By Sean Wilkinson
It’s yard sale season. I am sitting on a porch, watching people paw through boxes full of crap that’s been sitting in my girlfriend’s closets for 15 years. Don’t get me wrong: some of the crap is cool, but there’s not much that’s truly useful. Yard sales aren’t known for being bastions of usefulness, but that’s never been a deterrent.
Last year, I bought a 1930s-era leather doctor’s bag for a dollar. It’s not exactly the most useful of my possessions. My brother once bought a short, blonde wig from an old lady who lived next door to us. The wig matched the hair on the woman’s head, but was ill-fitting on my brother’s bigger noggin – a disturbing sight to see. That’s probably why he wore it so much. It was even more disturbing after the old lady died, when he would prance around and invoke some kind of wig-haunting.
I’ve always been drawn to yard sales. If I was 30 years older and driving a rusty Oldsmobile, I’m convinced it would have a faded bumper sticker on the back proudly declaring: “I BRAKE FOR YARD SALES!” I would consider a move to a much warmer climate exclusively for the promise of year-round yard-sale shopping. I would have a yard-sale outfit comprised of a “lucky” Hawaiian shirt and tall, black socks to offset the white, low-top, canvas sneakers scored at a previous year’s yard sale.
I’m really not sure what the draw is, but it’s partly a kind of anthropological interest. It’s fascinating to see what people are discarding and how much they think their junk’s worth. There could be a crazy history behind all of those dusty, smelly, stained objects with masking-tape price tags. Conversely, they could have spent decades sitting in Uncle Ted’s garden shed, collecting dust and quietly witnessing the coming and going of lawnmowers and hoes.
The same interest draws me to thrift stores. There was one thrift store in particular I was once especially fond of, located near my old neighborhood in West Seattle, where I lived for a couple years after college. The store was called Shop n’ Save (no relation to the bygone New England grocery store chain). I would take a bus through the nasty side of town, past a dozen pho noodle places and Asian groceries, to the nondescript building behind a tortilla factory. The place always smelled like corn flour.
I can still picture the store’s floor plan, how one long row of shelves had shoes on one side and cameras on the other. I can still see the giant peg-board with dozens of ancient cellphones – the big, gray-brick style – hanging in Zip-loc bags. I was usually looking for old Macintosh computer parts, of which there is never a shortage in Seattle thrift stores, but I didn’t have to find anything to be happy at Shop n’ Save. I would stroll through the aisles, then get an Orange Crush out of the vending machine and sit on one of the lumpy, overpriced sofas to watch the crowds shuffle by and pick through the piles. There was something comforting about that place. Maybe it smelled a little like my grandparents’ basements. Or perhaps I just enjoy the company of thousands of shot glasses and novelty mugs from various vacation destinations.
Something decidedly less comforting about thrift stores, something that’s always taken me off-guard, is the sale of delicates and intimates. Do people actually buy underwear at thrift stores? Is that something you plan ahead for? “Honey! I’ll be right back, I’m just going to the thrift store to pick up some stained, stretched-out BVDs!” Maybe this is supposed to be an impulse buy. People wander the aisles in search of an omelet pan and suddenly realize, “Hey, these are great prices on used underwear!”
Is there a discount if there’s a brown stripe down the back? And if so, is there a pricing guide at the register with various shades of brown to determine the amount to be discounted? “Hmm… looks like you’ve got a burnt sienna here. That’s 75-percent off.”
I once saw a woman at a yard sale haggling over the price of bras. She looked at the seller and bellowed, “How much fer the brars?”
“Those are three dollars.”
“How about two for one?”
“No, those are nice, new bras. I’m firm at three dollars.”
The woman huffed and pouted, flung the “brars” back into the pile, and walked away. Apparently people do buy used underwear. And apparently those people are cheap jerks about it. What does that woman do when she has to buy a bra from a clothing store? Aren’t those things expensive? Does she bitch and moan and walk out of the store, then go home and fashion one out of duct tape and cotton gauze?
Though I like to think I’m conducting anthropological research, deep down I’m probably just a crotchety old haggler in the making. My future self is sending my present self out for price-comparison purposes, to get familiar with the yard-sale and thrift-store markets. One day I’ll be a shrewd used-underwear negotiator. The weirdos who sell their used boxers and briefs should beware: I’m coming for you with a fistful of dollars and a sharp eye for skid marks.