Rarely did the dates, which are almost always Saturdays and occasionally Sundays, the locations or the items stick in my mind. But this summer it was hard to ignore the signs or the garage sales themselves that seemed to take over the town each weekend. It was nearly impossible to make it two residential blocks without spotting a hastily constructed plywood sign with the word "sale" and a spray-painted arrow pointing toward a driveway occupied by old dressers, holiday sweaters, leather jackets, VHS videos and, of course, antiquated ski gear, because you never know if there's someone out there looking for a purple and green pair of rear-entry ski boots that predate e-mail.
Bruce Littlefield, the author of Garage Sale America, has said that the recession has served as a catalyst for the garage sale - which has long been an institution of Americana but is now enjoying a renaissance. And this makes sense - people who don't have money need to get rid of the shit they bought when they did have money, to make some money... and the same people also need to buy things with what little money they have. And hence, we have the great garage sale explosion.
"There's a lot of young people in this neighborhood who maybe just moved into a house and need furniture or other things and they can't afford to buy new stuff," says Amy Ridley, whose Tumalo Avenue home serves a frequent yard sale location. Ridley is co-owner of Revival Furnishings, a used furniture store in South East Bend, but has long been selling her own items by way of garage sale and has learned a thing or two along the way.
"Location is everything," says Ridley.
She must be right, because in the 15 minutes I'm at her yard sale, there's always someone browsing through the goods. Considering she doesn't make a sign, put up posters or even list the damn thing on craigslist, this is impressive. All she does is drag the stuff out of her garage and let consumers descend upon her lawn.
Other sales, however, take some more advertising, and these are the ones that plaster your neighborhood telephone poles and fill the online yard sale categories with more than 50 listings each Saturday. If you follow these advertisements, you might find them to be treasure maps... or just paths to awkward bouts with disappointment.
I followed one "Huge Yard Sale" sign up a hill near Portland Avenue to find a yard peppered with off-colored wooden furniture and paintings that appeared to be family portraits - of someone's family, but apparently not one that was worth this old woman keeping. I politely strolled the yard for just long enough to give the impression that I'd carefully inspected all the items but arrived at the judicious decision to not procure a new pair of oven mitts, before nodding to the perfectly pleasant woman and head back to my car. This happens a lot, and lest one want to insult another person's crap, one must pretend to give a crap about the crap on the lawn. You don't have to buy anything, but you have to be polite. This is part of garage-saleing.
But if the garage sale vendors, as I experienced, are a gaggle of wrap-around sunglass wearing dude-bros who don't return your pleasantries as you check out their used (and mostly useless) winter sports apparel, but rather continue to sip on their Bud Heavy and ignore the pants off of you, then you don't need to stick around. And you definitely don't need to buy anything, either.
There's a lot of to be learned from garage sales - which are, incidentally, perhaps the purest form of free market capitalism you'll see in this country - and part of that is that if you want to buy something, one of your neighbors will probably sell it to you. Especially in this economy and especially during the summer.
Just keep an eye out for those neon signs.