by Brian Matthews
A babysitter in Georgia recently spent a quarter at a thrift store to buy her charge a present, only to get home and find $1,300 in old currency stuck throughout the pages.
A man in Nashville recently purchased what looked like a commemorative copy of the Declaration of Independence from a similar establishment and quickly learned the document was worth close to $200 thousand.
Stories such as these have had the curious power to cultivate an entire subculture. Startled by the ultimate example of something-for-almost-nothing, a large group of people across the United States find such tales just the right fuel they need to push their bodies out of bed early on Saturday morning and face long hours navigating yard sales, flea markets and junk shops.
And I, Brian Matthews, am by lineage, one of these people.
My grandmother was the first to illustrate the value of skimming other people’s cast-offs. I never realized until I was older, but all of the items in her basement that I always found so entertaining as a child (ping pong table, three Hot Wheels cars for indoor chases, various books and board games and a television) were all bought second hand out of someone’s lawn.
Grandma never had a driver’s license of her own, but by 8 a.m. most Fridays and Saturdays, she’d have Grandpa in his flannel shirt and jeans pushing the gas pedal on their Chrysler so they could pick through the bulk of rummage sale inventory throughout greater Peoria, Illinois before noon.
Grandpa never seemed happy about this job, but Grandma always did the best she could to make it seem worthwhile to him, splurging a few quarters every few stops to grab him a St. Louis Cardinal coffee mug or another tool for his workshop. Grandma was always shopping for others – and she hasn’t stopped. Even as I write this, I am dressed in a pair of loafers my grandma found at a yard sale 900 miles away and felt I had to have since they only cost two bucks.
Like a good mother, Grandma passed her wisdom on to her son. Thusly, my dad has spent his adult life becoming an aficionado of second and third-hand shopping. When my parents make it to Northwest Arkansas, we don’t daytrip to Devil’s Den or wander through the Promenade. Instead we end up spending a large amount of time at the Salvation Army Thrift on 15th Street and Peace at Home Thrift on Sycamore.
Visiting my parents a few years ago, I mentioned needing a new pair of jeans. Dad volunteered to take me shopping and pick up the bill. Now this sounds generous, but I knew what I was getting into. After a few hours of browsing about town, my “new” pants were secured with two dollars at Goodwill.
My father behaves like this not because he is destitute; he is just determined. It is his own form of hunting. If you were to tour the home of an average man, he might show you the head of a ten-point buck he shot hanging above his mantle. My father would show you the Michael Jordan brand tuxedo he paid $4 for that is hanging in his closet. I wore that thing to almost a half dozen formal events in my last few years of high school.
If you were to have dinner with an average man, he might make small talk with a story about the time he narrowly escaped his fate while ice fishing in Alaska. My father would tell you about how he narrowly escaped the wrath of my mother when he affordably bought her an organ (that she did not want!) at an auction and then spent the next three years trying to give it away.
And now it is my turn to carry on the legacy. While I prefer to get most of my clothes new, I almost exclusively pick from the clearance racks. And I did have to thrift store shop to find my own tuxedo (mine cost me $5!). Plus on any given weekday afternoon, it is not unlikely that I might be found nosing through piles of old CDs at local pawn shops or flipping through stacks of pre-viewed DVD’s at a nearby Blockbuster. In fact, I just finished watching another episode of Arrested Development from the three-disc set I bought a few weeks ago for a meager $8.
You can call this behavior cheap if you want to, but I like to think it is slowly becoming a bit of a family art form.
How can you go home with a car full of treasures and bargains after a day of garage saling? There are about as many opinions and books on the subject as there are items for sale at these sales, but here are a few of the standard tricks.
1. Do your homework. Start scouring the classifieds in the daily papers and the free papers midweek. Some folks advertise their sales early and don’t run ads on the day of the sale. Others only run ads on the day of the sale. Keep in mind that some people can write more appealing ads than others. There may actually be more or better stuff at a sale that lists only few items, so don’t be “sold” by the ad. But, if you’re looking for a TV and a TV is in the ad, go there first.
2. Make a plan. Northwest Arkansas is about as spread out as Los Angles, so you must decided if you are going to scour the entire region or just stick around your neigborhood. Garage sale season is just getting underway, so you may want to test the waters in some different areas and take some mental notes. Bella Vista is reputed to be good hunting grounds (lots of retirees who are downsizing). Some regular salers confine their activities to certain neighborhoods, believing that the historic district is going to yield cool old stuff and the ritzy new neighborhoods new and glamorous finds. This is not always the case. You never know what you will find where. A crummy neighborhood doesn’t always mean crummy stuff.
3. Make a map—or don’t. The worst thing you can do is make a list of sales, grab a drive thru coffee and then realize you don’t really know where you’re going. When you’re doing your homework, get out the computer and put Mapquest to work. Knowing where you’re going will give you an advantage over the rest of the shoppers. This is competition sport. If doing the homework (scouring the papers and consulting Mapquest) sounds like too much work or too much structure for your idea of a little bit of recreational shopping, you can still shop successfully. Make an in-your-head map that consists of a circle of main roads that you’re familiar with. Drive these road and just look for signs. Some shoppers are seriously serious and some just sale for enjoyment. Decide how far you want to take it.
4. Get there early or get there late? Some shoppers sit in their cars and wait for sales to open. Others don’t go until close to closing time. The first group are looking for the picks and the bargains. The end-of-salers are gambling that there will be greatly reduced prices or giveaways. One thing to know about getting there early: big sales, sales that sound good in an ad, or are in a popular shopping neighborhood usually attract the most early shoppers. Keep in mind that there will be a mad dash when the sale opens with ots of grabbing and speed-shopping by the veterans. You may want to shop the less enticing sale first and let the pros battle it out while you enjoy first pick at a less popular sale. And remember, if you see something you really want, you probably won’t have a second chance at it, so buy it then.
5. Be nice. Have fun. Be respectful. Garage saling is a sport and a hobby and almost everybody does it these days. Don’t get too serious and let it become work. There are pros who do shop to resell and for them it is work. These folks can be pushy towards other shoppers and those having the sale. But, like grandma always said, a little bit of honey goes a long way and catches more flies than vinegar. Most people holding sales will bargain on some items, but sometimes their prices are firm. When bargaining for a better price, watch for the seller’s reaction. If you become offensive either by going too low with your offer or by trying to wear down the seller, chances are you’ll lose the game.