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August, 2009

Garage Sales

by Valerie

I don't remember when garage sales first became popular, but around the early 1970s, they certainly came to our attention. My family moved twice when I was young, first just before I started school, and then again in the middle of my fourth grade year. I do not remember that we had a garage sale before either of those moves, even though we certainly had garages. As I recall, we donated unwanted items in the move/clean up process to charity, or just left stuff on the curb so folks could pick up whatever they desired.

Sometime, though, during my latter grade school years, we discovered garage sales. Before that, we often shopped second hand: at church rummage sales, auctions, library book sales, flea markets, pawn shops, and a place called the "Airline Lost and Found." This last venue was a fascinating little store in downtown Lemont, IL, that really did sell stuff that had been lost at airlines and never reclaimed.

Our garage sale in Lemont, summer of 1987

Once garage sales came on the scene, it seems that going to them and having one of our own went hand in hand. If we were going to buy cheap junk, we certainly needed a way of recycling it when we were done using it. It made perfect sense for growing kids; we outgrew toys and clothes every year. Interest in various subjects made books and magazines flow freely through our household. I don't remember ever buying a brand new piece of furniture, and every table, chair, or lamp came already broken in and ready to fit into our 100 year old house.

A big advantage to the second-hand method of buying was how cheap it was. We certainly didn't seem to be poor, but we also didn't have a great deal of money to spend. Saving our hard-earned funds was simply a way of life, and never seemed a hardship. Not only could we afford the nickel and dime prices at garage sales, but the fact that we never knew what we'd find made it almost like a treasure hunt.

When we had our own annual garage sale, it was a BIG deal. It seemed part sale, part festival, and almost like an exciting party. It was certainly a lot of work! We cleaned and priced anything that we no longer wanted, making sure that no member of the family still had any attachments, emotional or otherwise, to an item. That was one rule I remember - make sure you don't care about getting rid of something, whether it was a much loved toy at one time or a favorite dress that simply no longer fit. The whole idea was to price items very low so they would sell, and it would never do to take into account any personal sentiment that we added to the basic goods. My mother was very good at this and eventually sold off many "heirloom" pieces of furniture and various things that had been gifts at her wedding and such. I remember going to garage sales where prices on certain things seemed a little steep and, when asked about bargaining, the seller said it had meant a lot to them and that's why they wouldn't budge on price. Well, it certainly didn't carry that emotional baggage for us, so we just moved on without buying.

Besides getting rid of stuff like kitchenware, furniture, clothes, and books, we also sold slightly more unusual things at our garage sales. This made them all the more popular. We potted up plants from our gardens, sold hand-made crafts, had plenty of tools and fishing equipment, that we often found when we were out playing in dumps or rivers, and, once I started collecting bones and skulls, I sold off my extra inventory. One veterinary student bought a whole pile of diseased dog bones for use in his studies, and I remember a boy who came back over and over during our 4-day sale to buy small skulls. When we went to garage sales, anything that was out of the ordinary made the sale rate extra high on the entertainment scale.

Val and the newly prepped "greeter" for our Lemont garage sale in 1992
Going to garage sales on Fridays during the summer became a favorite hobby for my sister, mother and myself. We would sit down with the newspaper ads, scissors, tape, magic marker, and a map covered with plastic the night before and plan our route. We cut the ads out, taped them to a piece of paper in order with numbers, and put the numbers on the map. The plastic made it possible to later wash off those marks and make new ones. I learned a great deal about reading maps and giving directions while my mother drove during the early years. Later, I got a lot of my first driving practice (especially parking) following her directions as we went from sale to sale in the various neighborhoods on the southwest side of Chicago.

When we had our own sale, I learned about pricing, advertising, and how to add up items quickly, make change, and package things for people to carry away. I never thought about it at the time, but the personal encounters with the hundreds of customers certainly improved my social skills. We were lucky that my father could speak Polish and therefore communicate with the occasional immigrant who did not yet speak any English. I used signs and gestures with folks who spoke only Spanish. I learned that a well-run and organized sale brought in far more cash than might be expected from the small prices of most items.

I continued to go to garage sales through my college years, mostly out of necessity when it came to cheaply furnishing equally cheap rooms and apartments. I helped my sister in WI with a big sale, quite reminiscent of the ones we had 15 years earlier, when she was trying to clear out a basement, garage, and storage unit. I think we made the most money the night before the sale when her friends and neighbors all came by and bought the better furniture and some big ticket items. Information for the uninitiated: the earlier you make it to a sale, the more likely you are to find the "best" stuff. However, it is only appropriate for personal friends to come by more than 8 hours before the sale actually opens. These are unspoken rules.

Nowadays, Larry and I don't really accumulate much in the way of salable items. We make small annual donations to Goodwill, but we are not into buying different furniture or changing out our wardrobes much. Quite often the clothes and shoes we discard are beyond their useful life. Books do come and go, mainly from and to the Austin Public Library's used book store.

The only current garage sale enthusiast in our household is Periwinkle, our fox terrier. Larry often takes the pooch on walks in our neighborhood, and when they encounter a garage sale, Peri excitedly requests that they go shop for a new toy. She will check out any small stuffed animals and choose one. If it is cheap enough, Larry buys it for her and she brings it home. She will certainly NOT have her own garage sale, though, as once she has licked and chewed on any toy, it is not in any condition to be recycled.

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