These Are the Strange People That All Yard Sales Tend to Attract

When you peddle your possessions off to the neighbors, you might find that your priceless stuff isn’t so priceless after all.

FEA_Yard-Sales_US180407Sam Washburn for Reader's Digest

A man never realizes how ruthless a wife can be until she holds a yard sale. Nothing is sacred. A set of Hardy Boys in mint condition, a Turkish water pipe, a rowing machine. A rowing machine? “Maggie!” I cried.

“You never use it,” she said.

“So what,” I said. “If it comes to that, I don’t use my stuffed marsh hawk or my Walt Dropo autographed baseball.” She said not to go so fast. Too late, I realized she was making a list.

For years, Maggie had threatened to hold a yard sale. I’d thought that was all it was­—a threat. But now she was clearing out the sunporch and collecting stuff from the rest of the house. “If there’s something you really want to keep, just tell me,” she said. “No need to sneak it out like whatever it is you’re hiding under your newspaper.”

(Try these tricks to make the most money off of your junk.)

I told her I wasn’t hiding anything. “I just picked up this cigar case to take a better look.”

“If you want to keep it­—”

“You’ve priced it at a dime. It’s worth at least 30 cents.”

She said the whole point of a yard sale was to get rid of stuff.

Yes, I said, but not give it away.

“I’ll make it 15 cents,” she said.

She asked me to price the books, so I had to go through half a dozen cartons of them with a ten-year accumulation of attic dust. Before I finished, the phone rang. Maggie wanted to know who it was.

“Mac wanted me to come over for a beer,” I said. “I told him I was busy sorting cartons of dirty books.”

“Yes?” Maggie said.

“He said he’d be right over.”

FEA_Yard-Sales_US180407Sam Washburn for Reader's Digest

When Maggie told the boys about the sale, they greeted it with the same enthusiasm they would have shown for harp lessons. Their contributions were three jigsaw puzzles in one box, a bag of old flashlight batteries, and one imitation-leather gun belt that had wintered under a forsythia bush.

I told them I didn’t see how they were going to make much money that way. Roy looked at Sammy. Sammy looked at Roy. Both looked at me. They could keep the money?

“It’s your stuff,” I said.

It was touching. A moment that comes but once to every American parent—when he sees the first gleam of capitalism in his child’s eye.

Luckily, Maggie caught them before they could strip their room.

FEA_Yard-Sales_US180407Sam Washburn for Reader's Digest

The week before the sale, the weather was unsettled. We checked the reports hourly. I could appreciate how Eisenhower had felt as D-day approached. Our rummage was massed along a broad front, a heavy buildup of old clothes in the parlor, a concentration of bric-a-brac on the sunporch. Kitchenware was assigned to the hallway and set to move out in the first wave if the weather held.

(Make sure you never, ever buy these things at garage sales.)

The sale was scheduled for Saturday morning, but as soon as we put the word out on Friday, people started calling. Did we have antique furniture, pictures, china? Maggie said no, only ordinary, middle-class debris.

They came before the sale started, poking around, turning things over to see where they had been made. A young woman with no makeup showed her husband the bottom of a shipping case. “Trenton,” she said, and both snickered. What did they expect for 15 cents­­—Xanadu?

An expensively dressed couple tumbled the merchandise—strewing books, dislodging knickknacks—to remarks of a disparaging nature. Finally the woman offered to pay half price for several small items. Maggie said she wasn’t ready yet to cut prices. The woman said with a sweet smile that she might have to with goods of such poor quality—nothing for a serious collector.

Maggie returned the smile and said it was too bad they hadn’t come an hour earlier, before we’d sold all the delft china. Delft? the woman said. Yes, Maggie said, old dishes.

Some fellow had bought a boxful. The woman grasped the door for support. How could Maggie have sold the best things before the sale even started?

Maggie patted her shoulder and said, “If you want to be a serious collector, you’re going to have to force yourself to be pushier.”

A yard sale is a traumatic experience. Even your best stuff looks tacky in bright sunlight, and these things are far from your best. These are the mistakes and bad guesses of a lifetime. All weekend, you’re surrounded by memories you’d rather forget.

I called to a friend of Maggie’s. She gave me a frosty look and stalked by. I asked Maggie, “What’s wrong with Esme?” It turned out that Esme had been browsing at the trinket counter and had found a statuette of a peon in a floppy hat riding a burro. Maggie realized­—too late—that it was a bridge prize she had won. At Esme’s.

FEA_Yard-Sales_US180407Sam Washburn for Reader's Digest

“What could I say?” Maggie asked. “I told her I’d been hunting for it high and low and that you must have put it there. She probably won’t speak to you for a year.”

Of course, there were a lot of presents we had given each other. Just because we had them for sale didn’t mean we were unfeeling about them. After all, it’s the thought that counts, and it annoyed me to watch people rummaging heedlessly through things we had selected with so much care.

You can learn a lot about people from a yard sale. Maggie says the main thing you learn is that you never know. Spendthrifts on Fifth Avenue are cheapskates in your backyard. One woman with a diamond as big as a bumblebee spent 15 minutes beating me down on a 25-cent tin tray.

Then an old fellow asked the price of an electric blanket. He had on a sweater with the elbows missing, and his eyeglasses were mended with tape. When I quoted him $2.75, he opened his change purse and started counting out nickels and dimes. I was so fed up with rich hagglers that this got to me.

“I must have misread that tag,” I said. “It’s 75 cents, not $2.75.” You’d have thought I had given him a gold watch. He was so grateful, it was touching.

I told Maggie about it. “He was such a nice change from the chiselers.” I told her about the woman with the diamond.

“Sort of a heavy woman?” Maggie asked. “In canary-colored slacks? That wasn’t a real diamond. I just sold it to her for 20 cents.”

I was making a mental apology to the diamond lady when I saw the old fellow with the blanket driving away­—in a Mercedes. As Maggie says, you never know.

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