In an age when we can buy anything online with a few clicks, and when eBay and Craigslist are overrun with easily searchable used goods, why are yard sales more popular than ever? In honor of National Garage Sale Day (Aug. 9) and the “world’s longest yard sale” (Aug. 7-10), it seemed like a good time to find out.
How Fanatics Are Born
“She would give me a few quarters, and I would ponder how to spend those quarters as if it were the greatest decision of my life,” Littlefield says. “I began at that age to acquire really unusual things and became addicted to it.”
Jason Leahey, a 36-year-old writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., remembers his parents taking him to garage sales as a kid growing up in Richmond, Va. In addition to visiting sales in the city, they would “also go to a lot in the country, where they’d have card tables set up in a long line with a bazillion different spoons and forks and flatware, and toys from the early 80s.”
While he doesn’t remember buying items, Leahey became fascinated by the experience—a fascination that has followed him to adulthood. On Saturday mornings in the summer, he likes to buy a coffee and a bagel and stroll through Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, following the chalk arrows on the sidewalk to stoop sales.
“It’s as much about the environment as it is actually buying anything,” he says. “I like the weird juxtaposition of items that wouldn’t really be put together otherwise.”
Today, she makes visits to yard sales a weekly family outing, bringing along her husband and three kids. “It’s not just shopping,” she says. “It’s about fun. It’s something to do as a family and it’s more of a social thing.”
Lynda Hammond, author of The Garage Sale Gal's Guide to Making Money Off Your Stuff, admits on her website that she used to be a “garage sale snob.”
“It gave me the heebie-jeebies, it creeped me out,” she recalls. “Why would I buy used stuff when I could go to Nordstrom and buy brand new things?” Then, in 1992, some family members took her to her first yard sale, and she was immediately smitten. “I was in shock at the wonderful things you could buy that people were selling for next to nothing. That’s what got me hooked.”
A New Look from Old ItemsToday, Hammond hits up to 100 sales every weekend, and compares it to a sport. Within about a minute, she can tell if the sale has anything she wants. If not, she quickly moves on to the next one. She resells a few of the items she finds on eBay and uses the rest to decorate her home. When she tires of an item, she sells it.
“It’s a neverending new look for your home,” Hammond says.
Current home decor trends certainly embrace the use of unique, vintage pieces. But Hammond says this isn’t the first time in American history that’s happened. Yard sales became very popular in the 1950s and 60s, she notes, due to articles in women’s magazines about re-purposing items. “Suddenly those magazines made it A-OK to go out and buy something used from your neighbor and turn it into something else.”
One glance at Pinterest or a tour around the blogosphere will confirm that this trend is back in a big way. But there were some times when it wasn’t that way. “When I was growing up, garage sales sometimes had a stigma of being what poor people did,” says Littlefield. “I think Pinterest has really made it cooler.”
Clifton, who is a big Pinterest fan, relies on that site and other online resources not only for getting new ideas, but for learning new skills. She has taught herself how to refinish furniture, fix broken finds and alter clothing by watching YouTube videos and doing other Internet research to avoid “botching” a project.
With thousands of vendors over hundreds of miles, getting the word out about a specific sale used to happen by word of mouth. But today, both sellers and shoppers use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites to announce locations that have a lot of vendors, promote hotels and restaurants along the route, post photos of specific booths or items, or give updates about detours and other useful information.
This is a common refrain from yard sale fanatics. Leahey, the writer in Brooklyn, considers his weekend jaunts a way to engage with his neighborhood. Littlefield finds that “people are willing to tell you almost anything if you get into a story through something they’re selling.” And Clifton, whose family has moved many times through various military assignments, says yard sales are the best way to meet neighbors and get to know a new town.
But in the end, it’s clear that the main reason yard salers find themselves in front of a stranger’s home with a pocketful of cash is because it’s fun.
“I get in my car on a Saturday morning with a cup of coffee, and it’s just so fun to go on a treasure hunt of following the signs,” says Littlefield. “To me, it really makes a Saturday morning special.”