The charming little house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in the trendy Black Rock section of Bridgeport. Years ago it was barged over from Milford and puzzle-pieced in place once a cement foundation was laid. Owner and sole occupier Bonnie Gabrys, petite, warm and outgoing, with lively blue eyes, likes to showcase her backyard’s panoramic “million-dollar view” of Long Island Sound.
But it is the insides that most pique the interest of visitors, for how does someone with decades of experience as a premier interior designer and decorator, and who has first dibs on the upscale possessions at estate sales, create their own place?
Quite eclectically, it turns out.
Instead of being formally decorated, there are interesting items throughout, the furniture conforming to a clean, off-white theme. Gabrys (pronounced GAY-bris) is asked how much of the furnishings came from estate sales. “Maybe 10 percent,” she guesses. “That sofa, these chairs, the table, this picture … well, maybe 30 percent.”
It’s just another challenge for a woman who has spent her adult life first striving to please demanding clients in one career and now working to satisfy aggressive bargain hunters in another.
The coronavirus and social-distancing mandate put a six-month halt to her business, Bonnie’s Greatest Estate Sales, but now Gabrys is back conducting events on an almost weekly basis, mostly in Fairfield County.
She’s been at it close to 15 years. Having been formally schooled in interior design and decorating has helped immeasurably, as she understands better than most how to “stage” a sale; that is, rearrange furniture in rooms and put items in certain places to make everything look “as pretty as possible.”
She also understood from the get-go how to price most everything correctly, because she knew values, trends, styles and more.
After 30-plus years as a designer and decorator, she was ready for a change.
A sister’s assist
Growing up, Gabrys had no inclination about becoming an interior designer/decorator. “We were from Bridgeport, the east side,” she says. “I mean, come on … a designer? We were lucky if we had any furniture at all.”
A bit of sibling rivalry would spur Gabrys to find the path to her career. After high school she took secretarial classes at the University of Bridgeport for two years, then worked as an assistant to a corporate executive. She’d also married at 18 and would have three children by age 26.
“When I was at UB, my sister, Lori, who was two years younger than me but more worldly, said she planned to go to school for interior design,” Gabrys recalls. “I was so jealous! It hit me that that was what I wanted to do too.”
"We were from Bridgeport, the east side. I mean, come on … a designer? We were lucky if we had any furniture at all." — Bonny Gabrys
Gabrys went back to school in her late 20s, graduating from Sacred Heart’s two-year interior design program. “It was tough with the kids but I did it because I loved it,” she says. “I used to read design magazines until they were coming out of my ears. I also went to Paier College of Art in Hamden for other courses, and would go to every seminar I could find in New York City. If I saw one on lighting I’d go. On color, I’d go. I was constantly keeping up with the design industry.”
It helped that her husband was a home builder, so Gabrys could turn her ideas into reality. “He’d build houses, I’d decorate them, and we’d sell them,” she says.
Ironically Lori would not follow through with interior design, instead becoming an executive secretary, but it’s cool between the sisters. “She calls me all the time to help her decorate her place or her friends’ places,” Gabrys says. “She’s proud of me.”
Unlike most college graduates who send résumés to companies or check employment websites for job openings, those with interior designer degrees must find work other ways. “The business is almost all referrals, or you can go to work for another designer,” Gabrys says. “I always wanted to work for myself. I had a few decorating jobs from working with my husband at the time. Then I was in New York one day at the D&D [Decoration & Design] Building getting some fabrics for a client. A guy I knew walked by and told me he’d just bought a new restaurant and needed someone to decorate it. I got hired right there.”
That gig led to more and more work. “I was suddenly doing New York restaurants and people’s homes, all from word of mouth and referrals,” she says. “It just took off. Soon after I did a show house at the Burr Mansion in Fairfield. This lady, Carla Evans, came in and bought a floral arrangement. She and her husband had just moved to New Canaan, and they needed their house decorated. She asked if I could help. I went there and gave them some ideas and they hired me. Not long after, they had a fire in the house. They hired me again to do it exactly the way I had before, so I knew they loved my work.”
The husband was Dick Evans, CEO of Radio City Music Hall. “Carla told me one day that he was going to propose I do the dressing rooms at Radio City,” Gabrys recalls. “He had me make a presentation to all the executives there. When it was over he said, ‘I’m really proud of you. They’re going to hire you.’ And they did.”
