Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bearing Witness at Garage Sales

It's summer and that means "Garage Sale" signs are popping up all over Nyack.  It's never a surprise to learn that families holding garage sales are in transition.  They might be empty nesters, divorcing couples with kids, widows, or adults who have recently lost their parents.  Even entrepreneurial kids, finally ready to part with favorite toys from their younger days, are out there pushing lemonade.

There is money to be made, but income is just one reason people might choose a garage sale over packing stuff up for consignment, thrift store donations or Ebay.  People feel good about directing their old stuff out of a landfill and into the hands of someone who can use it.  Still, getting rid of your personal history can be painful.  A garage sale allows the item's story to be told to an actual person - someone who might listen, recognize and hopefully, appreciate its value.

My grandmother, when it was time to sell off a good portion of what accumulated in her home in Sandusky, Ohio, stayed in the house while my mother and I held the sale. Even after salvaging her most precious, sentimental pieces, and passing on dozens of heirlooms, it was just too painful for her to see her memories walk away with strangers.  But for every widow like my grandmother, there's another who wants to be there to tell you about the ashtray she got on her honeymoon in Hawaii, the hours that she spent on a 3'x 4' needlepoint version of Gauguin's "Femmes de Tahiti" (I bought it, of course), or the broken collar bone her son got on a $6 pair of old skis.  

My doctor's receptionist sold me a gorgeous white wicker bassinett that she and her children had slept in.  Later I was able to show her photos of the baby shower where an ecstatic mom-to-be was given this important piece of history.

An inquiry about a perennial flower growing near the mailbox once yielded a tour of a spectacular backyard, where I saw dozens of rare plant specimens, heard about the 40 years of care and cultivation it took to get it to look that way, and left with a bag full of cuttings for transplanting at home. I've learned why a Star Wars ewok was crucial in the Battle of Endor, and why the first issue of "Swamp Thing" can't be separated from an intact comic book collection.

Nostalgia isn't just for the sellers, though. Because of my garage sale visits, my kids now drink from juice glasses just like the ones I drank from as a child.  I found copies of "Miss Suzy" and "Miss Twiggley's Tree," favorite books from my childhood that were probably sold off when we moved after my parents divorced. And where else would my kids have the chance to try out a rotary dial telephone, manual typewriter or Instamatic camera?

Garage sales satisfy our curiosity about how others live, and lived.  What treasures are in the deepest depths of our closets and why were they saved?  They're an excuse to approach our neighbors and hear their stories -- and Americans love a good story, almost as much as we love a bargain.


Jim Lewis said...

I loved both of these garage sale postings. I remember going up to my grandmother's attic as a boy and poking around in boxes and boxes of old stuff. Where is it now? Probably sold at a garage sale, but I guess that's OK.

home tome said...

Two words: Antiques Roadshow.

I have my fantasies of scoring something super-crazy valuable at a garage sale, but yes, just picking up a few throwbacks is nice as well.

I do wish I could get back that fabulous Barbie Camper we sold at our garage sale for about 25 cents back when I was 9...my mother claimed that it took up a lot of space and I didn't really play with it that much...

I was devastated, but think of poor Barbie: relegated to tents! :)

Joanne said...

That's what I love about garage sales, those stories in all that stuff. It's a great concept for a book series, don't you think? I have a small collection of old album covers, and will sometimes come across one to add to the mix from a garage sale.

Malay-Kadazan girl said...

I really enjoy reading this post.

Stacey said...

You need to come on down to DC and I'll show your kids a real working rotary phone. It's hanging in my kitchen and my kids get a kick out of showing their friends how to use it. The only drawback is the phone line - the internet comes over it so the phone line is now pretty fuzzy,

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

We've gone to a couple of estate sales recently, right in our own neighborhood. There are companies who handle these sales, and as such the people we interacted with had no personal connection to what was being sold.

I did meet the caretaker for the lady whose things were being sold at the first sale, and learned that the house was a "soup kitchen for stray cats" and that the lady of the house was a city librarian.

At the second house, the seller was so happy that we appreciated the sweet items that were being sold off.

It's sad to say, but I think I would have like both of the ladies, just based on seeing the items they surrounded themselves with.

JGH said...

Thanks, Jim - I know what you mean. You can learn a lot about your family by poking around in those boxes!

Love that show, Home Tome. Especially the little stories that come attached to each item. Can't believe you had a Barbie camper! I would have traded my Easy Bake Oven for one of those.

Joanne, a book huh? At one time I thought about doing a series of columns on the blog about the people I meet at garage sales, but I'm trying really hard right now to declutter and garage sale attendance would be a necessary part of the research, I think!

Thanks, Malay-Kadazan - wondering if garage sales are popular over there?

Stacey, That's great that you have a rotary phone that is still in use. Remember when push button phones first came out and you had to wait a long time for the series of clicks to end before pushing the next number?

Lisa, it would have been fun to meet the soup kitchen/librarian woman, right? Even knowing these little bits and pieces enhances value, I think.

Wendy McDonagh-Valentine said...

This was such a wonderful post and you are such a wonderful writer!! I was watching "Cash and Cari" the other day and Cari was doing a sale for an elderly woman who was moving to assisted living. I thought about how difficult it must've been for her to see a lifetime of memories go up for sale. She took it in stride and made a mint in the process!! What I wouldn't do for one more day of sitting with my great-grandmother in her tiny house filled with all of her little treasures!! : )

~ Wendy