Yard Sale

Brookline Tab, August 2002

What is it that leads a family to pull out all of their accummulated stuff, haul it out to the driveway or sidewalk, and spend a day of their lives trying to sell it all, for a buck and a half per item? What can possibly justify sitting there with all that your house has digested over the years, spewed out before the entire neighborhood?

The yard sale comes from some sort of spring- or fall-cleaning impulse. It has its own protocol, timing, and procedure. There’s a season for it, but God knows how we know that suddenly it’s yard sale season; we just know. Beginning at the end of August and then again sometime in May, the colored paper signs appear. It stops sometime at the end of June, and picks up in vacation spots like the Cape during July. There’s the little white price tags, the signs, the arrangement of things in an artful yet touchingly pathetic manner, the decision to include neighbors. There’s the naming of it: in some places, it’s called a yard sale, in others, a tag sale. Garage sale is also acceptable, but is not as attractive, because garages conjure up images of leaky oil on cement, garbage cans, and grass sticking to lawn mower blades: not stuff you want to buy, stuff you want to hide. The other day I saw a sign for a “sacrifice sale.” I scanned the driveway for clues (bloodied lambs, virgins) but saw nothing but an elderly couple and junk, which I suppose was a sacrifice for them to sell. Okay, then why do it?

Why do it, indeed? A yard sale takes a day of your life, lots of sweat and dirt and dust hauling crap out and at the end of it, what have you got to show for it? Fifty dollars? I always feel you should cart it all down to the Salvation Army. Or your local school fair. This probably comes from suffering through my parents’ yard sale when I was a teenager. Oh the humiliation!

But there’s something more to it than the money, I figure. For the seller (and the cellar) there’s the chance to get rid of it all, make a clean start with your basement, and hopefully see your good but no-longer-useful stuff go to someone who will love it the way you used to. How great it feels, for instance, to unload something, anything from Little Tykes on a new young family who is ecstatic to get it; and no more bright colored plastic for you. How cool when a non-working computer gets bought by an eager young kid who doesn’t care that it doesn’t work; and you get a little cash for it. How nice for a neighbor to bestow a set of barely-used silverplate trays on a young couple down the street, whom she just knows will use it.

The yard sale must give people the satisfying sense of passing their treasures on, almost like the reading of a will to loved ones. The seller knows that somewhere, his stuff continues to exist, but in a new form. His life’s choices are somehow justified with a successful sale of his things to eager neighbors. And there’s the feeling of a shared culture, where things just keep going around and around, changing hands, one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. When you see something you’re going to buy at a yard sale, it’s very exciting. When you bargain and then get it, you feel clever, like you’ve made the deal of the century. The seller is happy to get rid of it, because he was going to chuck it at the end of the day anyway. Everyone wins. It’s very mundane, full of low expectation, yet tremendously satisfying for both parties. There’s not that many things you can stumble upon on a Saturday afternoon that you can say that about. Makes me kind of wish I’d stopped off at the Sacrifice Sale.