You can learn a lot from a yard sale. And not just about the people hosting it — though it’s tempting to judge a family on the books and debris of their lives that they have on display.
Think of yourself as a real-life Indiana Jones next time you follow that trail of cardboard signs into the heart of a strange, new neighborhood. After all, what you’re seeking is some exotic antiquity to display back at your own museum, or perhaps treasure to fund future explorations.
And, just like Indy, you often get a bit more adventure than you bargained for, because call them what you will, tag sales, garage sales or yard sales, there is a peculiar subculture attracted to these contemporary archeological digs. They are not just glimpses into our culture’s material past, but into human nature.
If you don’t believe me, try hosting one yourself.
When my wife and I first moved to NH, a thousand years ago, we lived in her grandparents’ completely furnished and decorated home. There was not much room for our “stuff,” so we lightened our load by plopping items into the driveway adorned with hastily made price tags and putting out a sign. Among “my” things for sale was a lovely print in an ornate frame that came from my Louisiana grandmother. I was fond of it, but we needed some cash to get started in our new home and I figured I could sell it for $50.
The sale started at 8 a.m., but we had “early birds” poking around by 7:30. It was one of my first real experiences with a yard sale, so I didn’t know better than to allow them to pre-shop. One man immediately grabbed my print, brought it to me and then balked at the price. I didn’t really want to sell it that bad, so I held firm and pocketed fifty bucks.
That evening we had a pair of strangers knock at our door. They said they had just missed our sale and wondered if they could look over what was left, maybe glance around in our garage for other junk we might want to get rid of. It seemed odd, so I quizzed them there in the doorway until I learned what was up.
It turned out that the man who bought my print was a “colleague” of theirs. He had spoken highly of the quality of our castoffs. In fact, the framed print I had sold for $50 — a gorgeous copy of a Maxfield Parrish illustration from “The Rubaiyat” — was easily worth five times that amount, or so I was informed.
Obviously, they were not there out of kindness, and we didn’t let them poke around the house, but I took it as an opportunity to learn a bit about the wheeling and dealing of what I now know as “the pickers.” Among my revelations was how people can make a living by rummaging through the surplus of our consumer culture. Another was that Maxfield Parrish was not only one of America’s most famous artists of bygone days, he was a Granite Stater, so the local cachet of the item added quite a bit to its worth.
It was valuable lesson for the future editor of New Hampshire Magazine and one that haunts me when I drive through the Cornish Colony region where Parrish and other great artists lived. Imagine what a yard sale would have looked like on that road, back in the day.