A typical summer Saturday morning during the first 15 years of my life always began the same way. No matter where we lived or what kind of car we drove. My father would brew coffee and then tell me to “get a move on.” Now, most kids would complain and whine and moan — and I did — but I was not being told to do chores. No. I was being told to get in the car at the ungodly hour of 6 am so we could go yard saling.
Yard sales are where my father lives and breathes. If you go into his garage, which is really a neat version of a “Hoarders” home, you will find boxes and stacks of all of his yard sale finds. Walk into my parent’s home, and you will enter a very tidy suburban home. Everything perfectly clean and in its proper place. However, once you enter the basement or the garage, you enter, the “junk” zone. Alternatively, this could be called the “collectible” zone. My father still has Wheaties boxes that you are not allowed to open or eat the cereal out of because Cal Ripken Jr. is on the front.
My father’s desire for collectibles and things that “might be worth something someday,” is legendary…in our family, at least. To his credit, my father does have an eye for such things. At yard sales, he’s purchased original Elvis Presley 45’s (those are the little records with the big holes in the middle) and original Beatles’ EP’s (Bigger record, smaller hole).
Some men go hunting for deer or bunnies or elk or moose on Saturday mornings. My father hunted for bargains. We would drive the neighborhoods all morning, following signs. Sometimes, my job was to hold onto the classified section of the newspaper, where my father had, the night before highlighted potential yard sales. I was to give the addresses and look on the map for when we were getting close. If there was an advertised sale that looked particularly good, we would head there first, but never missed the chance to follow a yard sale sign into oblivion
And that’s what it felt like sometimes. We would see a sign and dart off the road, turning abruptly wherever the sign was pointed. I never dared look at the cars that were likely following us and now dangerously close to crashing due to our speedy departure from the lane. Rarely, a yard sale was clearly marked with arrows and we would follow along, turning right, then left, then right again until we pulled up at a perfect yard sale.
Usually, someone would put a sign up and then they would assume, I suppose, that because they knew where they lived everyone else would get it too. Some days we would follow a sign or two and keep driving and ten minutes later would be in some farmer’s field wondering if this was where the yard sale was.
Most of the time, however, the flimsy pieces of paper posted on phone poles only vaguely resembled actual signage. For those sales, Dad would slow down and I would have to squint out the window hoping to get a piece of the address before we carried on.
“What was the address?” Dad would ask.
“Umm…I think it was 75-something Rosa Dr. Or Bosa or Rosaria…” I would stammer.
“So we’re looking for a road that starts with R or B?” He would ask.
“Both,” I would say. And we would continue on trying to find the sale. Sometimes we would. Or sometimes we would stumble upon another sale that made not finding the “advertised” sale worthwhile.
“What does that sign say?” Dad would ask, slowing down along a phone pole while the person behind us changed lanes in an obvious huff. I was too little to know that Dad was pissing people off right and left with this Saturday morning driving.
“That’s a sign from last week,” I would reply. I know all the signs. I’ve seen them all and if people leave them up for an extra week — I remember. If people hold a yard sale again, I remember. And if people are holding a “perpetual” yard sale, we don’t visit. Perpetual yard sales are death. They are overpriced and usually held by people who are too lazy to pack up their stuff and go to a flea market on Sunday.
So what makes the perfect yard sale? Perfect yard sales are held by people who are really just looking to get rid of a bunch of stuff and hope to make a couple of bucks while they do it. Maybe the money is going to the kids so they can have spending money on their next vacation. Or maybe they are hoping to donate the money or are saving for a new water heater. What they are not doing is looking to make a profit off their used crap.
Two things you never want at a yard sale are people who try to “used car salesman” you — telling you the virtues of the crap they are trying to get rid of: “That will look great on you,” or “I bought that brand new and only used it once,” or
“That thing works amazing.” Oh yeah? So why don’t you want it anymore? Yeah. That’s what I thought.
The other thing you never want at a yard sale is people who think their stuff is worth more just because they owned it. You know the type. The put out their high dollar, brand name crap and think that they can charge almost retail for it. Sorry lady — your kids’ ratty old sneakers are not going to fetch $20 just because you paid $70 for them. They are still stinky and were on your kid’s feet. You’re old Christmas tree stand is only worth a dollar, maybe, and your old toaster is $2, if it works. Do I care if it’s a Cuisinart? Probably not, since I’m apparently shopping at a yard sale for a frakking toaster!
A perfect yard sale has piles of clothes for 25 cents each. If there are shoes — and really, there shouldn’t be unless they’re winter boots or something — they should be no more than $1. Coats — $10, tops. Let’s face it. All of this stuff is going to be on the curb Monday morning, so let’s not go crazy and try and gouge everyone in town. I’m sorry that you’re great aunt gave you a punch bowl for Christmas, but I’m not paying what you “could” sell it for on eBay if you weren’t too lazy to list it and then haul it down to the post office. Not going to happen.
My dad is the king of negotiators though. You want $5 for that old bowl? My dad will point out the little crack and then make you feel bad for taking $2. Then he’ll go home and find a book that puts that bowl in “fair” condition and it will be worth $50. And he will remember forever how much he paid for it and how much it’s worth.
Walk into his house right now and pick up anything. Anything. Doesn’t matter what. Could be the paper towels on the counter. Could be the soap dish in the bathroom. He will be able to tell you how much he paid for it. You don’t even have to ask how much he paid for it. Just look at it. With your peripheral vision. By accident. Walking through the room.
“Hey dad, cute rug.”
“Flea market: $3.”
“Oh cool,” I reply.
“That vase. 50 cents.”
“Oh, what vase…? Oh the one over there…on the mantel?”
“Yeah. Next to the picture frame. 10 cents.”
“Who is in the picture?”
“No idea, but you don’t want to mess with it — could decrease the value.”
“Ask me how much that mantel cost?”
“Oh, I don’t really…”
“Go ahead, ask me.”
“Um. OK. How much?”
“That mantel — $10. Hand carved wood. Yard sale.”
“You bet your ass it is.”
I have sat in my father’s garage, in a lawn chair, surrounded by boxes full of stuff, listening to records on Rock and Roll Friday (that’s a thing in my house), peering around a corner, talking to my mom who is sitting on one of five love seats, also in the garage.
My dad once had a room entirely devoted to baseball cards. Not a box. Not a closet. An entire bedroom in their house. Yup.
On a side note, my father will spend hundreds of dollars having steamed crabs from the Chesapeake Bay flown from Maryland to his house in Massachusetts, but will not spend more than $1 on a chair. I cannot remember ever having had matching chairs in my parents dining room. There were always enough chairs, but they were in various states of repair and recovery. Chairs and bowls. Records and baseball cards. I still look at these things at yard sales and have an urge to buy them.
My father helped me furnish my first apartment entirely from yard sales. To this day, I have trouble buying furniture new. I can’t do it. It’s almost painful to spend that much money on something when I know if I wait a few days someone will be getting rid of one of whatever I’m looking for at a yard sale or on Craigslist.
My father and I still, even now, have a tough relationship. A lot of harsh words have passed between us over the years. But we always had yard sales and I will always have the memory of Saturday morning car rides and the smell of old books in the back seat. Ask me how much that memory is worth. Go ahead. Ask.