Monday, August 13, 2007

Notes from the Garage Sale Trenches

This past weekend marked the end of an era--the final installment of my family's annual garage sale, a tradition that began more than 10 years ago (though no one seems to remember the exact year). We vowed that this would be the last year of the sale and we donated the leftover merchandise, but we kept all of the "Garage Sale" signage, on the off chance that we forget what a grueling process it is and decide to try it again some time.

Now that we've left the business, I feel it's only right for me to share the knowledge I've gained over the past decade. Start taking notes.

The Price Is Right
Gathering your junk, er, merchandise for a garage sale is a year-long process. When trying to decide whether to throw something away or save it for the sale, remember the dynamics of the event: Complete strangers will be invited to stand on your driveway and rummage through your stuff. Then they pay you to take this stuff away. It's pure profit and therefore anything that isn't broken or worn out should be in your sale.

That said, your junk is still junk, even when it has a price tag on it. If the price is too high, people will remember that they are standing on your driveway in the hot sun in order to pay you for things you want to get rid of. Low prices maintain the illusion that they're getting a deal. I don't care how nice that old snowman-shaped lamp looks. Don't get cocky.

Know Your Customers
There are several different species of garage sale customer that you will come to know well. Learn their appetites and you can't go wrong.

The first one walking up the driveway is Thrifty Middle-Class Mom. But she's not alone--she's dragging her bored five-year-old son to every yard sale in the neighborhood. They usually buy anything that looks relatively new, especially things in packages or things with store tags on them. These details make them feel a little less self-conscious about the fact that they're buying used goods.

The next category accounted for roughly 50 percent of our clientele over the years and they could be counted on for big sales. I am of course talking about the Recently Transplanted European (usually Polish in my neighborhood) who buys a lot of clothes of all sizes, styles and sexes. These clothes are later shipped to the mother country, where small European children begin sporting my old Cubs t-shirts and neon green shorts from the early '90s. This year we helped a Polish woman separate and box 139 articles of clothing that she bought from us. Garage sales are an international business. After all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirts are probably still cool in Latvia.

The last category is my absolute favorite. Hundreds of people have come to our garage sale over the years, but the Weird Old Men are the ones that stand out in my mind. My brothers and I christened these customers many years ago and the name has stuck. The Weird Old Man (WOM) is approaching his golden years and always comes to the sale by himself. Parking his large Buick near the corner of the driveway, he purposefully strides to the nearest table of merchandise and scans the wares, looking for that one elusive item he has to have. True, the WOM will never account for much of your profits, but the satisfaction comes from having the item he is so valiantly hunting for. When he finds it, the item is always a laughably useless piece of garbage to the average person. Not to the WOM. He sees treasure there. I can spot a WOM upon arrival and it never fails. They always walk off with a miniature cast-iron buffalo figurine, a bag of tangled wires, or some other strange item that I wasn't even aware we owned. This year, we had a box of miscellaneous electrical parts--don't ask me where we got them--and each item was 10 cents. No WOM could resist the siren call of this mysterious box and many walked away 20 to 30 cents lighter.

Over the years, a new breed of WOM arrived on our driveway--the Whipped WOM. This poor wretch was unfortunate enough to be accompanied to the sale by his wife. He finds a strange item that he likes, but needs his wife's permission in order to make the purchase. Now he's in a bind, because the Whipped WOM's wife will always say no. He's probably already got a whole garage full of this junk back at his house. When the stars align just right, however, the Whipped WOM will suddenly take a stand and sneak over to us to buy the seemingly useless dinglehopper, while his wife is obliviously preoccupied by the clothing rack. You can't make this stuff up.

Incidentally, the best WOM sale I made this time around was a never-used copy of P.Y.S.T., an unfunny parody of the Myst (the computer game series) featuring a very hungry-for-work John Goodman. It was only a quarter! That's a steal!

Seek Distraction
Once the sale is set up, the work actually isn't that difficult. You sit on your porch and wait for people to approach with armfuls of your old stuff. You tally it up, you bag it, you take their money and you bid them adieu. While that sounds easy on paper, it becomes unbearable in practice. You'll get hot, tired and may even get the urge to start destroying merchandise. Go drink some water. This too shall pass.

You also need something to distract you during the long lulls in the early afternoon on Fridays and Saturdays. 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. are boring enough to make your heart stop if you don't have a good book or a Cubs game to listen to. The Cubs let me down this year by playing a series of night games in Colorado for the entire duration of the garage sale, leaving me to rely on a good book. Unfortunately, I chose to read The Natural by Bernard Malamud. Although well-written, it's probably the worst book-turned-movie that I've ever read. The movie is superior in every possible way because it changes the ending and many details of the book. Anyway, find a good book that you're sure of and you can probably make it through the dry spells. If not, just grab the worst-looking item on your driveway and destroy it however you see fit. You'll feel a lot better.

Know When To Quit
It's 5 p.m. and no one has been on your driveway in an hour? Time to call it a day. The worst part of every garage sale was cleaning up on the last day. You're forced to confront all of the items you didn't sell and evaluate whether or not it's worth saving for next year's attempt. Maybe the right WOM will show up next year. You just never know. And that's why you keep having them.
Wow, hopefully my next post will be more like a blog and less like a dissertation on garage sales. For those of you who made it all the way through that, here's a little treat for you.


Martin said...

I can't believe you didn't like The Natural (book)! I guess it's kind of awful if you really liked the movie. I guess I'm of the "too good to be true" category of critics. And I'm not as attached to the sport as you are. =) I won't hold it against you.

Martin said...

and that was the lion king in 10 seconds...

Erica said...

I'm disappointed, you took a third for the books I donated from the sale rack and you couldn't even bother to read it at the sale. For shame!

Kelly Mahoney said...

Interesting approach to the family garage sale -- I always wondered when I lived abroad where the janitor at my school who didn't speak English found the T-shirt that said "This isn't a bald spot. It's a solar panel for my sex machine."

Bridget said...

can we just point out that you drive a large buick?

Matt said...

What are you implying, Bridget? That I'm a WOM? :-)