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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

One man's junk, another man's dream

We all have the dream. If you're a garage sale enthusiast, it's always lurking.

It's the mint Honus Wagner baseball card in the pages of an old paperback, the unrecognized Picasso or Pollock sitting in a stack of cheap artwork, one of the missing Faberge Imperial Easter eggs packed in a nondescript box.

It happens, enough that the faithful never really lose faith. Like the man who discovered one of 26 known surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence hidden in the frame of a second-rate painting at a Pennsylvania flea market. He bought the painting for $4, found the document, and sold it in 1991 for more than $2 million (nine years later, it resold for more than $8 million).

For my wife and me, garage sale triumphs are more modest. There was the nice glass patio table, chairs and umbrella, needing only a good cleaning, for $50 at an estate sale in Melville. A pearly white wicker side table ($5, West Babylon) sits in our porch. A half-dozen vintage Hess toy trucks at a North Babylon yard sale made great gifts for our nephew, after applying a toothbrush, water and some elbow grease.

I've been thinking about garage sales since Babylon started looking at regulating them. Concerned about some people running them as commercial enterprises, the town is considering limits on when and how often you can have them, permits, fines and the like.

That seems somehow antithetical to the whole endeavor. Garage sales are hand-drawn signs on telephone poles, tables popping up in driveways, and freewheeling come-and-go scrums. Garage sales are about the people you meet, the stories you swap, the haggling over quarters, and the early birds coming by while you're setting up to ask whether you have any military memorabilia.

That's not to say garage sales aren't serious business. One research outfit estimates 165,000 are held each week in the United States, with 690,000 customers spending a total of $4.2 million. Average price of an item: 85 cents.

They're so serious the Harvard Dialect Survey asked people what words they used to describe them. Garage sale won with 52 percent, followed by yard sale (36 percent), tag sale (3.6 percent, mostly in the Northeast), rummage sale (3.1 percent) and stoop sale (0.39 percent, a Brooklyn thing).

The self-titled World's Longest Yard Sale takes place every August with thousands of vendors stretched along 690 miles of roads from Addison, Michigan, to Gadsden, Alabama. Way too organized for me.

I like garage sales for how they serve as an antidote to our throwaway culture. The idea that things will be reused or repurposed rather than discarded is deeply fulfilling. One woman at one of our yard sales bought a trove of our daughters' old Little Tykes pieces -- kitchen and chairs, rocker, slide, seesaw -- for her own daughter, a teacher who was outfitting her first pre-K classroom. That one felt good.

I like a garage sale proprietor with a twinkle in her eye. Someone ready to deal. Someone who recognizes the difference between a collector and a kid with a dollar. But sometimes they remind me of politicians.

Hillary Clinton offers an estate sale; it's run by a middleman, you hardly see her, and everything is priced too high. Bernie Sanders sits in his garage, bantering with the people perusing his stuff in the driveway; sometimes he tells you to just go ahead and take it. Ted Cruz has no tags on his items; he makes up a price when you ask and refuses to budge.

But that's OK. He's a dreamer, too.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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