Sunday, January 27, 2002

Mother, son put personalities into galleries

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Do the math: Phyllis Karp is 84 years old and has worked downtown since she was eight. Son Jay Karp is 55 and has done the same since he was 15. Between them, that's 116 years of downtown support through their Main Auction Galleries, a West Fourth Street business in continuous operation here since 1854.

        No wonder the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce's Downtown Council will honor them Thursday with a Downtown Achievement Award “for an outstanding contribution to the vitality of downtown Cincinnati.”

        “Did you know my son Jonas is now working here too? He's the fifth generation of our family to do it. That ought to be good for another 100 years,” Jay says in a gravelly voice that's going to get less so “because I quit smoking. My wife Beth, my mother, everybody was on me.”

        So now it's Tuesday morning, and the Indian Hill father of three is about to climb up to the podium and auction off a couple of estates. He's ready to sell everything from chipped dishes to fine china, crystal chandeliers, antique toys and, well, everything under the sun. (Once it was “somebody's mother's ashes. In a mason jar with M-O-M on it. I got $5.”)

        No matter what he's selling, it's all done to the tune of an auctioneer's sing-song and a blast of sarcasm.

        Like this one: “My mother. Jeeze. She's actually 165-years-old. Been here since the Civil War.”

        Are you nuts? You just over paid at $32.50. Sold!

        “No I haven't been here since the Civil War,” Phyllis says in an equally gravelly voice, even though she doesn't smoke and has been a strict vegetarian for 35 years. “But I did start working downtown when I was 8-years-old. I stood on a crate and answered an old-fashioned hand-crank phone at Tennenbaum Furniture. I live and work downtown, and I'll never leave or retire.”

        “Consider that an ugly threat,” Jay fires off.

        That banter — Phyllis barking orders from her loft above the auction floor, Jay firing off a sarcastic comeback and then doing the opposite of what she says — is one of the things that keeps people coming back to Main.

        “This is show business,” Jay says. “I can stand up there all day selling and maybe even making money, but if I don't entertain those people sitting out there for four hours, I'm not doing my job.”

        Is that all you can afford, lady? For this? What the hell is it anyway? Sold!

        He's been doing that job, says Phyllis, “In this same location for 40 years. Did you know they tried to move us out so they could tear the block down and build a high-rise? That was 1962 and I went on a rampage. I called all nine city council members every day. I wrote them letters everyday. I even got our customers to march on City Hall one Tuesday.

        “After a while, Jay saw Pete Strauss (then a city councilman) at a party and he told Jay, "Tell your mother whatever she wants, we'll give her. Just get her off our backs.'

        “And yes you're right. I do rub some people the wrong way. But I believe honesty is the best policy, and if I feel I'm right, I'll stick to my guns and let other people say what they want about me. I'm very thick skinned.”

        You wanna try digging a little deeper in your pocket? You're getting off cheap. Sold!

        Back on the podium, Jay is abusing the buyers with a style that's well known around town, especially on the charity circuit where he auctions off exotic trips, cars and jewels to Cincinnati's rich and famous. He does 22 freebies a year — Cancer Society, Leukemia Society, Caracole House, AIDs causes, the Zoo, Pro Kids — down from 50 a few years ago.

        He doesn't hold off on the sarcasm for the rich folks either: “I abuse them. It's sort of a combination Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield. I've been slapped twice and kicked off the stage once. But I haven't toned it down any, and I think most people appreciate that I'm working hard and not charging for it.

        “I do that because those organizations need to raise money and I know how to do it. An auction is the fastest way to raise a heck of a lot of money. I've already done $250,000 in one night.”

        Is that all? You know we got bills to pay here. Sold!

        That charitable attitude probably figured somewhat into the selection committee's decision to give him and Phyllis the award. But their downtown business figured in a whole heck of a lot more.

        “That's true, we do bring people downtown. We auction off estates every Tuesday and have the most incredible customer base you can imagine,” Jay says. “We have one lady who has been coming up from Maysville every week for 58 years. Another has been coming from up north for 40.

        “Four times a year we do antique auctions, the really good stuff that I pull out of estates and save for the special auctions. Last time we had people from 16 states and you couldn't move in here.”

        For $50? Glad we unloaded that dog. Sold!

        “A lot of the credit goes to my mother. Working with her is like nothing anyone can experience in a lifetime. Two lifetimes. She's a smart, talented, tough, amazing woman. And difficult. We argue constantly.

        “She does all the billing, takes phone calls, orders supplies, keeps records, all by hand. We don't even have a computer, but don't get me started on that.”

        “My husband (Gilbert) died 10 years ago. He was very low key,” Phyllis says. “I'm more vocal, and so is Jay. That makes us a perfect match.”

        It doesn't hurt that he loves his job: “I do love it. It's fun, dramatic, entertaining, and standing in front of a room full of people in complete control. I do that and I feel like I'm it.

        Jay and Phyllis Karp will be honored at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at a luncheon at the Hyatt. Other honorees include Cincinnati 2012 Olympic organizer Nick Vehr, Miracle Mile (flower boxes in Over-the-Rhine) organizers Jim Tarbell and Jay Korte, and SmartMoney Community Services (providing financial assistance and business training for the poor). Tickets are $25. Call 579-3111.


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