Junk Bonds

What’s the value of something unworn, unused, and gathering dust in your basement? Sometimes, it’s priceless.

Last August, my neighbor and I dug through closets, cleaned our basements, and did our best to attractively present our undesirables, priced to move, in the alley behind our houses.

We’d been open for about five minutes when a woman screeched to a halt; snatched up the big, gilded mirror my neighbor was selling for $20; and drove away happy. Next, a guy with a big van took my ancient lawn mower off my hands for a dollar.

I’d marked my old dehumidifier FREE, with the disclaimer that it ran just fine, but was very loud. “You’re sure this works?” a puzzled woman asked. “It’s free and it works?” she kept repeating. She shoved it in her trunk and took off.

I’d put old nail polish on a FREE table as well.  A woman who volunteered at a nursing home doing the residents’ hair and nails giddily took all of it.

We sat for hours, waiting for people to drop by and paw the things that we’d once deemed worth buying, and now wanted to get rid of. I had a poster marked at a dollar. “I’ll give you a dime,” said a guy in a plaid shirt. He dug into his pocket and slapped his payment on the card table that held our cigar box filled with change.

It’s somewhat demoralizing to watch the things that you once loved be devalued in such a way. On the other hand, if you loved it so much, why was it now in a pile with faded sweaters and old cinnamon candles melting in the heat?

“That skirt from REI was $80 and I wore it once,” said my neighbor. “I had it marked at $5 and she offered me just a dollar!”

Putting a value on something you don’t want anymore is a dicey proposition. What we hang onto, maybe, is the sentimental value it once had; an idea of its usefulness, or of the use we’d intended for it, even if it never measured up to its promise.

From my basement, I had hauled up an old Korean chest given to me by a friend years ago. I had no idea what it was worth, so I marked it at $30. But I kept looking at the thing, which my neighbor had placed on a rug, with a chair and lamp next to it, to simulate a living room. I was wondering if I was ready to part with it when I saw a woman take a picture of it with her phone. Soon she came up and asked if I would hold it for her while she ran home to get more cash. “My husband says this is a steal!” she said. “I can’t believe you’re getting rid of it.”

She must have seen the look instant regret on my face, because she said, “You know what? You should be sure that you actually want to get rid of it. If you want to put it back in your house, I’ll give you my number. You can call me if you decide to sell it.”

I thanked her and put the chest back in the basement.

Overall, the sale went well. My neighbor and I sat for two solid days that weekend, chatting and eating donuts. I sold old books, CDs, a VCR and all of its adaptor cables, clothes I’d never even worn, and some chunky jewelry from the 1980s and ’90s. When I bought most of these things, I thought they’d be life-changing.

At the end of the sale, we took some of our bills and went to the Nook for burgers and beer. There was a guy sitting at the bar alone, and we started talking to him. When he got up to use the restroom, the bartender looked at me and said, “I think that guy likes you.” My neighbor agreed.

But when our new friend, Jeff, came back, my neighbor positioned herself next to him and began telling her best stories and jokes. A couple of beers later, the two of them were exchanging numbers. The bartender looked at me and shrugged, as if to say, “Looks like he changed his mind.”

“He’s great,” my neighbor said when Jeff went outside to make a phone call. “What are we going to do? I like this guy, too.”

What could I say? The cost of competing for him wasn’t worth the expense of our friendship. The value was fleeting—like a rummage sale item you swear you’ll come back for, but forget about by the time you reach home. I could see he was worth more to my friend, and I was in no mood to haggle.

Novelist Shannon Olson is a regular contributor to Minnesota Monthly.