This time of year, garage- and yard-sale signs festoon my corner of the city. The hand-lettered placards are stapled to telephone poles and taped on traffic signs, enticing passersby with their offerings: Lots of DVDs! Books! Vintage clothes! Beanie Babies!
I am proud to live in a country where year after year, sale after sale, we witness the peaceful transfer of possessions. But, oh, how I used to hate garage sales. As a kid, whenever I was in the car with my mother, she would invariably find her way to some rummage, yard, or garage sale. No matter what the errand, no matter what the outing, we’d end up in some heretofore-unknown neighborhood, the station wagon seeming to find its own way, like a lumbering wood-paneled bloodhound. The woman could spot a sale sign blindfolded. At night. From 100 miles in dense fog. Without her reading glasses. I think she could actually sense when a sign was about to be made; she could fix the precise location of the mothballed clothes and musty toys without the aid of GPS or a map.
We’d drive by, stalking the sale, carefully eyeing the wares placed in the driveway. My mother would keep her eyes on the road and whisper tersely, “How’s it look?” Under her tutelage I learned to distinguish the quality of the offerings. She’d appraise the goods and sniff, “That’s a junk sale, not a garage sale.” And we’d drive off in a careful, 15-miles-per-hour-in-a-residential-area huff.
It was all junk to me. In my mind, it all seemed so crass, so commercial! Why would people parade their rubbish for the whole world to see? What on earth did my mother think she was going to find? I felt that bargain-hunting should be kept secret and private, and there should be a cloud of shame around it, like collecting pornography or eating all the frosting off an entire sheet cake.
At Christmas, my mother gave my siblings and me the stuff she’d accumulated over the previous year at rummage sales. I was often disappointed by these gifts. I could not see past their origins to appreciate what the items were. It was obvious that my mother did not love her children enough to pay inflated retail prices on a shiny new object from a store with proper business licensure.
Then one year, I opened a bulky, clumsily wrapped package to find a purse the likes of which I’d never seen: The top of it was a small Western saddle, with detailed tooling and even, yes, stirrups. To access the inside, you lifted the stirrup, flipping over the saddle. It was the most awful/wonderful, beautiful/ugly thing I’d ever seen. I loved it. Not only did I love handbags, I loved all things associated with horses. All this time, my mother hadn’t been searching for some Picasso that someone had stuffed behind the water heater in the basement for 40 years. She was looking for a saddle purse. As she put it, “I never know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it.”
So, much as the Baldwin brothers cannot deny their show-biz legacy or the Kennedys cannot disavow their political dynasty, I have finally succumbed to my garage-sale birthright. I’ve lived in this neighborhood on and off for years, and there is always that first fine spring morning when lawns and alleys are arrayed with dishes, sweaters, pots and pans, VHS tapes, books, odd toys, and dozens of wicker baskets, always priced at 10 cents each. The neighborhood buzzes with activity, and I make my way through the homemade bazaar, greeting neighbors I’d forgotten over the long winter. And when I come across the pair of sneakers, one attached to a leg brace, next to the collection of baseball cards, I see that these sales make archeologists of us. What was this person’s life? What did these things mean to him or her and how did they land here? And… what could I do with a leg brace and baseball cards?
A few years ago, I fulfilled a rite of passage by having my own yard sale. Many of the wares were things my mother had given me over the years—which, of course, had come from garage sales. My mother, ever the clairvoyant, was the first one to show up that spring morning along with a family friend, Fay, the two of them lifelong shoppers-in-arms. My mother poked through everything and then picked up a ceramic schnauzer pencil sharpener, recognizing it immediately. She’d once given it to me.
Before she could utter a word, though, Fay offered a stern reminder. “Dorothy,” she said, “Garage sales are no place for hurt feelings.”
Our eyes met, and my mother gave a silent nod, as if to say, “Godspeed.” And I made a buck off that schnauzer pencil sharpener.