But its best feature was the price. At $5.00 (with a chair thrown in), it had my name written all over it.
I was a newly minted immigrant foraging low cost department stores and although I did not know it then, that uniquely American phenomenon known as the 'yard sale', for the basic household items I needed as a student. I slept on a sleeping bag I had brought from India. My room had a built-in, rectangular closet for my clothes. Renee, my roommate, drove me out to the store where I purchased a fan (for $10.00 - turned out to be a great value; we still use it 16 years later) to minimize cooling costs. All I needed now was a table to house my books.
On the way back to our apartment, we came across a small house with all manner of stuff on the sidewalk. A young man and a woman were busy running in and out of their house. Renee stopped the car and asked if I wanted to look at what they had. Not really sure what she meant, I just nodded. Straightaway she zoned in on the table, assessing if it would fit in her car.
At some point in the next few minutes I gleaned what was going on. The man and the woman had finished up school and were getting ready to move away. They were trying to sell as many of their possessions as they could before packing up the rest. Five dollars seemed like a great price for a table. Perhaps he saw 'poor, desperate student' written all over my face. He offered one of the two chairs for the same price. So what if it was a dining table? I could leave the panels down and it would fit perfectly in the corner by the window in my room.
As we stashed the table into the trunk and the chair into the back seat and drove on, the novelty of the situation, the thrill of a cheap buy and the relief at not having to spend any more money on setting up my room in the immediate future brought on a giddy feeling.
It was my first brush with a yard sale. In the intervening years, however, it has become obvious that the yard sale - or the moving sale, garage sale or rummage sale as it is variously known - is much more complex than someone trying to offload their expendable belongings before moving on.
At a community yard sale a few days ago I talked to one woman who walked or drove from yard to yard. I was on my walk and I ran into her a few times. She peered carefully at the display tables, occasionally talking to the owners. She came away from each yard with empty hands. It was apparent that she did not find what she was looking for. After about the fourth time of seeing each other, we stopped to chat.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" I asked.
"A nut cracker," she said.
"Couldn't you find one in a shop?"
"Well, I was hoping to get one for around 50 cents."
There in lies the thrill of the yard sale. The prospect of finding something for a fraction of its retail cost. Perhaps the nut cracker was a necessity in her kitchen, but she was willing to wait until the weather turned favorable for yard sales, willing to wait until she could eventually find one that someone else no longer needed. Growing up, her family made the rounds of yard sales every weekend, she said. The habit must be hard to shake off.
It was difficult not to notice the large numbers of immigrant families at the yard sale. Being a new immigrant in a rich country is tough, especially in a country that prays at the altar of consumerism and especially in this period of prolonged downturn we find ourselves in. Most had come looking for clothes, toys and games for their children. As I watched one of the mothers pick out the clothes for the younger children, the older ones walked around picking out their own clothes and games. The prices were clearly marked on the items, but when the mother went to pay for her purchases, the owner halved the prices. The mother's face lit up and she walked to her car with a delighted grin.
A couple of older ladies walked around the tables, their languid gait belying the intensity of their purpose. They were looking for that special something - an antique lamp that could make a pair out of one they already had, or an antique chair or table that would match their decor. A little girl looked out through the window of her car as her father slowly drove by and spied what she thought was a megaphone. She ran up excitedly to the display table and was crushed to find that it was a table lamp. A man found the study desk he wanted. It was priced at $25. He wanted it for $10. "Come back in a couple of hours and if I still haven't sold it you can have it for $10," the owner told him. A woman drove in from ten miles away hoping to find a pair of boots but they turned out to be too small for her. A man bought a table fan for his son's room. A couple bought a pair of cross-country skis and the ski suits and gloves to go with them. A mother bought a coffee maker and a floor lamp for her children's new dorms. They were going away to college and she was trying to set up their dorm rooms for them as much as she could before they left home. A man drove in with a pick-up truck. He was looking for a lawn mower and he found one. A grand-mother bought a stack of children's books for her grand-daughter. A woman bought a play pen for her daughter.
A group of high school kids got together, pooled all the stuff in their homes they (and their families) no longer needed and set up a collective yard sale to raise funds for the adventure group they were part of. A family with grown children sold toys and books that were no longer used. A woman sold her grand-children's toys and her daughter's books. Lots of families sold old kitchen utensils, photo frames, deck chairs, jewelery, tables, crockery, garden tools, stereo systems. The variety was breathtaking.
Why would they not just give it away? This question has occurred to me more than once, especially when I see mounds of clothes on the lawns. But the fact is people do give away their things. Every winter the schools organize clothing and toy drives for disadvantaged families and the donations are more than generous. Then there are the regular donations to the Salvation Army and to churches and community food banks.
The answer to the question came from the lady who came looking for a nut cracker. She said she gives away many things each year, but that some of her belongings hold a sentimental value for her. She'd rather see the person she is giving it to and know that the item has some value to the person who is buying it from her. Even if she ends up selling it for a dollar, she derives satisfaction from knowing that the person bought it because they wanted it and will use it.
The yard sale (and perhaps the flea market, I don't know) is just about the only place in the US where the art of haggling finds a place. The lady who bought books for her grand-children bargained the price down to half the listed price. An Asian lady made out like a bandit with three huge pans. It is obvious to all the participants what the purpose of the yard sale is - the sellers want to move the items; under no circumstances do they want to have to take the stuff back into their homes. So the buyers negotiate and are willing to wait until the end of the designated time for the yard sale to move in for the kill.
For the youngsters who were trying to raise funds for their adventure trips, this turned out to be an exercise in figuring out what they could live without, pricing, inventory management, negotiating and closing the deal. And what a delightful objective to work towards!
At the material level, the yard sale is a lesson in economics and resource management, a course in consumer behavior, a way to make money, and yes, a sure fire approach to getting rid of stuff and clearing out clutter. At the human level, though, it is an intricate web of needs, wants, desires and necessities. And people connecting over mundane objects that once meant something to someone, and if the stars are aligned on that particular day, will continue to have meaning to someone else.
That yellow table I bought all those years ago? Its use reverted to the original intent. When I got married and moved out of Philadelphia, we used it - with the side panels up - as a dining table for nearly four years. Pretty good for $5, eh?
P.S. When C heard of the high-schoolers' plan, he hatched a plot of his own to make money for a video game he wanted to buy. He set up a lemonade and pakoda (an Indian savory snack) stand right next to the high school kids. After the first couple of times he mastered his explanation of what a pakoda was and he actually made it sound very delicious. As the day wore on and it got hot and lunchtime neared, he made brisk business and made more money than he expected to. At the end of the day he realized he was at the right place with the right product at the right price. I could only marvel at the chain of events that led to this. At his age, I was clueless about any of it.
A version of this essay has been published here.