I always thought that one of the most annoying things was the ubiquitous yard sale. I pass them all the time, no doubt with a look of disdain on my face. My thought process has always been, “Why would I want to buy someone else’s junk?” This was my long held belief until I too was compelled to hold a yard sale, and now I am singing a decidedly different tune.
My father’s passing away necessitated a long process of going through the house and his belongings. The accumulation of decades’ worth of clothing and materials is daunting when you are staring at it for the first time. I always knew my father had a lot of what my wife would call “clutter,” but when faced with actually opening every closet door, many things were discovered, including one actual skeleton.
The skeleton in question was of the Halloween variety, and years ago when my daughter was little my father played a game with her of the scary skeleton in the closet. It was supposed to be spooky but was actually kind of fun for her, but I had forgotten about it until this life-size thing came crashing down on me when I opened that door. How do you like that as foreshadowing of things to come?
Once my family and I had gone through everything and took all things precious or deeply meaningful, we were left with the detritus of my parents’ lives. Enormous amounts of knick-knacks, vases, dishes, gadgets, tools, and gizmos remained and had to be dealt with before we moved on. We believed that the things had inherent value, since they were loved by my parents, but we had no idea if they had any real value. We decided to have a “house and yard” sale, which could also be considered what some call an estate sale.
On inspection of the garage I came across old Christmas decorations, gas grill, outboard motor, a lawn mower, a snow blower, tools, a set of dishes, Coleman coolers, a set of golf clubs, and all of my father’s old fishing gear. This and the outdoor picnic table and benches became part of the “yard” portion of the sale. On a beautiful but hot New York day, these things were displayed in the driveway.
Inside the house my sister and daughter arranged all the costume jewelry, collectible art, old toys, books, glasses, knick-knacks, gadgets, electronics, and appliances. We put signs up all over the neighborhood and awaited our “customers” patiently, and just as in the great movie Field of Dreams, we built it and they did indeed come.
The odd thing is the strange cross section of humanity that entered our yard and house. I still am not sure what compels someone to stop for a yard sale, but we had a large sign out on the back of my father’s car, and drivers were slowing down, double parking, or making U-turns and parking across the street. I stood there somewhat dumbfounded that people were actually coming to our sale.
Each individual shopper had his or her interest, and we discovered that within a few seconds. These people came to haggle, and I recalled the interaction between shoppers and merchants in the bazaars on my trips to the Middle East, so I tried to emulate those master shop owners I had witnessed there who could deal with bargain hunters but not lose their business.
Everyone is looking for a “deal” which translates into a “steal.” I felt that I understood this, but we had prepared by marking objects with prices listed on post-its. According to my sister’s online research, when having a yard sale it is good practice to mark things down one-fourth of the paid price (if you know it), but these post-its seemed to matter little to our customers. A power drill marked $20 had an offer of $2, which seemed to be way beyond negotiable to me. The old grandfather clock, marked for $100 (which I felt was a steal), only got offers as high as $20. These people left without a purchase, but I was comfortable with that.
One fellow came looking for watches. We had a number of my father’s and mother’s watches there. Taking out a magnifying glass (this guy obviously came prepared), he examined those watches as if he were going to perform surgery on them. In the end he bought one – for $3 – and left unhappy because he did not find whatever it is he was looking for (I suspect he thought we may have had a very expensive watch there that we had overlooked that he could get for deal).
A mail carrier pulled up, double parked, and came running over to examine the outboard motor. It hasn’t been used in over twenty years, but it has a cool retro look to it and I had packaged it with the fishing supplies for a reasonable price of $50. The mail carrier offered me $10, which I refused. He was followed by a number of other people all interested in the motor, but all unwilling to go even close to a reasonable price.
Similar things happened with many items. People were offering $1 or $2 for things marked $25, and then I started thinking that I had approached this all wrong. By actually labeling the items I had narrowed my ability to haggle. I recalled my Middle Eastern mentors who cleverly had items unmarked. Customers would ask how much, and the games would begin. I quickly pulled the post-its off everything, and then items started moving more quickly.
In the end we didn’t sell as much as we wanted to (we will have another sale next weekend and advertise even more heavily), but we did move some items. One guy wearing a Springsteen Born to Run T-shirt bought an old juicer and battery charger, and a dapper fellow wearing hospital ID purchased my father’s Harley Davidson motorcycle model, and they both walked out with smiles on their faces. I felt like they got what they wanted, and the fellow who bought the model would put that someplace and display it properly, appreciating it as much as my father once did. Maybe that is what it is all about – wanting to not discard memories, but extending their lifespan by transference to like-minded souls who will carry the torch.
When the sale was over for the day we put everything away and sat there as if we had gone through a battle, and in some ways we did. Our opinions of the value of what my parents left behind were shattered by the realities of what people saw as good deals. It is painful to see someone offer so little for something that meant so much to your loved ones; however, in reality there should not be an expectation of anything more.
We learned something valuable but it came at an emotional cost. Soon all those things will be gone, whether we sell them, give them to charity, or end up discarding them. Then the house that had been a home will be an empty shell, sold to the highest bidder, and gone from our lives forever. It will be the last step in this process of agony and ecstasy, and I wish for it be over almost as much as I dread it. For now, I will fine tune my haggling for next week. I plan on moving that outboard motor and the lawn mower and those Christmas decorations too! Let the buyers beware!
Photo Credits: Victor Lana