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Feature Story

Sale-ing Away

One Woman's Yard Sale Obsession

Michelle Gienow

Sizzlin Summer 2004

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By Michelle Gienow | Posted 5/26/2004

It's early on a warm mid-spring Saturday: birds chirping, a gentle breeze stirring the new leaves, the scent of lilacs wafting through an open window. What could be more pleasant than drifting back to sleep for another idyllic hour? What on earth is that horrid, insistent beeping sound, and why won't it stop?

Oh, right. The alarm. Time to get up and feed the ol' addiction: other people's stuff, spread out on tables and blankets upon their front lawns and driveways, just waiting to be traded for my pocketful of change and dollar bills. If it's a Saturday from April to October, it must be a yard sale day.

My main objective today is the huge community sale in Arcadia, which doesn't begin until 9 a.m. Since I am pointedly not one of those obnoxious folks (usually dealers or resellers) who show up early while sales are still setting up in order to scam the best bargains, I won't arrive until the appointed starting hour. That leaves time to check out a few of the crack-of-dawn sales along the path between my house and Northeast Baltimore.

The first stop is a moving sale given by people who have clearly never done this before. It's literally seconds after the 8 a.m. start time and their driveway is standing-room only, crowded with the shoppers whose cars line the street for more than half a block in either direction. It's a chaos of half-unpacked boxes and random merchandise scattered on the ground, and the lady in charge looks shell-shocked. She's overwhelmed by the swarm of people thrusting things in her face and asking "how much?"--most items are not yet marked--while trying to simultaneously negotiate the fistfuls of money thrust toward her by people attempting to walk out with entire boxfuls of goods. It's an ugly scene, not helped by the proprietor's teenage daughter, who keeps voicing outrage at various items her mother has put out for sale. "My Barbie Corvette! How could you?" she yelps, glaring at the man who has the plastic car tucked under his arm. He glares back, tightening his grip on the toy. This is war.

It is all a little too fall-of-Saigon for my taste, so I make my exit without purchasing anything--I don't feel like fighting over the boxes, and nothing caught my eye anyway. I think it's safe to say that my interests and this family's do not intersect at all, so why spend any more time looking? There are plenty more yard sales out there, many more fish in the sea. On the way out, however, fighting my way salmonlike against the stream of people surging into the sale, I notice a basket of children's books and cannot resist picking through them; I'm always on the lookout for more books for my toddler. I end up with three nice hardback picture books plus a brand-new tub of sidewalk chalk and wade back into the fray to pay the haggard yard sale lady.

When I comment on the commotion she marvels, "People started knocking on the door at 6:45, before I even made coffee! I don't get it--it's all just leftover junk we don't want to haul to the new house!" I agree that people can be crazy, and she charges me a dollar for the books plus a quarter for the chalk--both total bargains.

As I walk back to my car a pickup truck swerves up to the sale, the excited driver jumping out and leaving his vehicle sitting in the middle of the street. Apparently I'm not the only one around here who's a little obsessed.

Maybe "obsessed" is too strong a descriptor for my yard sale habit. I used to be a hard-core thrift-store shopper, proud that most of my worldly needs were purchased secondhand. It was a proclivity driven as much by freelancer poverty as by the desire to step outside the retail loop of endless consumption that seems to have become our national pastime. Thrift stores are no longer the bonanza of inexpensive goods they once were--collectibles madness fueled by eBay and TV programs like Antiques Roadshow drove up prices on the increasingly picked-over merchandise--and over time I shifted allegiance to shopping yard and garage sales. Yard sales have probably undergone a similar price creep, but prices are still much lower than at thrifts, with the added advantage of being able to haggle.

No matter where you do your digging, once you get the good-stuff-cheap bug it's really hard to go back to retail shopping. I simply can't pay $50 for a sweater when I know darn well that, with a little looking, I can find one just as nice for 50 cents. OK, maybe $1.50. But you get the point. Quite simply, this knowledge is what gets my butt out of bed early on summer Saturdays.

Everyone has their own reasons for yard sale-ing, from the record fanatics trying to score rare LPs to the college kids looking for kooky clothes and cheap furniture to the loathsome dealer types who don't hesitate to throw an elbow on the way to that table full of what might possibly be Fiestaware. For me, yard sales are compelling for bargain hunting, but also because I find the activity both relaxing and exhilarating. The relaxation comes from the drifting, Zen-like mind-set required to embrace the myriad objects spread before you, and the pleasurably semi-aimless wandering around until something catches the eye. The exhilaration is a result of the almost-impossible-not-to-feel surge of competition born of 10 people in a small area all canvassing the same stuff. It makes for a pleasant intensity, buzzing about the sale trying to snag the shiny bargains before the other nine people get there first. It's a cheap high, all the better because it really doesn't matter if you get to that big-eyed Keane painting first or if someone else grabs it. You get a little jolt of excitement, of adrenaline, without world-ending consequences either way. But really, of all the punters out hustling the local yard sale scene on any given Saturday, it's likely only a handful will be hunting precisely the same treasured items--and even then, as thrift-store zinester extraordinaire Al Hoff once pointed out, "if you see someone buying the exact same 12 things as you, you should probably ask them out."

