Garage Sale Junkie

Your trash, my treasure. Your junk, my pleasure. Endless supply, no real demand. Such a great buy--I got it secondhand. My friend Chris wrote the above song after one of his weekend shopping excursions to the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America and the Goodwill Thrift Shop. The lyrics pop into my head every year about this time. Other cultures have bazaars, markets, fairs and town centers. We have yard, garage, basement, rummage and some other types of sales. (I have to admit that I don't really understand the fine distinctions between each type of sale, other than location, though even that isn't a hard and fast rule. I went to a garage sale last weekend that was in a front yard.) Fashions, haircuts, books, music and boutiques change with the times, but the thrill of secondhand shopping remains constant. Like most of my friends, I started haunting thrift shops and garage sales in college, mainly because I had little money. My mother wrinkled up her nose at a black-and-white, houndstooth check wool man's overcoat I purchased for the unbelievable (to me) price of $2. She thought I had paid too much for it and couldn't understand why I would want to wear an article of clothing, and a ratty one at that, someone else had discarded. I thought it was the most magnificent thing I owned. I used to wonder who had purchased it originally, the occasions when he wore it, what parts of the country the coat had seen, why it was donated to the Salvation Army. This was a couple of years before "vintage" clothing became stylishly trendy. The dry-cleaned, starched, sanitized and perfumed resale shops had not yet appeared on every hip street corner. If you wanted to dress for success for less, you had to go to basements, church annexes and musty warehouses, and keep an eye out for sale signs when driving around in the spring. The whole experience was akin to a treasure hunt. Most things smelled slightly funky and the clothes were hung haphazardly on racks or piled in enormous heaps on tables, chairs or the floor. Just when you were ready to give up--because strewn all around you were seas of mauve, silk-screened Qiana shirts and Angel's Flight pants--you'd spot a black silk taffeta slip that needed a trip to the cleaners, but otherwise was in good shape--and only 50 cents. What a deal! This, I think, is one of the reasons garage sales and secondhand stores are so popular in our culture: Those of us who would never dream of killing anything still feel an inner urge to experience the thrill of the hunt and the tingle of haggling about the price. We all secretly carry around the not-so-secret fantasy that during one of these excursions we're going to come across a first edition of a James Joyce novel or an unsigned Picasso that no one has recognized or find a scribbled note from Patsy Cline stuffed into one of her old albums. We'll find this tremendously valuable item, buy it for only a dollar or two, and turn around and sell it for a vast sum of money. The rags to riches fantasy, literally. (These stores also have a way of making me wish I had kept everything I had as a child. Once I saw the same metal Archies lunch box I used to carry in third grade on sale at a Salvation Army for $50. Who knows how much it would be worth now?!) Garage sales also give us hands-on access to our cultural history, no matter how embarrassing or dirty. There is no discrimination. Antique shops and vintage stores just can't offer the same unblinking scrutiny; they're more like revisionist tracts. All the items for sale have been cleaned up and are displayed with best side forward in the best light. All the hideous and broken pieces have been culled and are kept out of sight. Not at garage sales. Screaming orange mohair cardigan sweaters with only one arm and no buttons vie for space right next to scratched Lawrence Welk records and a broken blender. Someone might want the wool. Someone might want to use the vinyl for an art project. Someone might like to tinker with small home appliances. Garage sale hosts are eternal optimists. They might have run out of uses for that velvet painting of the girl with the huge eyes, but that doesn't mean that owning it won't fulfill one of their customers' deepest desires. Garage, yard and basement sales are a pop-cultural scrapbook. At well-stocked sales, I always end up spending an hour or so looking at the bits and pieces, reminiscing to myself about how old I was when I first played Operation, or how I used to insist that we change the rules to Mystery Date so whoever opened the door on "The Dud" was the automatic winner. Even then I had a thing for rakish guys with sideburns and greasy hair. The funny-shaped B.C. glasses bring back trips to the gas station. Parachute pants, powder-blue Levi's cords and cowl-neck sweaters--they're not pretty, but they all helped make me who I am today. Garage sales make you feel humble, proud, a little embarrassed and excited all at the same time. Kind of like eating too much ice cream, only without the fat. ay 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