Gabrys decorated the eight or so rooms, keeping in mind who often occupied them. “The rock stars go in there, so we had to make things pretty sturdy,” she says. “We used commercial-grade wallpaper and commercial seating. They smoke, do whatever, and destroy everything. They’re like little kids.”
"The rock stars go in there, so we had to make things pretty sturdy. They smoke, do whatever, and destroy everything. They’re like little kids."
It was the go-go 1980s. Gabrys was then in her mid-30s, living in Westport, commuting into the city daily. Her career was booming, and the Dick Evans connection would reap further rewards. First he introduced her to Dick Voell, president and CEO of the Rockefeller Group. Voell hired her to transform the offices of Rockefeller Center, with a budget running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I had custom desks built … oh, it was fun!” she says.
In the meantime, Evans left Radio City to become president and CEO of Madison Square Garden Corp. He hired Gabrys to design and decorate the boardrooms and corporate offices, which were on multiple floors.
These complicated projects took many months, and sometimes years, during which time Gabrys was also working on houses and co-ops. Toward the end of the decade, Voell called her one day to come see him and his wife, Ginny. They wanted her to design and decorate their sprawling, waterfront Greenwich mansion.
“This time I was scared,” she admits. “These were multi-, multimillionaires in a spectacular estate on the water. I couldn’t even talk when I went into the house. He called me that night and said they’re going to hold off. The next day I went back, wasn’t nervous anymore and told him I’m just going to give them a couple of ideas and if they go forward they could use them. I said I would move this, do a new stairwell here, make the foyer look like part of the living room, etc. He handed me a $20,000 check and hired me right there.”
Gabrys would spend decades as a designer/decorator, during which time she divorced, remarried, had another child, was divorced again and moved often, living in Westport, Weston, Wilton, Milford, Stratford and Easton, all the while spending most days in Manhattan.
“I did apartments there for celebrities and very, very wealthy people,” she says. “It was mostly redoing everything, because styles change every few years. I loved doing construction, space planning, tearing down walls and starting from scratch. Budgets were $200,000 and up, and this was way back when. I was in charge of everything. My accountant said he’d never seen a single woman make so much money. I was earning well over $300,000 a year. It was a different world in the ’80s and ’90s. You thought the money would never stop.”
Thing is, pressure came along with the big bucks. “Extremely wealthy people … they think they own you,” Gabrys says. “You can’t say no because they can blackball you to their friends. It can get bad.”
Gabrys also sometimes had to fend off male clients seeking more than just her design and decorating talents in pre-#MeToo days. “When you’re a young woman and you’re in business and you’re attractive, forget it,” she says. “Some wealthy men thought they could get away with murder.”
Career chapter two
After decades of glorious highs, mixed in with continual negotiating, the chore of supervising unionized workers, long hours, the daily commute and more, Gabrys tired of the grind. She’d also found her chosen vocation had changed. “If you call yourself an interior designer you should have the proper schooling and knowledge behind you,” she says. “Now lots of people who are not degreed are doing design. And people who have no formal background in interior decorating, but were told they have good taste, call themselves professional decorators. That’s why I moved on to a new field.”
Her next career presented itself just like the first one — from an offhand comment. “Around 2005 someone told me they had all this stuff in their house they didn’t want,” she says. “I said come on, we’ll have a sale. That’s how it started. It went well, and their neighbor asked if I would hold one for them. It’s been 15 years now.”
If Gabrys thought her new career would be a breather compared to the hours and intensity of her former one, she was mistaken. An estate sale can appear to simply be a more expansive version of a sleepy garage or tag sale, but is actually a complex, serious and detail-oriented endeavor, with multiple hired hands needed, security issues and often tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of someone’s possessions up for sale.
Homeowners will usually interview several estate sale firms before deciding on one. “I don’t worry about competition; I have to worry about what I’m doing,” Gabrys says. “If I’m doing well then let them all make money.”
Estate sales can be held at any time, because houses are sold year-round and must be emptied, but warm months get the most action. “I usually stage one every week in the summer,” she explains, “and there are others too, close by a lot of times. But that can be good because people will go to all of them. Sometimes I even have two a week, going back and forth. That’s exhausting. Both owners want me at their sale.”
As with her previous career, referrals are how Gabrys gets a majority of her estate sale business. She mostly works in Fairfield County, but will undertake sales in other counties if they are lucrative enough. She usually gets jobs two weeks to a month before a sold house’s closing is to take place. “Most of the time it’s people selling their own house, or the owner died,” she says. “They don’t want to take everything because they’re downsizing. I used to wonder if there were enough people to buy all the stuff, since most people are downsizing these days. But there are always enough buyers.”
