The Strange Allure of Yard Sales

Photo by Nikoline Arns on Unsplash

When I was growing up in suburban Massachusetts in the ’70s, yard sales were a big thing. Now, all these years later, I’m back in my hometown, and guess what? Yard sales are still a big thing.

Now we have social media and Craigslist to more widely advertise our sales and, of course, there are now so many online shops we can use to sell our wares, but people still want to go out and see the merchandise. Yard sales are an entire subculture of rural and suburban America.

My mother, now eighty-two, still likes to tell the story of when we had a yard sale forty-something years ago and two old ladies showed up a half-hour early while we were still scrambling to get things onto the tables. They spotted the printed hankies my mother was selling for a quarter apiece, fingering them and holding them up for inspection in the sunlight.

Finally, one of them held up her favorite and asked, “Will you take a nickel for it?” My mother was too kind to tell them to shove it, and took the nickel. But she’s gotten decades of mileage out of the story.

This is how it is.

Now that I’m back and have done three yard sales in a year, I have learned not to mark anything below a dollar so that I don’t have to deal with change, but I still get, “Will you take fifty cents?”

At last weekend’s yard sale, a savvy shopper picked up a never-used, new spatula off the dollar table and said, “I only have a twenty, or two quarters.” I admired her spunk and cleverness. I took the quarters.

It’s always nice to have a big tax-free haul of cash at the end of a long day, but it’s not fully about that. It’s a win-win for both vendor and customer. If the customer feels they got a bargain on something they needed or wanted, they win. If I got rid of some crap that I didn’t have to put back into the garage or attic or cellar, I win.

And in a world that offers precious little live connection between people, the steady stream of small talk with strangers is rather quaint and special.

I had the best time talking to a woman last spring who had seen my Craigslist ad. She wore a frilly Native American style jacket that I admired, and she bragged that she got it at a garage sale for ten bucks. She stayed for an hour, poring over, sheet music and kitchen gadgets and oven mitts and dishtowels, and then went over to the DVDs and CDs, and finally to the games and toys and few pieces of clothing my yard sale partner was trying to sell.

I learned that she hated highways and never drove on them; had a 12-year-old son who had recently picked up a guitar at a yard sale and was teaching himself how to play (hence her looking at sheet music); she bought everything in cash, never credit cards; lived across the border in New Hampshire and had once dated someone on the lake where I resided, and; was a single mother.

In the end, she took away a bag of things for about fifteen dollars. It was only when she walked down to her car that we noticed the car itself.

“Look at that! She just bargained us down on every little thing and she’s driving away in a Mercedes Benz!” I said, a bit perturbed.

My father, observing from his lawn chair, had missed nothing in his eighty-six years, and said, without a pause, “That’s why she’s driving that car.”

Ding ding ding! Lesson learned.

I enjoy stopping at yard sales as a potential buyer also, although I haven’t yet acquired the necessary balls to bargain down what somebody has marked for $1. But I’ve made some great acquisitions, like my wooden green hutch, perfectly painted, stained, and polished. For $85, I will have this beautiful piece for the rest of my life.

I can’t say the selling is all fun, though. Getting up at an ungodly hour when a glow of light has barely risen above the horizon, and trying to move boxes of crap out to the driveway to set up on folding tables, only to have to take 90% of it back down again at the end of the day, takes a toll on the body that’s about the equivalent of a mountain hike or a 50-mile bike ride. And some days your profit is over $200, or just $44 (as it was for me this last weekend).

You sit down for a beer and pizza with your family and you bitch and moan and say, “Never again.”

And by the next morning, after you’ve recovered, you start thinking of the next one. You try to learn from your past mistakes, either in pricing or the type of merchandise offered, and you say to yourself, “OK. Now I know what not to do next time.”

You know there will be a next time.