He talks like a truck driver and behaves like a used car salesman. Neither is an act. So how did a guy who owns a moving company and sells cars on the side get to be the auctioneer of choice for just about every Island charity?
Simple answer: Clarence A. (Trip) Barnes 3rd is good. Just look at his track record. In 10 years, manning the auction block for the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust's annual Taste of the Vineyard fundraiser, Mr. Barnes has helped haul in more than $1 million. Monday night at Farm Neck Golf Club, he gaveled in over $75,000 for Hospice of Martha's Vineyard.
"He's the best, no question about it," says Chris Scott, executive director of the preservation trust.
The secret to the success could be that Trip Barnes just knows a lot of people.
"He moves in a lot of different circles on the Island, and he's got this huge mental Rolodex of individuals." says Mr. Scott. "It's very effective to have an auctioneer who can engage the audience on a personal level, one-to-one."
Being in the moving business, Mr. Barnes points out, has made knowing people easy.
"I'm usually the first person they see coming and the last person they see leaving," he says.
"As a kid, I delivered milk. Then I sold used cars. If I want to find people, I probably know 300 of them."
That kind of social capital makes Mr. Barnes a hot commodity when it comes to the summer fund-raising circuit. He's not keeping close count, but he figures he will have done at least a half dozen auctions by the end of the season.
The groups Mr. Barnes has gone to bat for include Hospice of Martha's Vineyard , Sail Martha's Vineyard, FARM Institute and the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society.
To be sure, it's a list that Trip Barnes has culled. He won't wear the auctioneer's hat for just any organization. That's another ingredient to his success.
"Trip is not only incredibly entertaining, but he also always reminds the audience why they're there," says Mr. Scott. "He's always talking about our buildings and how the public uses them. He touches all the bases."
Trip Barnes believes in the causes. And in his own inimitable style, he'll tell you why.
About hospice, he says, " I know a lot of people they helped, and it's free. Aside from easing somebody out, they're saving what's left of a person's money."
While Mr. Barnes does his best to get people to part with large sums of money, deep down he's very fond of being thrifty. He likes groups that show the same commitment.
"What gets more use than Alley's General Store and the old Grange Hall? Or the Flying Horses, usable to people in all walks of life?" he says. "And it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime."
Mr. Barnes also likes projects that get off the ground quickly for not a lot of money. Look at Vineyard House, he says. When the organization started its first home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, he says, "There were 15 people living in it and a house manager for less than $300,000. No consultants and no think-tanks."
The way Trip Barnes sees it, the job of auctioneer is about promoting good causes. This is the time to make the sales pitch. Auctions are becoming more popular, he says, largely because of the growth of junk mail.
"People are getting too much mail, so the return on a direct mail piece is nothing like it used to be," he says.
The key, then, is getting people to the auction. And the auctioneer can be a big drawing card. "Take Art Buchwald," says Mr. Barnes. "He's got a real following (at the Possible Dreams auction for Community Services). He's not the auctioneer. He's the promoter, and his friends come to honor him."
While he might not be in same league as Mr. Buchwald the humorist, Mr. Barnes believes strongly in his own powers of attraction. "What people don't understand is that 90 to 95 per cent of the people I know like me," he says. "They really do want to help what I'm doing."
At 60, Trip Barnes sees himself as carrying on a tradition that was more prevalent in an earlier Island era.
"People know I was active with some of the old-timers," he says. "If you needed something, it was, ‘I'll figure out how to get one and get it used.' That was not unusual 30 years ago. You'd borrow someone's tractor to plow your yard so you could plant potatoes. And then you went over and painted his house."
Volunteering as auctioneer, then, is partly a matter of setting an example he hopes others will follow.
"We are losing a lot of the generation who remember what it was like when we took care of each other," he says. "I'm just trying to get it going again."
On the way to helping people, Mr. Barnes has also learned a few tricks.
"There are people who have their pet charities, but someone who comes in the summer will get a lot more attention here than they would in Greenwich, Conn., or New York city," he says. "Here they can watch it work."
One of Mr. Barnes's favorite ploys is what's called splitting. He did a few years back at the Taste of the Vineyard auction when two people were going after the same birdhouse, a copy of the Old Whaling Church.
"I thought Chris [Scott] was going to have a stroke. I got it up to about $10,000, and it was really slowing down. Then I yelled out, ‘Stop! You're both winners. I've got another one in the trunk,' " he says. "I figured I'll pay John Thayer $2,000 to make a copy. We doubled the take."
And Mr. Barnes isn't shy about making sure the crowd is lubricated for the event. "Just something that won't make you throw up will be perfectly good," he says. "If you see someone bidding sober, bring over another bottle."
Trip Barnes laughs. That's clearly part of his charm. He likes to get a charge out of people. Monday night at the Hospice auction, he had the Harley riders ready in the back to come riding into the tent. The item up for bid was a limo ride with a Harley escort.
"These people in their pink shirts just sat right up," he says. "They loved it."
Trip Barnes is a born storyteller. "When he gets a on a roll," says Mr. Scott, "he does this free association. This incredibly funny patter comes out of his mouth. Then he's like, ‘Where were we in the bidding?' and it's back to business."
Mr. Barnes says, "I'm just passing on something I learned from someone else. I have no formal education. But I've read a lot and learned from other people. If you're nice to people, they learn to be nice back."