The main drag about yard sale-ing is definitely the early-morning thing. For some horrible, inexplicable reason, the vast majority of yard sales begin at 7 a.m., no later than 8. You can come later, sure, and I've long justified my yard sale late-arrival laziness by rationalizing that at the end of the day people are desperate to get rid of stuff rather than haul it back inside, so bargaining is particularly easy. The truth is, though, that most of the good stuff goes right away. Case in point: At the recent Arcadia community yard sale, more than 40 families hauled junk out to their front yards. At the first two sales I hit just after the 9 a.m. start time (thank you to whomever organized this sale for beginning at a reasonable hour) I spent $32. After that, over the next 38-plus sales (and I'm pretty sure I visited each and every one), I spent a mere $1.25 total. Had I arrived at those first two sales even 15 minutes later I'm sure that the $8 Coach bag and $10 Eames floor lamp (one of my greatest scores ever, thankyewverymuch) would have been long gone.

So the early bird definitely garners the good deals on cool stuff, but that leads to the other problem with yard sales: rest rooms. Chances are, if you're like me, you fuel your early-morning expeditions with lots of coffee. Uh-huh. Enough said. Unless you've got the balls of brass required to ask complete strangers to let you use their bathroom while they're in the middle of conducting a yard sale, I would advise building in a McDonald's pit stop or two into your itinerary.

Early rising and lack of facilities aside, there are many more reasons for frequenting yard sales than against, the best being that it's the ultimate cheap entertainment. There's no admission, and you certainly don't have to buy anything; granted, the same can be said about the mall. However, while retail shopping seldom offers any surprises, you simply never know what you are going to find at a yard sale. Yard sales are full of a random selection of stuff running the gamut from banal to bizarre.

Yard Sale 101

It's a big world, with a whole lotta of secondhand crap for sale. Even our medium-size metropolitan area hosts hundreds of yard sales on prime summer Saturdays, and it's impossible to visit every single one. If you feel the urge to cruise other peoples' castoffs, here are a few suggestions to help narrow the scope.

1) It's all about you: Take a moment to focus on what particular items you're hunting for, even make a shopping list. Then correlate your wish list to appropriate neighborhoods, whose yard sale bounty will more likely yield the objects of your desire. For antiques, collectibles, vintage clothing, and old stuff in general, think established but nontrendy neighborhoods with aging populations. Govans, Loch Raven, and Belair-Edison in the city, Catonsville, Glen Burnie, and Essex in the surrounding suburbs are good starters; estate sales are particularly promising sources of such merchandise. Those hunting cheap furniture and housewares do well in places with high residential turnover such as Charles Village, Fells Point/Canton, and Towson. For bountiful baby items (equipment like strollers, playpens, etc.) and kids accouterments (clothes, toys, books and the like), limit your search to family-friendly places like Mount Washington, Stoneleigh, and Hamilton, to name but a few.

2) Scour the classifieds: not just the daily paper, but small community weeklies, newsletters, and even the bulletin board at your local grocery store. Online, check out the Baltimore section of Craig's List for local garage sale action. Keep an eye out for yard sale signs posted along major roads and at intersections; often this is all the advertising a sale might get.

3) Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize: Classify advertised sales from most interesting to least, depending on how they're described. The largest items of greatest value tend to get most mention. Analyze both by what's listed as what is not; for instance, a sale that lists power tools, camping equipment, and a boat likely won't have much in the way of antiques, books, or kids gear. Organized community yard sales are always promising--with a whole bunch of vendors participating in one concentrated area you're bound to find at least a couple of sales that offer your target wares.

4) Bargain, bargain, bargain: You're working with motivated sellers, since most yard sale proprietors want to get rid of stuff and not drag it back in the house at the end of the day. If you like an item but not its price, offer what you think it's worth. In my experience people almost always accept a reasonable offer. Or, if you're interested in buying several things, offer 75 percent to 80 percent of the total price--say, $15 for a group of items that totals $20.

5) There are seven days in the week: Watch for multiday sales that begin on Friday, or others that are held only on Sunday (increasingly common in the Orthodox Jewish areas of Northwest Baltimore). Many shoppers feel that it's not worth hitting a sale after the first day, but one experienced buyer I know insists that the best deals come at the end of the sale, especially if you are looking for out-of-the-ordinary items that other shoppers might pass over.

They're also a frequently hilarious window into fads of yesterday, from Pokémon cards to Chia Pets to every barely used exercise gadget known to humanity. It can be truly astounding to contemplate how seriously coveted these ridiculous pieces of plastic/cardboard/etc. once were, even more so when some clueless yard sale proprietor labors under the delusion that their assiduously amassed pogs/Dungeons and Dragons/Beanie Babies collection is worth serious dollars.

Most enthralling, however, is that yard sales are the one socially acceptable form of voyeurism in our culture. When else do you get to walk into a complete stranger's home or property and eyeball his or her belongings? At a yard sale you see a person's life spread out before you like an existential smorgasbord. The things people get rid of tell you as much about who they are, or at least once were, as the things they keep. By way of example I refer you to more than one yard sale shopper who has purchased 1960s or '70s vintage vinyl from shiny, upstanding yuppies, only to get the album home and find an ancient baggie of desiccated pot stashed inside. Yard sales reveal the secret history of everyday lives.

Sadly, it seems that our secret histories involve a great deal of plain old boring crap. Trite trash. Undistinguished junk. Phalanxes of cheap glass vases, platoons of coffee mugs commemorating meaningless events, endless wicker baskets, mountains of stuffed animals (I am firmly convinced that the planet will eventually collapse beneath the mass of an ever-expanding population of unwanted plush toys)--all of these seem to crowd every yard sale everywhere. It can get a little depressing, really. But for every person who simply can't hack another table full of commemorative prom glasses and dusty fake flowers, there is someone whose pulse races a little faster at the glorious sight of random stuff arrayed in a front yard or driveway: the thrill of the hunt, 21st-century style. It's what we've got left.

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