When Debbie Bertoli retired from her job at an accounting firm in 2011, she decided to make a business out of a hobby she has pursued since childhood -- tag sales.
"My husband would say, 'Oh my God, you've joined a cult,'" she said of her passion for hunting through secondhand stuff. "He doesn't say that any more.'
Bertoli, 62, owns Treasured Tag Sales in Oyster Bay, just one of more than a dozen Long Island companies that set up sales for people who are moving, downsizing or cleaning out their homes or the estate of a relative.
Although such sales have been popular for years, they've changed as the economy has slowed and the popularity of Internet sites such as eBay have surged. Antiques, once in demand, are now harder to sell. More people are buying necessities, rather than just zeroing in on collectibles. And with apps for cellphones and tablets that enable buyers and sellers to check the value of something on the spot, "It's not as easy to score," said Mona Scavo of Tag Sales by Mona in Freeport.
Nonetheless, bargains are still out there for shoppers who have reasonable expectations. "I'll give you a deal, but I'm not going to give you a steal," Bertoli said.
Browsers, collectors, hobbyists and resellers, line up early for sales, which are often held on weekends to draw larger crowds, and spring is the start of the busy season. Almost anything goes, said Scavo, who once sold a used shower cap.
Tag sales may be a more upscale version of that old saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." But tag and estate sales offer shopping opportunities that have a particular appeal to older adults, experts say.
Longtime empty nesters and retirees are often on a limited budget and enjoy looking for bargains, said Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, director of geriatric education for the North Shore-L. I. J. Health system. Moreover, they have a key advantage over younger generations: time.
Combing tag sales is "not a time-efficient way to shop," Wolf-Klein said. "This is truly a leisure activity." And meeting friends for a meal can be expensive, but standing in line at a tag sale is free. "You may or may not purchase something," she said. "That's half the fun."
Buyers love a good deal, but selling personal possessions for others can result in some tricky transactions. Scavo, 57, calls herself a "tag sale therapist" because sellers sometimes have trouble letting go emotionally. "You have to really understand where their heart is," she said. She recalled two sisters who decided to sell their late parents' things. Pained by parting with treasured items from childhood, they cried and even bickered over who got what.
But based on the crowds at tag sales, shoppers appreciate what others have relinquished, and united as bargain hunters, they often develop a camaraderie. Some, like Ann Marie Mullen, 75, keep their cellphones at the ready to call a friend who might be interested in specific collectibles. Others text photos to friends.
Mullen has furnished her North Shore home with tag sale finds, including a porch filled with wicker furniture, and she gradually culled a 40-piece collection of cranberry glass. A mother of six and grandmother of 19, she has helped her children and their families with furnishings, as well.
Occasionally, she finds something for herself -- like the mink coat she still owns. Inside was the name "Rose." So she told friends, "Just call me 'Secondhand Rose.'" Although Mullen says she doesn't need anything else, she's still a regular at tag sales where she finds goodies to fill 27 stockings every Christmas.
And she still can't pass up a really good deal. At one Garden City sale, a young woman was selling her grandmother's china, a set of Noritake Flodena with a delicate blue floral design. Mullen urged the seller to keep them, but the woman said she didn't need them. Mullen ended up buying them for $35. "I'm living with a piece of history of someone else's life," she said. "I enjoy it."
Joey DiGirolamo, 66, a product researcher from Melville, says he shops the sales because they remind him of his boisterous Italian-American childhood. "You go in and sometimes you'll see things in a home or a tag sale that remind you of when you were young and you were in your grandma's house," he said. "It sort of takes you back."
He's developed an eye for vintage items to resell. He once bought a Victrola record player for $10 and sold it for $90. His best resale was a guitar amplifier that he bought for $40 and sold for $660. "My kids sometimes think I'm crazy," he said. "It's a release for me."
Though it can be profitable for some, many buyers are loath to talk about their hobby. Recently, when several people were approached by a reporter as they stood in line for a tag sale, they yelled, "No! Don't tell anyone!" Collectors, in particular, worry about the competition. One glass enthusiast told a seller, "If you give that reporter my name, I'll never speak to you again."
Arguments sometimes break out between buyers. Once, Bertoli said, the police were called. As she was trying to keep the two unhappy people separated, shoppers were undeterred. "They kept shoving things at me, saying, 'How much for this?'"
And there are other hazards in the search for a buy -- especially when houses are not so pristine. One customer, who declined to give her name, said she contracted bacterial pneumonia after rummaging through old boxes in the basement of an estate sale in Yaphank. Her illness, she said, is transmitted through rodent feces. But days later, she was waiting in line for another tag sale. The lure of the bargain, she said, was irresistible.
For Carl Fransen, 76, a retired Huntington High School teacher from Northport, getting to wander through elegant homes is a bonus. "In the Gold Coast area," he said, "the experience is mind-bending." Warmer weather is welcomed, Fransen said, but even standing in line on a cold morning last winter was worth it, especially after he bought two tricycles for $5 apiece for his grandchildren. Online, he said, they were selling for $55 each.
Ambience, slashed prices, the thrill of the hunt. "Why would you go retail?" Scavo said. "It's such a great way to shop."
The art of the deal
Bargaining is not only accepted at tag sales, it's almost expected. But timing is key: Prices fall toward the end of the day, or on the second day of a two-day sale. Buying in bulk helps, too, because the goal is to sell as much as possible. Deals vary, but buyers can score. At recent sales for instance, Portmeirion Botanic Garden dishes marked at $1,200 sold for $550 and a $250 designer cashmere shawl went for $8.
midcentury modern furniture
anything sterling silver
toys, especially tin toys
designer bags and shoes
heavy, bulky TV sets
crushed, used, broken kitchen plastic (including Chinese takeout containers)
1-800 FLOWER vases
anything chipped, broken or moldy
If you're new to tag sales, here's a glossary.
TAG SALE Sale for someone who is moving or downsizing
ESTATE SALE Sale at the home of someone who has died
DIGGER Contents of the home are tightly compacted, requiring customers to dig through items
PICKER Someone who comes at the end of the sale to buy at the lowest possible price
RESELLER Someone who is buying to resell, usually on the Internet
SAFE ROOM Area closed to the public
SALTING Including items from another property to make a sale more interesting
SMALLS Anything small enough to fit into a box, usually grouped on a table