Midcoast Weekender

The yard sale experience

By Louis Bettcher | Jul 08, 2017

Yard sales are as much a staple of Maine summers as drinking lemonade or eating lobster on a picnic table. I decided to spend a weekend immersing myself in yard-sale culture: visiting a variety of sales and speaking with yard-sale regulars to learn the tips for making successful purchases, as well as the unwritten etiquette that governs these affairs.

Although yard sales may appear as events of casual fun, they are also places where emotions often run high in the pursuit of treasure. And for antiques aficionados and owners of consignment shops, these roadside events hold the potential for profits needed to sustain their businesses.

Before setting out on my yard sale adventure, I spoke with a professional “sale-er” who finds antiques, furnishings and design objects at yard sales, restores them, and sells them at a consignment shop. Although she preferred to remain anonymous, she provided me with a great deal of useful advice, as well as some colorful stories of yard-sale snafus.

She recalled an event years ago in Thomaston where a group of young men were asked to leave a yard sale for being disruptive. Within moments, the host of the yard sale, a woman, had been hit on the jaw, and one of the men announced that he had a gun in his car. A fight involving other attendees broke out, amid tables of trinkets and clothing, but the police weren't called and the miscreants drove away after apparently cooling down.

An interesting fact she shared with me was that finding truly unique and valuable pieces at yard sales is becoming increasingly difficult. With the advent of websites such as eBay and Craigslist, more people are turning to online auctions to sell special items. Selling online allows individuals to reach a nationwide, or even international, audience of enthusiasts who may be willing to pay more for a specific item.

The first stop on my weekend yard-sale adventure was the annual Giant Garage Sale in Washington Village, which was held in and around the Washington Fire Station and the Gibbs Library. Although not technically a yard sale, the selection was massive. All proceeds from the sale benefit the library, which opened its doors for the event and featured an extensive display of books for sale.

Before the sale opened, I attended a community breakfast across the street at the Evening Star Grange. It was fun to feel a part of the community, and the food was excellent. In addition to typical fare, such as scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes, there were a variety of unusual breakfast casseroles on hand as well.

As the official opening of the sale approached, the sky became cloudy and it began to rain. Undeterred and prepared for the elements, droves of people converged on the roped-off site. As we waited for the official opening notification, people's eyes darted from an outdoor display of furniture to the tables within the Fire Station – planning which area they would visit first.

Over the past months volunteers had been accepting donated items, which they then sorted and priced. By volunteering at a yard sale that benefits a good cause in the community, you can feel a sense of involvement with your neighbors and that you are doing your part to help out. An added bonus of participating as an organizer is that you get to see all the items before the public does, and are often allowed to purchase items in advance.

One volunteer at the Washington sale told me that when someone pays her for an item, she makes sure that she puts the money they give her at the top of the pile. At an earlier sale, a woman paid for a $5 item with a $10 bill, and when the volunteer gave her the change, the customer said that she had paid with a $20. Although the volunteer knew that this wasn't true, she was instructed to give the customer $15. This conflict-avoidance technique is practiced by the employees of many clothing stores: although you may see someone stealing something, you simply ask them to leave, rather than confront them or attempt a citizen's arrest.

My purchases at the sale included a number of cookbooks from the 1970s filled with great photos and a wall chest with a portrait of Henry VIII's head on it. I haven't decided yet if I will display this in my home. A very reasonably priced set of eight matching porcelain plates, chargers (large dishes or platters) and teacups with saucers in a floral motif also caught my eye. To complete the experience, as I headed back to my car, children across the street were selling lemonade from a stand in their front yard.

The following is my unofficial guide to the do's and don'ts of yard sales.


Spend time planning

When you find yourself with time on your calendar and are craving a yard sale, buy a copy of your local newspaper and turn to the classifieds section. As you sip your coffee and peruse the listings, circle any sales that you fancy, being sure to double-check dates, times and possible rain dates. If the forecast calls for nice weather, you could plan your route to include sales in farther-flung coastal and inland towns, thereby creating a scenic road trip for yourself as an added bonus.

Keep an eye out for themed yard sales: the weekend of my outing, there was a nautical yard sale hosted by the Camden Yacht Club.

In addition to the newspapers, websites such as Craigslist offer a listing of events. Facebook pages have also been created where individuals promote their upcoming sales. Particularly in print ads, however, the term “Estate Sale” is used very loosely to attract visitors. Take these with a grain of salt if you are searching for artisan furniture, primitive ceramics or heirloom jewels: your best bet for these would be an estate sale organized by an auction house.

Prepare to be surprised by unusual offerings, but also keep in mind what you are hoping to find on your outing (a set of dishes, a vintage bicycle, etc.), and bring only as much money as you are ready to spend. Also, brace yourself for disappointment: the stars may align themselves in such a way that nothing catches your eye. But find enjoyment in the sense of adventure that comes with driving down dirt roads that you never knew existed, and the free voyeurism of looking through other people's belongings.


