An Ascetic's Garage Sale Obsession

Mary Jo Pehl finds meaning and mystery in the summertime tradition

Photo by Jamie Hooper / Fotolia


I hate stuff. My husband and I are ascetics to the point that even after two years in our house, it looks like we haven’t moved in yet. Still, I have an inexplicable fascination with making other people’s stuff my own, despite this general aversion.

There are more ways to exchange used goods today than ever. You can purchase pert near anything on eBay, craigslist, and any number of websites or apps. The concept has permeated the culture. Garage, rummage, and yard sales have been television show plots; they’ve figured in songs and works of art. “Yard sale” is even slang for skiers wiping out and leaving skis, poles, and body parts strewn about. I spent hours trying to find a documentary film, Zen and the Art of Yardsailing. Someone somewhere created a board game: Yard Sale—“the game of good fortune and bum deals!” Let’s say you’re a three-day old baby and you don’t know the first thing about such commerce: There is a lengthy Wikipedia entry that details everything about it (right down to describing what an arrow on a garage sale sign means.)

So it’s not just me (she said defensively). 

The humble, meat-space garage sale still has its appeal, writ large in the abundant signage and the cars parked askew in driveways throughout summer. There will always be something about the tangible and tactile, seeing an object in three dimensions. And to meander through a sale is to witness transition for someone. People get rid of things because they no longer hold value for them. What changed?

“Someone else has to find meaning in the old record albums or the giant wall-decor salad tongs.”

There seems to be a trend today to eschew the materialism of the ’80s; maybe they are letting go the things that don’t spark joy, the dictum of the bestseller The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Maybe they no longer have room—physically or psychically. Perhaps it’s the rule of thumb for getting organized that if you haven’t touched something in a year, it’s time to get rid of it. (Well, there goes my husband. Ha, kidding, just thought I’d channel some Phyllis Diller for ya.) Maybe it is their parents’ belongings and that damn circle of life means that someone else has to find meaning in the old record albums or the giant wall-decor salad tongs. 

Those thoughts meander through my head as I noodle around the enormous garage sale down the block at the Lutheran church. I rarely buy anything, but I can’t resist. Perhaps it is about change for the buyer too, or the possibility of change. I can see an imagined self in just about anything. The ceramic juice pitcher that looks like an actual orange, complete with green stem for the handle, will make me a delightful giver of brunches. Perhaps I could use one of the six Health Riders (the part-bike, part–rowing machine upon which you sit and undulate back and forth) on display to become a fitness guru—or make it a wall hanging as an ironic comment on body image. Is my true self a knitter? I pick up balls of yarn and a barely started scarf still in the needles. What happened to the person who started this project? Frustration? Illness? Macrame? 

My mother’s philosophy about garage sales was that she didn’t know what she was looking for but she’d know it when she found it. Maybe I don’t know what I am yet, and I want to keep my options open. Sure, I can become an expert on dubbed Russian sci-fi movies even if I have no idea how such knowledge might benefit my life. When I held that 24 pack of VHS tape, I think the feeling it sparked was glee. I’ll take it.  

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