Gabrys will go through the house and give the owners an idea of how much money they will make from the sale. “It depends on what they have,” she says. “It’s usually $5,000 to $8,000, or $10,000, but can go up to $20,000 or $30,000. I charge a percentage, 35 percent to 50 percent. Most are 35 percent unless there are very few expensive items. We take everything in the house, clean it, then stage it.”
When Gabrys moves things around, the owner is usually impressed, occasionally to the detriment of the sale. “I put pictures of items available on the website, then rearrange the rooms,” she says. “Owners will see it all redesigned and may decide to keep some things. They have to give me a commission on them though. Once I take pictures and post them, they shouldn’t take things back, but they do.”
Sometimes Gabrys will hold a sale even though she knows it’s not worth her time. “I do those to make the Realtor happy,” she says. “Because if you please the Realtor, they’ll get you other jobs. And it keeps my people working.”
Major sales are usually held over three days instead of two, and some even on more than one weekend. “If it’s a high-end sale I’ll advertise it in Manhattan and Westchester in addition to Connecticut, often in The New York Times,” she says. “Then they’ll come in from Manhattan. That’s a winner.”
Estate sales often have some stunning bargains. Last year one included a huge, like-new, state-of-the-art home theater TV that originally cost $24,000. It sold for $600. And if it had not sold? “We would have broken it up because of its weight and put it in the dumpster,” Gabrys says. “Something like that is only worth what someone’s willing to pay within two days. Plus you have to have a house big enough to fit it. And how do you know how long it’s going to work? All sales are final.”
Not everything left over is trashed. Some items will go to a consignment shop, and some to charity.
Gabrys is in motion non-stop during an estate sale. While she usually has six or so workers on site, only she decides if prices are negotiable. Luckily she is a people person. She has to be, because practically everyone attending the sale will interact with her at one point or another, often asking for a lower price. “They all want a deal,” she says. “You don’t want to overprice things but you don’t want to underprice either. You have to come up with a realistic number, and be careful. A lot of the same people go to these sales, and they talk. You don’t want them to think you overprice things or they’ll stop coming.”
What’s worth what
For some valuable but hard-to-price things, Gabrys has experts she consults. “We have appraisers for antiques in case we can’t figure out what they’re worth,” she says. “For art I’ll check to see what auction prices are. Or I take pictures of the signatures and send them to art experts to see what they think. I’ll tell the owner what we can get, and if they don’t like the price I advise them to keep it.
“Retro is in; 1970s and 1960s things. I had a big sale in a mansion with retro furniture and the pieces went for thousands of dollars. Brown furniture is out. A lot of people lived in their houses their whole lives. Their kids don’t want the old stuff. Something that may have cost $20,000 20 years ago we’d have to take to Goodwill, and sometimes they won’t take it either.”
When dozens of strangers are walking all through the many rooms filled with possessions at an estate sale, there is always the threat of theft. Gabrys of course is well aware. “I have people walking around who look like everyone else … watching,” she says. “And we don’t leave small things in outer rooms. Anything of value we have eyes on.”
It helps that homeowners have insurance, especially when, during one sale, two large, heavy urns went missing. They were worth $15,000 each. Another time thieves broke into a house the day before the sale started. The owners collected $40,000 from insurance.
Bonnie’s most memorable estate sale? That’s easy. “It was for a single woman in Westport,” she recalls. “She was a hoarder. I went in and there were boxes piled up all over. You couldn’t walk in the house. They were new things, in original boxes. And a lot of duplicates. If there was one platter there were 10, all the same. And clothing! Designer clothes, brand new, with the tags still on. We thought she was a rich shopaholic. All the highest-end things.
“I advertised the sale and people were lined up around the block before it started. About 40 people came in when suddenly police cars with sirens blaring pulled up and they stormed the house. They ordered everyone out because it was all stolen merchandise. A local store had seen our advertisement and realized they were missing what she was selling. They prosecuted her and she went to jail.
“With sales almost every week you just never know what you’re gonna find. That’s why I love this job.”
As true as that may be now, and with absolutely no plans to slow down, much less retire, Gabrys says nothing topped the pure joy she experienced designing and decorating houses, apartments, corporate offices and more from scratch, putting her ideas and visions to paper and blueprints, then guiding them to reality. “One job in Manhattan the people came home to their new apartment, picked me up and kissed me because they were so excited,” she says. “It’s like giving birth. When your work is done it’s your creation. And when the people love it as much as you do, you just cry, you really do.”