Early birds

Without fail, a contingent of people arrives before yard sales are set to begin, hoping to coax their way inside and seize the best bits before anyone else has a chance. For many sale organizers, strangers showing up and looming as the final preparations are made present a nuisance, and for buyers who respect the designated start time, “early birds” don't play fair.

Many yard sale notices now include “No early birds” in their text, and attempts to shoo away the gatecrashers often fall on deaf ears: “I'm sorry, we're not open yet.” “Oh, don't mind me! I don't care if you're not set up yet; I'm just looking around.”

A thorn in the side for most, not everyone hates the early birds. If you're throwing a sale out of necessity and simply want to sell/dispose of as much as possible, you may decide to break your official opening time and invite them in.

Another aspect of the yard sale start times is the roped-off entrance. Here a queue will form as buyers gird their loins, watching with impatience as the organizers swan about, making the final arrangements and the last seconds tick slowly by until the host feels that the official opening time has tolled.

During these anticipatory moments, buyers sometimes stand with their elbows out and hands on hips, to hold their place in line. Although it is widely considered a faux pas, later arrivals often wave to someone they recognize in line, and join them closer to the front.

At the Washington yard sale, people were observed reaching over the rope and placing their hands on items within their reach – staking a claim on them before the event opened and we were allowed through. Meanwhile, a group of people had found a chink in the armor of the boundary line: they had gone through a parking lot behind the sale and positioned themselves next to the furniture area.


Tips for sellers

Make sure that none of your children are personally attached to any of the items you are putting up for sale. This includes your adult children; even though they may have recently lost interest in something, they could resent you years later upon discovering that their penguin sleeping bag was sold for a dollar.

Pricing things reasonably is also important: think $1, $5 and $20 items which can be purchased easily using bills commonly carried in wallets. At one yard sale I attended over the weekend, in addition to boxes of toys for 25 cents each, there was a display of power tools ranging from $65 to $150. People are typically not carrying around enough money to make such purchases on a whim.

Don't be swayed to allow people into your home. Visitors to yard sales at private homes have been heard to ask, “What do you have inside?” And a Yard Sale sign in the front yard isn't the only invitation to this type of forward behavior. Once, when we were living in Hope, a man came to the house unannounced and asked if we had any bureaus.

Regardless of whether it's done with sincere intentions or by a reputable dealer, everyone with whom I have spoken finds this creepy. It's an invasion of privacy and basically a daylight version of “casing the joint.” Furthermore, by inviting these people in, you are opening yourself up to a variety of liability issues: someone could take a dramatic tumble, sue you out of house and home, and then throw a yard sale with your belongings.


Caveat emptor

As a buyer, there were certain cautions and techniques I was told to practice as even a casual yard-sale visitor. The first is to examine items which interest you carefully. Most yard-sale purchases are understood to be final sales, offered in as-is condition. Take a moment to identify any imperfections (breakage, tears, stains) while at the sale before you are unpacking your finds at home and are disappointed in a flaw you overlooked in the heat of the moment.

One seasoned buyer advised me to keep large bills in one pocket, and small currency in another. Think of this as like “breasting your cards”: Let's say you are trying to negotiate the price of an item listed at $7. Reaching into your pocket and counting out five one dollar bills is more effective than pulling out a wad of 20s and 10s, thereby revealing your “hand” and informing the seller that you can easily pay full price.

This tip relates to the underlying theme that at yard sales, cash is king. Buyers can often negotiate a lower price by saying, “I really like this $20 table. I could write you a check for the full price, or I could give you the $15 I have in my pocket.” Everyone prefers cash in hand to a paper check from a stranger that has the potential to bounce.

However, it isn't always necessary to be a cutthroat negotiator. If the sale benefits a good cause (e.g., a nonprofit organization, a fire department, a town), I believe that you should pay the listed price, which is often incredibly low anyway. And obey your conscience if you think that something is worth significantly more than it is valued at. If you're considering a 50-cent table cloth, if you love it and think that it's spectacular, why not show your gratitude and spend a dollar?

Finally, it is important to consider whether the item you have found is something that you need versus something that you want -- i.e., an impulse buy. You will find yourself surrounded by unusual foreign objects which may momentarily catch your eye. In the competitive feeding frenzy of a sale that has just opened, you may feel the tendency to snatch up as many items as possible. Keep in mind that if these novelties serve no useful purpose or ensure you long-term satisfaction, they will likely wind up in a cardboard box at your next yard sale.

Louis Bettcher's 'First Person' column appears weekly in Midcoast Weekender. Bettcher, who grew up in Hope and Rockport, is a reporter for The Courier-Gazette and The Camden Herald. If you have an idea for a First Person topic, Bettcher can be reached at 594-4401 or by email at lbettcher@villagesoup.com.

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