Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Yard Sale

It was a bright yellow table with four sturdy legs. White flowers arched gracefully across its shiny top. Two panels, attached by hinges to the main panel, hung on the sides. Without them the table was round. When the panels came up, the table morphed into an oval-top.

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.

Seriously awesome boots for sale

"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 young boy eagerly flipped through a carton of children's books

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 quirky sign

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.

An old, old set of plates to clean crumbs off a table. This set belonged to the seller's daughter-in-law's great grandmother.

The seller no longer had any use for The Wonder That Was India

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.

Children's books were marked down as the day wore on

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.


Laksh said...

Lovely post. I have always watched the yard sales longingly but never really bought anything. My hubby hates clutter so we don't buy anything unless there is a dire need for it.

Sylvia K said...

What a great post -- as always! Yard sales have enriched my house and home many times over the years! Such a fun read and great photos as well!!

Rosaria Williams said...

I still own some Limoges I picked up at some grandmother's house. She was lovely; the pieces are still exquisitely paraded on special occasions.

Eleonora Baldwin said...

Loved this one Sujatha. I adore garage sales, yard sales etc. Unfortunately the custom is strictly an American one, so we don't get any here in Italy. Bummer, I loved those red boots...

Sniffles and Smiles said...

On the run now...will be back tomorrow to read what I know will be a wonderful post!!! ~Janine XO

Sands said...

I am very impressed by the little boy who sold lemonade and pakodas and the mom who indulged him by making the said items :) Can't imagine Raul doing it. Maybe he will do it if the incentive is appealing! Lovely post. Reminded me of the many toys we bought at these sales when the kids were young :)

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Lol, the post brought back memories of my student days.

And the mention of the immigrant families reminded me of "The Kite Runner" with its description of Afghan families in the US and their flea markets. Btw, it took me a good two years to venture into a flea market in the US - the name just kept putting me off. :-) My first visit there, I found a US-made pressure cooker for 50 cents that I used until it met my marriage. :p

Finally, now that summer's here, C should try Indian specialties like barbecued corn or masala puri.

Unknown said...

Lovely post Sujatha, I have never been to the US yet but these yard sales might just tempt me to make the effort....

sujata sengupta said...

I was not initially very comfortable with the idea of these garage sales, but since my Muscat days have come across quite a few as there is a big Western Expat community here and they put up these sales quite frequently. What I love the most about these sales are the way they have kept their stuff, all looking so well organized and the way they interact with people who visit the sale.

Choxbox said...

pls tell C auntie chox applauds his entrepreneurial skills!

Anonymous said...

Awesome! I can definitely relate to wanting to know your things went to a home when they were wanted, there is always a slight worry that they'll sit in a charity shop forever when you give them away.

And well done for C and his business skills! He did well :-)

Nino's Mum said...

:) I have always marveled at the 'yard sale' images that I see and read, thank you for writing about it in such detail.
I know my sister bought her first couch in Australia from a yard sale - and my parents were aghast that she had picked up something from the street. When the saw the pictures of how clean and beautiful it was, they refused to believe some one gave it away for a few dollars!
It can however, never ,never happen in India. charity here begins at home and stays there. stuff gets passed on and around in family, then to the neighbours, then to the help.

The Muser said...

Lovely post Sujatha! I loved the phrase "at the altar of consumerism" !

gawker said...

I love yard sales. Even though I have decided not to buy anything at yard sales anymore (I buy too much useless stuff), each time I see a sign for one, I feel like the circus has come to town.

"made like a bandit" : I steals it. Thx in advance.

Suldog said...

Excellent post! I love yard sales. My big thing is to look through old books and recordings. Many fine bargains in entertainment for 25 cents!

Thank you for the very kind words over at my place!

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Always inspiring. You are a star!!! Visit my blog to accept your award! ~Janine XO

Kavi said...

Hmm. I prevelent is this ? I havent seen anything like this over here..

Except perhaps a notice on the apartment notice board. But that again, nothing close to this...

Nothing at all !!

Hmm !

Sniffles and Smiles said...

I'll email you later :-) Too busy you want me to delete the comment with your address? Love to you~Janine XO

Ugich Konitari said...

What a lovely post. Took me back to some days in 1984 at Cornell, when we were there for the summer, and I went with one of my neighbors who had made a serious habit of checking out garage sales. I got a great tennis racket then for a dollar. We played tennis with it that summer, and I still have it here with me in Mumbai.......:-)

Cheffie-Mom said...

What a wonderful post! You can find treasures at yard sales. Great photos!

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

You know Sujatha ... I have never been to a "yard sale" at all ... been in US for almost 9 years now ... perhaps its the bay area we live in... there aren't as many yard sales. There are one or two that happen sometimes ...but nothing like what I have heard from friends and family in other states especially the east coast. I have also watched those programs on HGTV on yard sales and always wanted to go there :)
But I have been to the flea market couple of times ... though I am not very good with bargaining there. Not knowing Spanish is a big disadvantage here at the flea market.

DotThoughts said...

what a great post! I love yard sales. I have a $2 coffee-mill I bought 8 years ago. I ahve used it every day. Still do :) I meant to write a post on my yard sale findings. You just inspired me!

♥ Braja said...

I could write a book called The Wonder That Was India, too :))

Nice post, Ms Pourri :)

Sniffles and Smiles said...

