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Leading Lady

Cheri Boots-Sutton is an unlikely superstar. But in the competitive, male-driven world of Texas auto auctions, this middle-aged grandmother of seven has established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Jennifer Miller visits the auction house to find out why.

Author Jennifer Miller Photography Misty Keasler

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Mother and daughter on the auction lot

MIKE JONES, FOUNDER and president of the Texas Auction Academy—the institute where Boots-Sutton teaches—is addressing a roomful of novices in a conference room at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Lewisville. The group is here to learn about estate sales and the tax code, but also to be geed up by the man seen as a genuine guru in a business filled with larger-than-life personalities.

“I hate garage sales!” Jones bellows with evangelical fervor. “You shouldn’t ever sell an item for three dollars when in a competitive auction it might bring in 25 plus!” He surveys the room through spectacles pushed to the end of his snub nose. “Our method is the method. Amen?”

“Amen!”

Among those partaking in this call-and-response session is Troy Scalco, a 51-year-old career cop and amateur musician who’s always dreamed of appearing onstage. As he approaches retirement age, he’s thinking that auctioneering could be as close as he’ll get. Selling cars to a roomful of highly expectant dealers, he says, is like being “the lead singer in a band.”

A recent heart scare convinced Scalco to make the four-hour trip from his home in Katy, Texas, to the academy. “I realized I have to take risks,” he says over a plate of chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes in the cafeteria at Manheim Auto Auction. He and his classmates have come here to watch Boots-Sutton do her thing. Scalco is especially eager to get help with his body language. Where auctioneers should keep their hands out and their palms up, Vanna White-style, he says, “I’m used to keeping my hands close to my chest.”

Later that day, after the auction house has shut down and the massive warehouse has fallen silent, the students climb up on the block to practice. Scalco has been given an imaginary car and a bid to kick things off. “Fifteen hundred … now, um, sixteen hundred … now six,” he says haltingly. His hands, palms upturned, seem to be expressing uncertainty rather than inspiring faith. “Ms. Boots-Sutton has been doing this for decades,” Scalco says afterward. “I’ve been doing it since last week.”

“CHERLYN ALWAYS SAID she wanted to be a heart surgeon, or a brain surgeon, or a homicide detective, or an ice skater,” Boots-Sutton says, referring to her youngest daughter, who, at 18, has started training to be an auctioneer. Cherlyn apprentices as her mother’s ring man, which means she’s down among the buyers, drumming up excitement. She responds to each transaction with a shrill, two-syllable burst of glee: “Yee-YAH!” Cherlyn is only 4 foot 11, but on the floor she’s an intimidating presence.

Mother and daughter live in a trailer park outside Dallas, along with two of Boots-Sutton’s seven grandchildren. Cherlyn’s father was never in the picture, and her older sister is serving time. She home-schooled herself and has been working 40-hour weeks as a waitress since her mid-teens. The auction house allows her a sense of control, a modicum of power. “The auctioneer and me,” Cherlyn says, gesturing toward her mother, “we run that lane.”

Last year, Cherlyn took a big step toward living up to her mother’s high standards, taking second place in the Junior International Auctioneering Championships in Spokane, Wash. “She’s found a passion for it. She’s a natural,” says Mom, beaming.

Cherlyn doesn’t yet share her mother’s total commitment—there are too many things she wants to do, like child psychology, her latest interest. But for now, she’s willing to stick it out and learn the family trade. “It’ll give me a better life than waiting tables,” she says.

JENNIFER MILLER has been trying to auction off her collection of miniature cutlery, “Thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five? Thirty-five? Kinigedabid?”

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