Barney and Ralph
By Tom Word
Barney Griff was a born trader. Raised on a south Illinois farm,
he had gone as a boy with his father each Thursday to the sale barn to
watch cattle and hogs auctioned on the hoof, then shipped off in smelly
trucks to feedlot or slaughter house. He’d watched pinhookers
bargain with impatient farmers to buy their livestock off their trucks
as they waited in line to unload at the dock. He’d learned early
the key to trading success, knowing more than your counterparty.
The pinhooker could judge at a glance the weights and grades of a
truckload of calves or shoats, knew where prices stood and were likely
to drift, knew every angle on demand. Barney learned early that
when a farmer’s truck pulled out of the line and backed up to the
pinhooker’s truck, the pinhooker had locked in a profit based on
superior knowledge of everything relevant.
Barney hadn’t liked farm life much, but he liked trading and was good
at math, and so he ended up in Chicago at the Board of Trade as a
commodities trader. He’d retired early to south Florida.
Then, after Hurricane Andrew, he and Mable, his wife of forty years,
half-backed to Asheville, North Carolina, where they now lived in a
quiet neighborhood with views of the mountains.
During their brief stay in Florida, Barney and Mable had hit upon a
hobby that supplied Barney with some of the stimulation he’d so long
absorbed daily in the pit. It was a simple game, one that used
Mable’s eye for the unusual and Barney’s trading instincts in happy
Each morning during the week, the aging couple climbed into their
five-year-old Crown Victoria and, armed with the local paper’s
classified ad section, toured neighborhoods for yard sales. By
lunchtime, they usually had a trunk full of treasures. Come
Saturday, they had the week’s buys displayed on their table at the flea
market. By Sunday night when they ambled home, stopping at the
Red Lobster for supper, they had a tidy profit in 5’s, 10’s, and 20’s
rolled up and rubberbanded and secured deep in Mable’s
pocketbook. On Monday, they worked E-Bay to unload items that
hadn’t moved to at the flea market.
In Asheville, the action was not so available as it had been in
Homestead, but there was action enough. And there was an added
bonus for Barney. His long-time friend and fellow commodities
trader Ralph Sloacum and his wife Alice had half-backed to Asheville
and moved into a house just three blocks from the Griffs. On
Tuesday afternoons, Barney and Ralph played golf; on Thursdays, Mable
and Alice lunched with their book club and discussed with other
half-back ladies the latest best-sellers by Joyce Carol Oats, Rita Mae
Brown, or Patricia Cornwell.
Ralph was having difficulty adjusting to the retirement life.
Unlike Barney, who was completely absorbed in the yard sale–flea market
gambit, Barney could find no outlet for his keen analytical mind.
The slow pace of life left him deflated. Then he stumbled upon a
chance to entertain himself and turn Barney’s trading passion back upon
Ralph’s scheme began when he met at church a fellow retiree named John
Kelso. During his pre-retirement years, Kelso had enjoyed an odd
hobby, pointing-dog field trials. And his daughter and wife had
been equestrians, riding the local horse-show circuit. Over
thirty years, they’d won dozens of trophies with their horses and dogs,
silver bowls, cups, wine coolers, trays. When Ralph and Alice
visited John Kelso’s home and saw the collection of trophies in the
den, an idea came immediately to Ralph. When he explained it to
John Kelso, he had a partner, for John was looking for a way to cash in
on the trophy collection—he was tired of polishing the silver.
The following week Ralph read the classifieds for upcoming yard
sales. He arrived early at a half dozen, asking the sponsor for
permission to place one of John’s trophies in the sale inventory at a
modest asking price (below melt-down value, which Ralph had checked
using Google). He offered each sponsor half the proceeds.
As Ralph expected, Barney Griff bought every one of the trophies.
When Saturday arrived, they were on Barney’s table at the flea market,
marked up smartly from their cost.
Ralph and John Kelso had arranged for friends of John, fellows and gals
from his regular Saturday night fire station bingo game, to stop by
Barney’s table and buy up the trophies. Ralph’s after-market
conversations with the straw buyers confirmed Ralph’s
expectations—Barney had upped the asking price on his remaining
inventory after each sale. The straw buyers had been instructed
to buy one item each, the cheapest left on Barney’s table, and not to
haggle with Barney on price. By the end of the day, Barney
believed he had hit upon a hot collectible category in sterling silver
The following week Ralph and John salted Asheville yard sales with the
rest of John’s trophy collection, priced by Ralph at well above
meltdown value. By the end of the week, every one of the trophies
had been bought. On Saturday, Barney’s table at the flea market
bore three trophies. A rented truck nearby held the rest of
John’s collection, waiting to be placed on the table by Barney three at
a time as the earlier three were gobbled up.
Ralph and John waited until 11 a.m. to show up at Barney’s table.
They found there a very frustrated Barney. Not a trophy had
moved. Ralph introduced John and Barney to one another, then
casually asked Barney about the trophies on display on his table.
Barney explained what bargains they were. John inspected each,
but made no offer. John and Ralph were about to leave when one of
John’s old friends ambled by and engaged John in conversation.
Then he noticed the trophies.
“John, here’s your trophy from the Tar Heel Championship you won with
Fast Delivery Skipper—I judged that one, you remember. What in
the world is that trophy doing on sale here?”
Barney knew at once he’d been pinhooked, and that Ralph was behind
it. When he told Mable, she said, “Barney, you’re a man who knows
the price of everything and the value of nothing.” She’d heard
the saying at her book club. A writer named Oscar somebody had
supposedly first said it.