A neighborly way to thin out crammed households

At yard sales, one person's clutter becomes another person's can't-live-without-it bargain.

September 18, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Shirley A. Formwalt is offering mismatched Christmas cards for a quarter. Eileen Cleaver is hoping to attract customers with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies - free to anyone who buys from her varied display of 50-cent ties and 10-cent glasses.

And down the street, Douglas "Jake" Jacobs is calling out to people passing his front lawn, piled high with 50-cent T-shirts and $1 jackets: "Welcome to our midlife-crisis sale. Our loss is your gain."

The residents of Academy Heights are rallying behind a common cause - clean attics.

"Stuff can accumulate and drive you out of your own house," says Formwalt, a self-described "Christmas fiend" who uses the neighborhood sale as motivation to weed out unwanted decorations.

Staged in front lawns, alleys and driveways, community yard sales like this one in Catonsville yesterday are neighborhood rituals as popular as Easter egg hunts and Halloween parties.

Sure, the yard sale is a good way to get rid of bowling ball bags, exercise bikes and jigsaw puzzles, the sellers say. But it's also an excuse to sip coffee and chat with neighbors and, at the same time, pick up a few Tupperware lids or juice glasses.

"It's a social hour. It's a homecoming," says Formwalt's granddaughter, Heather Bateman, who is selling clothes, books and toys that her three daughters have outgrown. "You see everyone in the neighborhood."

There's also money to be made in an atmosphere redolent of freshly cut grass and dusty cardboard. Ten-dollar hedge trimmers, $2 picture frames, 50-cent cookbooks can add up, according to the people selling their castoffs.

Formwalt once made $600 at a yard sale. "What really sells are children's clothes and toys," she says. "But you have to be careful."

At one yard sale, she sold a set of University of Virginia dinner plates for $25. Her daughter spotted them a few weeks later at a nearby antiques store. "They were selling my plates for $125," Formwalt says.

Jake and Karen Jacobs are hoping the proceeds of their yard sale will pay for a weekend at a bed-and-breakfast so they can test out their new bikes on a scenic trail this fall. And by 9 a.m., it's looking good. Someone has already bought a $15 chair and a shelf - and a stroller is getting a few serious looks.

Shopper Estel Swayne, who calls herself the "yard sale queen," is buying a photography book for a daughter in college, while her 17-year-old son, Paul, looks over the clothes.

Mary Jo Stricker of Edmondson Heights has bought two bedspreads, a Christmas ornament and a game from the Jacobses. "I limit myself to spending no more than $40," she says. "But I'll probably spend it all."

A few blocks away, Donna Ekas and Nancy Day, administrative workers at local hospitals, are thinking they might have to stop by the bank for more money. The friends, who have been going to yard sales together every Saturday for nearly 10 years, have filled the trunk and back seat with things they weren't looking to buy.

"We love it. Every Saturday at 7:30, we're out there, unless it's raining," says Day, who lives nearby in Catonsville. "Even if we don't buy anything, we have a great time looking at the stuff people are selling."

Last week, Day says, she spent only 50 cents - and Ekas, who lives in Arbutus, says she didn't buy anything. But yesterday they were on a roll.

First, they spotted a outdoor fire pit. The price was $40. But Ekas, who has a reputation for getting the bargains, told Day to ask whether the owner would sell it for $25.

Day was reluctant and invoked the rule of first digits. "I said, `You can't go from a 4 to a 2,'" she recalls.

Ekas then asked the owner if he would let the pit go for $30. She recalls that he surprised her: "He says, `How about $25?'"

Done.

Still laughing about their good fortune, the friends also find a bedroom TV that will come in handy when Day's grandson visits, along with a rug and a Barbie hat for Ekas' granddaughter.

Day says she recently watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow that featured a Baltimore man who bought a vase for $1 at a yard sale and found out it was worth $15,000.

"That would never happen to us," she adds. "We buy things like Barbie hats."

Sometimes the friends have their own yard sales to clear their houses of all the things they "just had to have that Saturday," says Day, who held hers in July.

"Yeah, stuff I gave her, she's got a 50-cent sticker on," Ekas says, laughing.

Ekas has a reputation for talking Day into buying things she doesn't need. Once, Day says, Ekas talked her into buying plastic corn-on-the-cob plates. "And no, I never used them. Sometimes when I walk in the door, my husband, Bob, will say, `She made you get that, didn't she?'"

The yard sale is largely an early-morning event. By noon, the sellers are packing up donations for local charities. Some Academy Heights residents say they'll give all or a portion of the proceeds to Hurricane Katrina victims funds, and many say they plan to give clothes and bedding to hurricane relief efforts.

Jake Jacobs figures he and his wife have sold 75 percent of their items. A plastic pineapple corer and an ironing board are left. But, to his wife's surprise, a Minnesota Vikings key ring sold.

"Hey, it still had the price tag on it. It was $7.95," Jacobs says. "I sold it for 50 cents."

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