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Yard Sale Nation: Why an Old-School Tradition is More Popular Than Ever

By:  Anna Raddatz Aug 8, 2014
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As far as commerce interactions go, yard sales are about as old-school and low-tech as it gets. They work the same way they have for decades: used items are displayed in front of a home, people stop by to check them out, and buyer and seller haggle over a price before cash is exchanged. There may even be an old-fashioned lemonade stand involved, that 50-cent cup of summertime refreshment magically untouched by inflation.

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

Yard Sale Nation

Bruce Littlefield scours garage sales for inspirational second-hand goods to furnish his home.

Many dedicated yard salers were introduced to the concept in their childhoods. When Bruce Littlefield, author of Garage Sale America, was five years old, his grandmother started taking him to sales on Saturday mornings in rural South Carolina.

“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.”

Yard Sale Nation

Former "garage sale snob" Lynda Hammond visits about 100 sales every weekend and sells some of her findings on eBay.

Other avid yard salers didn’t discover them until later in life. Katelin Clifton, a 36-year-old mother of three in San Antonio, Tx., started going to yard sales when she was pregnant with her first child. At the time, she was living in the Fort Hood military post, where her husband was stationed. “I started going to community yard sales and went from wearing my husband’s oversize shirts to actually buying maternity clothes, which was a God-send,” she says. “Everything we needed for the baby that year came from yard sales because we really had no money and military yard sales are awesome when it comes to baby stuff.”

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 Items

Today, 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.

Kate Clifton

Katelin Clifton makes visits to yard sales a weekly family outing, bringing along her husband and three kids.

Littlefield, who in addition to being an author is also an interior designer, agrees. His entire Catskills home is furnished with garage sale finds, and he encourages others to incorporate second-hand goods into their style. The key, he insists, is to find items that inspire you and make you happy every time you look at them.

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.

Human Connection

Yard Sale Nation

Coke memorabilia found at the 127 Yard Sale.

While online resources are helpful for buyers, social media has also become a powerful advertising tool for people hosting yard sales. Joyce Randall, media relations director at 127yardsale.com, says that “social media has been incredible for the yard sale.” The event she’s referring to is the 680-mile long yard sale that takes place every year along Highway 127, running between Addison, Mich., to Gadsden, Ala., and touching four other states in between. It’s commonly known as “the world’s longest yard sale.”

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.

Yard Sale Nation

Another unique find at the "world's longest yard sale."

The 127 Yard Sale has grown consistently since it began in 1987. Randall sees a few reasons for this. She thinks it appeals to nostalgia for rural, small town America, and good bargains speak to the country’s recent economic troubles. But she also finds that with the prevalence of technology, the appeal of yard sales is simple: “It makes people feel more connected.”

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.”