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Reuse, Recycle, Remember: Some Thoughts On Why People Like Yard Sales

For sale: cherished memories. Fifty cents or best offer. (dave milsom/Flickr)
For sale: cherished memories. Fifty cents or best offer. (dave milsom/Flickr)
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The warm weather has arrived, bringing with it long rows of cars parked haphazardly along the usually quiet streets of my usually quiet town, where usually meticulous yards are now crammed with racks of drooping clothes, broken furniture, boxes of old post cards and odd kitchen items no one born after 1910 knows what to do with. This can only mean one thing.

Yard sale season has arrived.

I’m not a fan of yard sales for a number of reasons. I’m not saying I don’t need any three-legged tables or Perry Como LPs. It’s just that I’ve got my own junk to contend with, and I don’t need yours.

[Yard sales are] the only transactions in America where the seller says, 'These things have fallen below my standards, so why not save me a trip to the dump and give me a few bucks for them?'

Some of that junk now sits in boxes stacked in my cellar. Our options are either take it to the dump where the guys who work there will watch me unload it, nudge each other and say, “Wow, look at all that crap.” Or, hold a yard sale. My wife is intent on the latter. Which means someday soon I’ll be able to sit back and watch, wondering if anyone is going to buy that opened package of vacuum cleaner bags, bundle of wire coat hangers, old kitchen light or ugly vase.

Here’s my problem with yard sales: They’re the only transactions in America where the seller says, “These things have fallen below my standards, so why not save me a trip to the dump and give me a few bucks for them?” Or, the more blunt yard sale proprietor may just come right out with it: “I no longer need or want this junk, but it’s perfect for you. How much will you give me for it?”

Must everything these days be recycled, salvaged and repurposed? Can’t we just say goodbye, junk, you’ve had your time, and the future belongs to this shiny new junk I’ve just bought? No way. If in a consumerist society we live through our stuff, ensuring its afterlife is a way to deal with our existential dread. Fitzgerald may have been right that “There are no second acts in American lives,” but then again, he never met my busted blender, which I’m confident will soon fetch at least five bucks from one of my neighbors.

Yard sales could be ended tomorrow (along with the bad parking and traffic tie-ups) if we attacked the problem head on. That is, if we were smarter consumers who fought those impulse purchases and were realistic about our collecting habits. Instead of picking up that $40 tchotchke in some gift shop and imagining how great it would look on top of the mantel, we’d ask ourselves: “I wonder how this will look in 15 years sitting on a folding table in my driveway bearing a sticker that reads ‘50 cents or best offer.’”

Yard sales aren’t all bad. I once had a neighbor who bought a nondescript painting because he liked the frame and found behind it a valuable portrait of some 19th century general. This was, of course, his only real find in decades of cruising the Commonwealth hitting every yard sale he could find. Meanwhile, we’ve all heard tales of people who have bought something at a yard sale and a few months later ended up on “Antiques Roadshow” being told they have on their hands a Civil War relic valuable enough to finance their retirement. These experiences are rare; most often what one comes away with from any yard sale is more akin to moldering copies of Reader’s Digest and the type of gaudy blouse not even Phyllis Diller would have donned.

If in a consumerist society we live through our stuff, ensuring its afterlife is a way to deal with our existential dread.

To be serious for a moment (and just a moment), perhaps the popularity and near ritualization of yard sales means they speak to something deep inside us. Other than the hope of finding gold among the ABBA posters and headless Barbies, there may indeed be real emotions in play. After all, among those items stacked in strangers’ driveways might be an old toy once played with by a child now married and flown from the nest. Or rusty crates for pets long gone. Clothes of deceased spouses, remnants of passing interests long past, and home furnishings that can’t go to the new condo or assisted-living facility, all these things speak to who we are and where we’ve been. They tell the tales of our lives. We are not shedding these things, but instead sharing them, hoping they’ll carry our torch a bit further.

Often I’ve looked around at my shelves of books, rooms of furniture, boxes of paper and closets of clothes and wondered where it all goes when we die. If it’s yard sale season, you know the answer: up and down the driveway tagged with stickers that say “best offer.”


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John J. Winters Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
John J. Winters teaches at universities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is the author of "Sam Shepard: A Life."

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