Tips for estate sale newbies
Running an estate sale takes planning and strategy — so too does scoring the best deals as a buyer.
Touch the merchandise. Everything at an estate sale is used, so it’s advised to get very personal with sofas, chairs, beds and the like. If you’re serious about purchasing these types of items, sit on the couch, left, right and center, and lie on the bed so you know how comfortable they are. And remember that you will need a truck to take what you buy. Is it fabric? Give it a sniff.
Come with cash. Some estate sale operators accept credit cards and electronic payments such as Venmo, but don’t count on it. The last thing you want is to find that perfect item only to lose out on it because you neglected to bring the Benjamins.
Make an offer. “I will take bids on expensive things the first day if someone wants something at a lower price,” Gabrys says. “Then if it doesn’t sell I’ll call them. I’ve done that a lot.”
Save on day two. The first day of what are usually two-day estate sales has everything available, but it is the second day when the best bargains can be found. Bonnie’s sales usually designate the second day as half off most items. Additionally, the homeowner is usually present on day 2, so low offers can be made for anything. Certain items, like linens, towels and very inexpensive things are often given away, especially to people buying other stuff.
Snag electronics. Almost every estate sale has multiple televisions for sale, usually for way low prices. You can check the backs of them for when they were manufactured. Unless they are well over a decade old they likely have years of good performance left. Same for stereo components, radios and anything else that plugs in.
Pay, don’t delay. “A lot of times people say they’re buying something, but are still looking around,” Gabrys says. “I tell them to pay now, or someone else might buy it.”
Go online first. If you plan on attending an estate sale, check the website of the company holding it. It will likely have pictures of most of the possessions available.
Go early … or later. If there is something you know you want to buy for sure, get to the estate sale before it starts, and when it does, ask where the item is. If you’re not seeking anything in particular, go to the sale an hour or more after it starts. Often there is a crowd of people wanting to go in right away, but they will only allow so many in at one time. It’s not unusual to have to wait in line outside for an hour if it’s a popular sale.
Bring a tape measure. If you might buy furniture or anything large, make sure you know the exact measurements of your rooms, then be ready to measure what’s for sale.
Park courteously. Neighbors of people holding estate sales are usually anxious about how their property will be treated, and rightly so. Too many people drive several feet onto their lawns. Stick to the asphalt.
Dress casually. Almost every estate sale offers clothes, always women’s and sometimes men’s. Shoes too. So be prepared to try on whatever you can to ensure the right fit — just don’t expect there to be a fitting room.
Designing your own space.
Interior designer Bonnie Gabrys spent decades creating the insides of Connecticut houses and Manhattan co-ops for wealthy clients. She says the strategies for making homes perfect for their inhabitants are the same for all, regardless of budget.
A homeowner’s furnishings can change over the years, as people replace sofas, tables and other things. Indeed, the contents of Gabrys’ home in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport are constantly being tinkered with, especially since she has first crack at all the items being sold at her estate sales.
For new homeowners, establishing a blueprint for how rooms will be used is as important as deciding what will fill them.
“You have a clean palette when starting out in a new home, or totally reworking the one you have,” Gabrys says. “Form follows function. You first have to figure out how you and others will be walking in the house, the traffic patterns. Before you pick out colors you do a floor plan to determine your lifestyle. Will you be watching a lot of TV in one room? Do you plan to sit in front of a fireplace in another? Do you want to look outside? Determine likes and dislikes, and establish a plan from there.”
When Gabrys is working with clients, she asks questions to find out what they prefer in terms of colors, furniture styles and other decorating possibilities. You can do the same without hiring a pro.
“I have people go through magazines and pull pictures of things they like,” she says. “It doesn’t matter why they like it; what counts is that they have a feeling for it.”
While Bonnie could not hold spring and early-summer estate sales because of the coronavirus, they are back in a new normal with masks and social distancing. Many people will have taken a hit financially from job layoffs, furloughs and such, so bargain hunting for quality furniture and other home goods will rule.
Most of the time Bonnie works with the wives when deciding on how rooms would be decorated, but stressed that husbands should be included as well.
“Men can have good ideas too,” she notes. “It’s always best to have a husband and wife agree on what’s being done in their home.”