put on a cummerbund and do some soft-shoe thing. It takes a tremendous amount of preparation and energy.
SW: Switching gears, you have owned some fantastically successful vintage stores in Seattle – Standard Home and Mint, to name two. From there, you started investing in classic fixer-upper houses, then you moved into auctioneering. You describe a really interesting period of the 1990s when the Seattle antiques market was flying high – and you met the junkers (as you call them) who had what sounds almost like an underground rock culture rife with partying – and this inspired you to try your hand at real estate.
LM: I was a junker for many years, before I became an auctioneer. When I was thinking about real estate (which I’ve always thought about, even since I was very young), I was very inspired by others in the business who were really [expletive]-up individuals – I don’t know how else to put it – I knew a lot of people who were addicted to things, or just slackers, or whatever [but managed to buy property]. I knew that I could do real estate, and I had a great interest in it because it was a bigger version of junking. You know, junking is about having vision and holding onto things for some time, and letting things unfold. And real estate, really cool old homes and redoing them, was the same to me. So, years ago, when I was in my late 30s, I decided, “Ok, I’m in my 30s, I’m going to start moving forward on that.” So I acquired 5 homes.
SW: So, the acquisitions were a natural progression for you…
LM: …An extension of what I do with junking. It’s deep work, but joyful work. In the next few years, I’ll probably shed some of those and wind down a bit, and enjoy my investments if the world doesn’t explode before that [laughs]. I live in Tacoma and on Vashon Island with my lovely Amanda [Westbrooke, Michalek’s spouse as of March of this year]. Basically, what’s been really nice in my life, and I think this happens to a lot of people, is that one thing leads to the next. And while they might look disparate, they’re really kind of related.
SW: You did your graduate and post-graduate work at Southern Illinois University. You became an AIDS activist, and eventually, the education coordinator for the Northwest AIDS Foundation, in Seattle, in the 1990s.
LM: The political climate today reminds me of that! But I was always a junker. So there I was, junking along, and I opened a shop in Seattle after working at Northwest AIDS Foundation. Then five different shops….The junking thing then evolved into auctioneering because when I went to auctions I would see the auctioneer and think, “Wow, that’s so beautiful.” So I went to auctioneering school in Dec. of ’99, then I got requests to work, and that sort of evolved. I took the leap and closed my stores.
SW: You’re known for your well-honed fashion style, an expressive mix of hi-lo, modern and vintage dandy. I love your custom Ricky German cravats and Monica Castiglione sculptural ring, and of course, your signature white cowboy boots that you wear at every auction. Can we talk about fashion for a minute?
LM: I think there’s a difference between style and taste. Some people have taste, some people have style, some people have both. I’ve always had my own sense of style. I wear for the auction what I’m most comfortable with. This year I’m getting a Ricky German custom suit.
SW: What’s the story on the boots?
LM: I get my cowboy boots from Miguel in Mexico, who custom makes my leather boots every auction season, twice a year. I was told when I was younger you should only wear them at a certain time [sunny seasons], and I wanted to wear them all year round. That’s how the white-boot thing got started. Sometimes I’ve sold them off my feet, happily, for the organization I’m working with that evening, and gone home stockingfooted.
SW: What’s next for you in the big picture, Laura?
LM: I don’t know what’s next but I have a feeling it’ll surprise me. And it will be related to the lineage of what I’ve been doing for the last 35 years. I think it’s always good to leave what you’re doing while it’s still good. Like when Seinfeld left the air, or Walter Payton left the Chicago Bears when he was still a great running back.
I don’t think I’ve done everything really well, but what I’ve loved I’ve done well. That’s part of maturing, too, knowing what it is you really want to do. Knowing when to leave is equally as important as knowing when to stay in the moment. I think that’s a life question, anyway.
My work has been a great surprise; I never expected myself to be doing this. It’s been a wonderful, joyful process of realizing you never know what could be next – you just put some intentions out there. I did know I would be self-employed because that’s my thing (and a tremendous amount of work).
SW: Thank you, Laura, and see you Saturday at the Spaceworks NEON auction!
LM: Signing off from the Tri-Cities, all the way from Walla Walla!