I’m a sucker for yard sales. Saturday mornings, I’ll prowl the suburbs, looking for hand-lettered signs next to the curb.
I got hooked a few summers ago when I went out to find a set of kitchen chairs. I found a kitchen table and four chairs for $150 at a neighbor’s moving sale — and an RCA receiver with 5.1 surround sound for $20, and a ’90s edition of Trivial Pursuit for $5.
Over the years, I’ve bought an antique typewriter for $1 (the kids had never seen one), a 6-disc set of classic soul music from the ’60s and ’70s (in a case shaped like a box of 8-track tapes!) for $5 and a toy store’s worth of Fisher-Price Little People playsets for Thing 2 for pennies on the dollar.
After my first big score, I went out every Saturday morning the rest of the summer, trying to recapture that first high, but that proved impossible, which is the first rule of garage sales:
1. Once you score big, it’s all downhill.
Sometimes, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for, or you’ll find a deal that’s too good to pass up, but these bargains are rare. If you’re lucky and stumble across one, savor it, brag about it (although most people will think you’re weird for getting excited about buying someone else’s junk), but don’t expect to repeat it.
2. The first yard sales of the season are usually the best.
I lucked out last Saturday when I found a 1940s Philco radio at a garage sale for $50 (it doesn’t play, but I collect antique radios, because I’m a geek), and I found a Pioneer receiver with 7.1 surround sound for $20 (a nice upgrade for that RCA receiver I got a few years ago), but I know that’s probably it for me this season.
I have a theory: I think the people who have garage sales in the spring are people who’ve been sorting and stockpiling junk all winter and maybe since fall. I think they looked at their stuff and threw out the worst of it and saved the best for the garage sale, and as soon as the weather was nice, they’re getting rid of it.
I think the people who have yard sales in the middle of summer generally are people who looked around and said, “We ought to get rid of some of this stuff,” and they’re just selling everything. There’s no attempt to curate their collection, to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Some more rules:
3. Go early. We had a yard sale a couple of years ago. It started at 8. People started coming at 7. Shopping at yard sales is a competitive sport for some people. In our case, the early bird got the busted antique clock for $50.
4. If they’re selling Christmas ornaments, pass. I don’t know why, but people who sell Christmas ornaments seem to have a lot of tacky home furnishings from the ’70s and ’80s — lots of rounded brass picture frames and pastel home furnishings that bypass kitsch and go straight to ugly.
5. If the yard sale is more than 3 blocks from the main thoroughfare, skip it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a yard sale that’s 5 blocks and three turns into a subdivision, but the longer you drive, the more you’ll think, “This is taking forever! It had better be worth it.” It probably won’t be worth it. It’ll be old baby clothes and imitation-leather purses and VHS tapes, same as most yard sales, and you’ll just be disappointed.
6. Bargain, but don’t haggle. Don’t haggle the way you would for a used car, but it’s OK to bargain a little, and it’s kind of fun. The best approach is find a couple of things want and offer a flat price. For example, “Would you take $5 for this orbital sander and the Yahtzee?”
7. Understand that, sometimes, you really are buying someone else’s junk. Sometimes, you’ll get a great deal, and sometimes, you’ll have wasted your money. I bought an old PC at a yard sale last summer for $15. I thought I could fix it, but it really was toast. Even with a new hard drive, it wouldn’t boot up. The only part of the machine I ended up using was the power cord, and that’s OK.
It isn’t always whether you won or lost; it’s that you played the game.