I have returned to let you know I sent you am email, but had a little trouble sending it...I'm not sure if I entered your address correctly. Let me know if you haven't received it. Also, I need to tell you...great minds think alike...Last weekend I wrote this coming Saturday's post...and it's all about my creative attempts to make money as a child... LOL ...can't believe how much on the same wave-length we are this week!!! Have a great evening! ~Janine XO
my word verification: poetec--that describes the opening of this post perfectly!

Anonymous said...

My house is filled with yard sale finds, and my book shelves too.

This made my heart ache: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.

I give my stuff away and hope it is a blessing to who ever picks it up at a thrift store.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Laksh, thank you. I can understand your husband's sentiment. :)

@ Sylvia, thank you.

@ Rosaria, the connections we make are such an integral part of the yard sale.

@ Lola, thank you. Why don't you start one in your community. It'd be a monster hit! :)

@ Janine, thank you for coming back and for the lovely comments. Thank you for the award too!

@ Sands, toys are a great buy because the kids grow out of them so fast! Will show C your comment. :)

@ BPSK, LOL! 50 cents! Wow! And good ideas for sale items. I have a few of those in mind too now that swim season's coming up.

@ Kiran, come visit!

@ Sujata, totally agree. Lovely venue to make connections.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Chapati, Chox, will convey your messages to C. :) Chapati, I'm glad I talked to that lady. I would have never guessed it.

@ NM, I debated whether to include anecdotes about what we would do in India. In fact, I even typed it out and then deleted it. The fact is individuals are extremely generous here and they do give away clothes and toys by the cartons. There are a couple of things different from India. First the weather - because the season changes are so drastic, each demands a separate wardrobe. And especially when it comes to kids' clothes, you buy it for one winter and by the time the next winter rolls around the kids have grown out of them. The same for summer clothes. So there's a surfeit of clothes that have been used for only one season. Secondly, most homes don't have household help here, so that avenue is not available, although friends and relatives are an option and are fully utilized.

Phew! Long response! But thanks for bringing it up.

@ Muser, thanks for mentioning that!

@ Gawker, you're welcome! And I cannot picture you buying useless stuff. Hmmm.

@ Jim, thanks! Books and entertainment. Can't go wrong with them.

@ Kavi, very prevalent. Extremely prevalent. Especially when the seasons change as in now, spring and then again in fall. Very popular here. You see signs all the time.

@ Ugich! lovely story! Can't believe you still have it!

@ Debbie, thanks!

@ CA, next time hold up your hands and start doing dumb charades! That should work and it'll be a load of fun! :)

@ Dottie, I love the 'find' stories. Do write!

@ braja, I believe it! And looking forward to the day when it's out. :)

@ Janine! That is something! Look forward to reading it! Perhaps C will be inspired some more. :) Replied to your e-mail. Got to me fine. I just hadn't been able to check e-mail in the afternoon. Cheers!

@ Meredith, that's a lovely thing to do and I'm sure it is a blessing.

Frankie Anon said...

I love yard sales, which are also called tag sales or garage sales, depending on which part of the country you come from. I didn't know they were an American phenomenon. I love how you show us familiar things with new eyes. Yard sales are common in my neighborhood, usually on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. People often put the remaining stuff on the curb for free and it almost always disappears. Good way to recycle!

Anonymous said...


"Well, I was hoping to get one for around 50 cents."

... and she is driving around - an suv, perhaps - to get this deal, eh?

this person appears to be as 'penny wise pound foolish' as me - pretty frugal/stingy/... in everyday life, but currently living out the nightmare that is the fl real estate, in a condo that has already lost nearly 3/4ths of its worth in the last four years (i.e., since we bought it)!

one request: i am seeing different fonts on your posts (in firefox) which makes some posts really difficult to read. are you noticing it too, or is it just a firefox issue?

- s.b.

Anonymous said...


following up to my own comment (now from internet explorer) - looks fine from here! (maybe it has something to do with either firefox itself, or the version of firefox that i have).

- s.b.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Frankie, yeah, it's certainly worth it not to be trashing all that stuff.

@ s.b., that is the first thing I said to my husband when I got back. And then I checked the price of a new nut cracker - around $11. There's no way she spent that much of gas. Plus the act of going to a yard sale has value to her.

Glad the font thing got sorted out.

Suki said...

Wonderful post - long time since I've been on your blog, I think. I love the level of thought and detail you've invested in something you must see just about every day.

I wish we had yard sales in India. I wonder why we don't have them, when most houses are cluttered with generations of wealth that holds value but isn't needed. Is it just that we don't have the space to host them?

Anonymous said...

What a detailed analysis of something so "everyday" as a yard sale! Great post..thanks. Your post reminded me of a time when I sold my miata. Couple of people who came to see my car actually rented a car and drove 60 miles just to take a look! I guess I had the right price tag on it..

You were right on about the possibiity of such a thing happenning in India too. We actually give away a lot of used clothes to maids in India, but sometimes they don't want they'd really like to own something new and unused. I think altruism does exist in a different sense in India. People donate to temples. I remember raising money for the blind as a child.


Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Suki, welcome back. :) I'm not sure it's the lack of space in India, it's probably what Nino's Mum said - people give away most of their stuff in India.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks Mallika. I'm glad you liked it!