Have I Got A Deal For You

June 26, 1994|By Tim Larimer

One man's junk is another man's . . .

Treasure?

Hardly. As I scanned the piles of stuff I was selling at a yard sale, I could muster just one word to describe it all: junk. Ratty-looking junk, some of it was. Who on God's green earth would want it?

It didn't take long to find out. Although I had advertised for the sale to begin at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, the first potential customer pulled up a good 45 minutes early. At least that's when I first spotted him. He was sitting in a pickup truck parked at the curb as I carried boxes of my, er, treasures, out to the front lawn. It was still dark out! So I offered him my flashlight to inspect the contents while I finished setting up.

"Got any antiques?"

I didn't, unless the term was to be defined loosely, as in, if it's dusty, it's antiquarian. I felt so disappointed. I wanted to be able to sell him something. What if he were the only customer I had all day?

Fortunately, he found some unused sandpaper that I had marked for 20 cents. He gave me quarter and told me to keep the change. What a champ! This, I concluded, would be a snap.

In the newspaper advertisement, I described the sale as a "moving" sale, which in addition to being accurate, I hoped would convey that I was a motivated seller. Desperate, in other words. What I came to learn, however, was that to the savvy yard-sale shoppers, "moving" sale meant just one thing: furniture.

"You don't have any baby furniture?"

"Is this it?"

"What about that coffee table?"

The coffee table wasn't for sale. I was using it to display gewgaws that I myself had purchased at some other yard sale years before. A woman snatched up a set of coasters with pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I had visions of the coasters making the rounds from yard sale to yard sale for years to come. One day, across the country, I would probably run across the same set of coasters. Nothing at a yard sale ever looks as good once you get it home.

Most of the gewgaws went untouched. The coffee table, however, was in great demand. Just as I was about to take the darn thing inside, it dawned on me. This maple table with claw-foot legs was a lure. "Chippendale," one man announced from his car window before slamming on the brakes. From the vantage point of the street, it appeared I had all sorts of furniture to sell. Leave the table! Maybe people stopping to take a look at it would drop a few nickels for some of the other stuff. I made up a little sign that read, "Coffee table sold." It lent an air of success to my little yard sale.

Flush with a new sense of mercantilism, I marched on through my piles of junk and turned them into retail displays Mr. Macy himself would be proud of.

No one stopped to look at several dusty pairs of shoes, marked down to 25 cents. The presentation clearly was lacking. I dug out some old shoe boxes (Nordstrom, Cole-Hahn), brushed off the shoes and set up an attractive display. And I jacked up the price to 75 cents. They sold in five minutes.

I tried creative merchandising. The little trinkets I had picked up on various trips abroad were now displayed together in the "import section." My customers laughed, but as they laughed, they browsed, and if I could get them to browse, some might buy.

Some of my ugliest clothes I displayed together under a section for "Halloween costumes."

I sold almost everything. Did I feel cheapened? No way! I felt like Sam Walton. Emboldened! I was ready to sell, sell, sell.

Such impulses can get out of hand. My wife (who had already moved, cleverly leaving me to do the yard-sale bit by myself) tells a story of a yard sale she had with an old boyfriend. He became so intoxicated with the thrill of a sale that when some browsers said they needed bath towels, he went inside and sold his perfectly good towels, for a buck apiece. Of course, then he had to go out and buy new towels, for a lot more than a buck apiece. (No wonder she dumped this guy and married me.)

The retailing experience left me with conflicting emotions. "You . . . love . . . that . . . rug," was my silent mantra to the woman who showed interest in a blue-and-white rag rug. I wanted people to buy my stuff, true. But I also wanted them to like it. My stuff was an extension of me, and I found my self-esteem riding on the approval of a bunch of strangers.

A car slowed to a crawl. The passengers peered out the car windows. Then they drove on. I'm sure I heard them laughing. How insulting.

A woman said to her companion, after blitzing through the inventory in 15 seconds flat, "I don't see anything worth our time." How embarrassing.

A man picked up a hat (one that had been a favorite back during the month-and-a-half when I was 23 and wore hats). We wrinkled his nose and set it down as if he were handling a bag of dirty diapers. How humiliating.

A man told me, "Seems the prices are a little inflated."

Inflated?

He was staring at a table of drinking glasses, which I had marked at 10 cents apiece. One lousy dime! How much cheaper did he think I should sell them for?

I started defending my things. What kind of people go to yard sales, anyway? These scavengers were pawing through pieces of my life, items of sentimental value that once meant more to me than a few extra bucks to help with the move. Each represented a time or a place or a person. And these folks, they were digging through it all with their grubby little hands, bargaining with me to sell a 15-cent goldfish bowl (goldfish not included) for a nickel, acting all the while like my treasures were nothing more than . . . junk.

We settled on a dime for the goldfish bowl. And I threw in a box of Christmas cards. Sentiment or not, a sale's a sale.

RF TIM LARIMER is a free-lance writer temporarily living in Thailand.

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