Thrill of the Hunt

Yard-sale bargain-seekers find their treasures amid other people's junk


Here is what India Lowres bought for $23 at a recent community yard sale in an upscale Baltimore neighborhood:

One pewter tray.

A Wilton Armetale pewter bowl.

One wood tray.

Christmas ornaments from Japan.

A Japanese tea pot.

One pair of Japanese platform sandals.

One wood bowl.

A set of Capiz shell coasters from the Philippines.

"That beautiful tray, I bet it would be $75 [in a shop]," says Lowres of the pewter piece, textured to resemble a flat, oval basket with a handle.

Pumped up by "the thrill of the hunt," Lowres, director of commencement at the Johns Hopkins University, ventures on Saturday mornings from garage sale to rummage sale to yard sale, where she combs through the discarded possessions of strangers.

Who knows what riches lie at the bottom of a musty box crammed with door knobs, dead flashlights, ant traps, pulp fiction, broken watches, decapitated dolls and wallpaper remnants? Like all "professional yard salers," Lowres is ever optimistic that unpromising vessels contain wonderful treasures -- and she's willing to dig through them to find those treasures.

The North Baltimore resident has parlayed her passion into a sideline business run in rented spaces at Avenue Antiques in Hampden and Another Period in Time in Fells Point. Some 50 percent of her inventory comes from yard sales, says Lowres, whose mod haircut complements the Pucci knock-off blouse she found in a thrift shop. Her home is furnished entirely with recycled finds, and all of the gifts she gives are yard-sale specials as well.

Lowres is among a roving mob of fanatics who rub elbows weekly at yard sales advertised in classifieds and online. In suburban cul de sacs, on rowhouse blocks and country lanes, hunters and gathers known to one another vie, at times fiercely, for the patio sets, Fiestaware, Depression glass and antique tatting that have been released into the weekend economy.

Yard sales, though, draw more than the dealers and the dabblers who flip purchases on eBay. For every eagle-eyed antiques maven, there is a high-camp acolyte on the prowl for Gloria Gaynor's greatest hits or a pair of Homer Simpson slippers. Others, such as members of a San Francisco group called the Compact, patronize yard sales and flea markets as part of the ethos of sustainable living.

On her Web site, yardsale and accompanying blog, Chris Heiska, a Lusby stay-at-home mother, makes keen observations of yard-sale culture.

Yard-sale habitues fit no particular mold, Heiska says. "Sometimes you've got young mothers looking to save money and buy baby stuff, and you've got the dealers looking for the antiques and the diamonds in the rough, and then you've got teenagers who are into Goth and punk, and they want something weird."

Though loath to stereotype yard-sale customers, Heiska frequently encounters "men looking for tools and things for around the house." And, "I've seen people who look like they need to save money and shop and people that drive the Hummer to yard sales."

Tom Zarrilli of Atlanta once had a life-altering epiphany while perusing piles of stuff. "I remember one day when I found I was addicted to yard sales," he says. While there was nothing that he coveted at that particular sale, Zarrilli realized that the yard sale, and all others, were filled with inspiration for his work as a photographer and blogger.

"I really like what [yard sales] reveal socially about this American society right now; what they say overall and on a micro [level] about the individual seller," Zarrilli says.

On his Web site, yardsale, Zarrilli's photographs and journal entries reflect his anthropological approach. Through his visual and written catalog of yard-sale effluvia, "I was trying to [reach] some understanding about what was going on with people's lives and in society in general."

When the Atkins diet was ascending in popularity, "people were getting rid of their bread-making machines," Zarrilli says. Now that the Atkins regime has lost favor, "they're getting rid of their George Foreman grills."

Zarrilli can also distinguish between pre-parenthood and young-parenthood yard sales, and can spot the "angry ex-wife yard sale," where everything owned by the former spouse goes defiantly on the block.

Most touching, he believes, are the estate sales where a person's possessions are clustered together for the last time before they are cast to the winds. "It's the last public representation of a person's life," Zarrilli says. "They've had the funeral, or sometimes a person has to move into a home. Everything the person has accumulated [disappears]. The doors are open, and a bunch of scavengers come in and buy everything. There's so little respect."

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