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Man trades white coat for T-shirt and overalls Ex-lab technician runs junk shop COUNTY WIDE


In his previous life he was Rance Smith, laboratory technician, working in a white coat amid pristine glassware and microscopes at Anne Arundel Medical Center. So his roost at Rance's Relics, a junk and collectibles shop on Route 175, is something of a departure.

A visitor found him the other day dressed in striped overalls and a T-shirt, a bandanna wrapped about his head, sitting in an old stuffed chair tucked behind dusty shelves of glassware, baseball cards and ceramic figurines. Above his head hung a few old hats, a powder horn, a banjo and a bugle. Things change.

"You go from people calling you 'Doctor' to 'Sanford and Son' -- 'Hey, Fred,' " said Mr. Smith, a 43-year-old retired Army staff sergeant formerly stationed at Fort Meade.

He sat there, appearing at first to be knitting. Actually, he was sorting a paper bag full of old keys he'd bought that morning on his latest flotsam foray, an estate sale in Crofton. Gone are the days of examining samples of blood, urine or tissue for footprints of illicit drugs or disease. Now he stalks treasure where others see trash.

When he's not minding the store, Mr. Smith takes to the road in one of his two rusty pickup trucks ("whichever one runs," he says), scouring the local yard, estate or liquidation sales.

"We go out and buy things from everybody and anybody, anything we can make a buck on," said Mr. Smith. "If it's odd or unusual and I think it's going to sell, I'll buy it."

He also buys a lot of merchandise from people walking in off the street. There was the 47-year-old man who sold his collection of thousands of baseball cards -- some dating to the 1950s -- for $100. Mr. Smith sold them later for $1,000.

The rooms of the little house across from the Odenton Volunteer Fire Department are piled high with stuff in no particular order: bottles, china, lamps, radios, furniture, comic books, records and cassette tapes. An old Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign urges "Next Time Bring Your Wife;" an Elvis pennant hangs from a shelf, the visage of the King faded with time.

In front of the house, an assortment of merchandise is displayed in hopes of catching the eye of a passing motorist: bicycles, ceramic pots, a pair of mounted onyx bull's horns and a set of golf clubs.

For almost five years, Mr. Smith and his wife, Ora, have done business here. Mr. Smith originally bought the house as a real estate investment shortly before he retired from the Army in 1988, and soon started using the place to sell and store items he'd bought at local yard sales. The business blossomed. Mr. Smith decided to leave his laboratory job at Anne Arundel Medical Center, where he'd worked for five years while in the Army and nearly a year as a civilian.

"I don't regret it," said Mr. Smith, a native of Fort Payne, Ala., who spent 20 years in the Army stationed in Puerto Rico, Germany, Texas and Maryland. "After 20 years of taking orders it's a relief not to have people tell you what to do."

Besides, he said, it can be exciting.

"It's an adrenalin rush when you're the first one at a yard sale and they've got good merchandise at good prices," he said.

He recalled pulling up at a sale at Fort Meade just as they were setting out the goods for the day. He picked up a few thousand dollars' worth of furniture for less than $200.

Then there was the Fender Stratocaster guitar, the proverbial diamond in the rough. Mr. Smith said he picked it up at a yard sale in Severna Park for $400. As it turned out, it was a 1954 model, a regular rock 'n' roll Stradivarius. One fine day a Stratocaster collector from the Eastern Shore walked into the shop and bought it -- for $5,000.

"He didn't bat an eye at $5,000" said Mr. Smith, smiling at the memory of the best single sales day in the history of Rance's Relics.

On most good days of spring and summer he might sell $1,500 worth of merchandise. But many a cold winter afternoon passes when barely a soul comes through the door, when Mr. Smith finishes his day with just a few dollars in the till. Over the course of a year, he figures he averages maybe $175 or $200 a day in sales.

In hopes of boosting his business, he plans to start a pawn shop, handling jewelry in addition to the sort of merchandise he sells now. "You learn a lot, you never stop learning in this business," said Mr. Smith. "You see something new every day."

And as he spoke he strode past the red plastic Buddha, the ceremonial 19th-century Knights of Columbus sword and the lamp shade displaying a photographic panorama of Cypress Gardens, Fla. So who could argue with the man?

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