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Seconds count, the auctioneer ‘lifestyle’
The numbers emit from Brian Orwiler’s mouth at a frenzied pace that would impress a Wall Street executive.
But only the rapid movements of Orwiler’s lips bare any resemblance to the breakneck pace of an urban environment.
When local auctioneer Larry Stokes retired in 2000, he sold Stokes Auction to his daughter, LeAnn Boardman, and Orwiler. For the latter, it was the culmination of a seemingly lifelong pursuit.
Orwiler, 48, who is originally from the Central Kitsap area, became infatuated with auctioning when he came to live with the Stokes family as a teenager. Stokes recalled Orwiler showing up “in a $400 car that I wouldn’t pay $40.”
“Brian came a long ways,” he said.
Without rehashing details, Orwiler said he had a difficult upbringing and appreciated how Stokes mentored him.
“The Stokes took me in like a family member,” said Orwiler, fondly recalling goose-hunting trips. “I was always included.”
Enough time was spent with the family that some people still think his last name is actually Stokes. There was a time when Stokes tried to help Orwiler find jobs in other industries, ranging from delivering ice to working in a restaurant. However, It never lasted long.
“Larry couldn’t get rid of me,” Orwiler said. “With a gig like this, who wants to leave?”
That does not mean it was easy. A 20-year Navy veteran who retired in November 1974, Stokes founded his auction after Encyclopedia Britannica officials determined through research that there were none in Kitsap County, where he hoped to settle with his wife, Shirley.
Stokes’ first auction was Jan. 19, 1975, at Bremerton’s West Side Improvement Club. He recalls purchasing a wrought-iron table with four chairs for $105 that was auctioned for $67.50. It was the first in a series of problems, including a poor financial performance, which nearly doomed the enterprise from the start.
“Someone spilled a soda and they asked us not to come back,” said Stokes, who is spending some of his retirement working as a Port of Bremerton Commissioner.
Stokes might not have returned to the business after that first experience if his wife’s parents had not encouraged them to keep trying. It was a challenge at times — Stokes recalls selling furniture out of their old house to pay taxes — but he believes consistency in his approach helped him build a successful business.
“The secret to any business is service,” he said. “It’s being reliable, fair and honest.”
It is a mentality Orwiler embraced, particularly in an industry that can be fickle.
“We’re like bartenders because when times are good, people come in to celebrate,” he said. “When times are bad, they come in and sing the blues.”
Orwiler learned the business by first studying Stokes and then through attending the Western College of Auctioneering in Billings, Mont. He said the quick pace of auctioneering never has been an issue for him through school or professionally.
“It’s practice,” Orwiler said. “If you can dance, you can be an auctioneer.”
While attendees often think about speaking, thinking might be just as significant for an auctioneer.
“You need to make decisions quickly,” Orwiler said. “You’re judge, jury and hangman in a matter of seconds.”
Orwiler, who describes himself as an extrovert, said he usually enjoys working with people. There are some challenges that come with auctioneering, though. He said sometimes customers become frustrated when they miss a bid.
“I don’t write the news, I deliver it to you,” said Orwiler, referring to a common retort he uses.
He said that sometimes is related to a teenager who missed out on a car. In those cases, Orwiler said he often suggests a possible alternative.
Since he started as an auctioneer in 1989 at Stokes, Orwiler said he “could write a book” about the business — and its clientele, in particular. Stokes long has maintained a policy, in contrast with many auctioneers, that there are no minimum or maximum bids.
“It is 100 percent pure,” Orwiler said. “Our clientele knows if I say sold, they own it.”
Of course, that policy has resulted in some customers thinking they could win a $1,000 item with a $5 bid. Orwiler said he has been known to get “colorful” in those cases.
“Don’t embarrass yourself,” he tells the customer.
Orwiler stays energetic throughout the auction, which runs once a month. He has been known to quickly change out of his clothes into a tuxedo for a benefit auction shortly after his work at Stokes is finished.
But his work is not just contained to auction day. Stokes always holds its auctions on Saturdays and features a preview the day before. Orwiler said he often uses that day to observe customers, particularly regulars, to determine which items they are interested in. He then uses that information during the auction.
“It’s poker,” he said.
That is an aspect that also draws a regular following at Stokes.
“There’s a lot of people who come out with no intention of bidding,” Orwiler said. “Listening to an auctioneer is entertainment for them.”
That is just one part of the job. Orwiler estimates that he spends 80 percent of his time touring the Puget Sound region looking at estates. Stokes has its staple items, such as automobiles, each month. But its different features can come from some of Orwiler’s expeditions. On Saturday, it was a fleet of concrete trucks.
“Every day is different,” Orwiler said. “One day we could be taking on a multimillion-dollar estate. The next day we could be painting a caboose.”
Orwiler said customers came from as far as the East Coast to bid on the concrete trucks. That marketing occurs through Stokes’ website, but there are subtle ways Orwiler can accomplish that locally. Because Stokes rests next to State Route 16, employees often position merchandise where it can be seen by passing vehicles.
It is all enough that Orwiler rarely has an opportunity to get away with his wife, Corina, to their vacation home in Arizona.
“This is not a job,” he said. “This is a lifestyle.”
But it is not one he would relinquish. One of Orwiler’s biggest thrills came when voters privatized liquor sales. He was responsible for auctioning the state-owned liquor stores earlier this year.
“I’m the only one who sold off liquor stores,” he said. “They will put that on my headstone.”