Garage and Yard Sales

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Each year, Americans host an estimated 6.5 to 9 million garage sales, vending used goods out of or near their homes. Typically, one or several families hold sales to recycle household goods, make a small profit, and socialize with neighbors; buyers attend to purchase low-cost items, haggle recreationally, and discover the occasional yard sale treasure. Unlike flea markets, in which numerous dealers congregate to sell assorted wares, and auctions, in which an auctioneer markets various goods to the highest bidder, many garage sale transactions occur between the original owner of an item and a buyer. The private setting and personal nature of such transactions foster exchanges that are at once commercial and hospitable.

History of Garage and Yard Sales

In 1950s and 1960s America, increased affluence led many consumers to accumulate household goods in excess; concurrently, increased home-ownership created the venue from which to sell these goods. Suburbia became the fertile breeding grounds of garage sales, where unwanted items found new homes at the hands of housewives. A postmodern adaptation of the mid-nineteenth-century charitable fair or bazaar, the garage sale tapped a national romanticism toward history and nostalgia for used goods. Prior to 1970, goods featured at charity fairs or rummage sales became less extraordinary and more practical; while a nineteenth-century fair may have featured a booth with souvenirs and curiosities alongside a booth with historic relics, garage sales more typically featured furniture, used clothing, and appliances. Americana and collectibles, more popular in the 1960s than at any time since the nationalistic 1920s, became specialty items among the used home goods.

It was in the years leading up to 1970 that residential sales became known as "rummage sales," a term borrowed from those sales given for charitable causes; over the course of the next decade, the sharp increase in sales operated from the garage prompted a linguistic shift to the term "garage sale." During the 1970s, garage sales exploded into mainstream consciousness, earning a permanent place in American iconography and legitimizing the concept of profiting from discarded goods.

In recent years, garage sales have continued to thrive due to the national penchant for material accumulation and widespread dearth of disposable income: many Americans seek low-cost ways to satiate avid consumerist tendencies. Bucking the early sales trend of large, costly items, today's sales derive the bulk of profits through the vending of small household goods; appliances, tools, and used sporting equipment are in especially high demand. A majority of sales take place on spring and fall Saturday mornings in suburbia and small cities; to a lesser extent, they occur in urban areas as stoop or apartment sales. Due to their relative inaccessibility, rural sales tend not to attract as many participants as do their suburban counterparts. Sale nomenclature varies by geographical location: residential sales are known as yard sales in the Midwest, porch or "gimme" sales in the South, tag sales in the East, and garage or g-sales in the West.

Typical Garage Salers: Characteristics of Buyers and Sellers

Garage sale vendors range from single adults, families, and children to multiple families, local and charitable organizations, collectibles dealers, entire communities, and even celebrities. Typically, however, sellers are thirty to forty year-old amateurs who host sales to clear out attics and basements; parents and the elderly are common participants. A smaller population of low-income vendors operates regular sales in order to supplement income; these sellers often buy goods at other sales to resell for profit at their own. Garage sale shoppers primarily consist of twenty to forty year-olds seeking to outfit children and homes at low cost. As a rule, participants reside in middle- or working class America, with yearly incomes of buyers slightly exceeding those of sellers. Although some sales take place between relatives and friends, transactions most often occur between slight acquaintances and strangers.

The typical garage sale participant is also female: twothirds of all garage salers are women. Since many salesassociated tasks are directly related to housekeeping, women traditionally have been the primary participants. Especially during the early years of garage sales, sellers' roles reflected the sexual division of labor: female vendors completed tasks such as housecleaning and item arranging, while their husbands performed the physical tasks of putting up signs, moving heavy items, and disassembling goods after the sale. Even in the early 2000s, men often assume only a peripheral role in sales events, with women serving as sales managers and price-setters. Female shoppers out-attend male buyers, as well. With the rise of profit-oriented and online garage sales, however, sales participation has become slightly less stratified by gender.

Recreational and Social Impacts of Garage Sales

Although participants may have financial motivations for hosting or attending garage sales, most also consider them recreational events. Yard sales invite buyers to socialize with hosts and other participants, providing opportunities to rekindle old acquaintances and meet new neighbors. Some buyers come purely for recreational purposes, appreciating the mystery of a used item's past and the excitement of haggling for a deal or discovering a rare item. Sellers value the environmental and emotional rewards associated with giving used possessions new life; as a result, they frequently de-emphasize the financial gains from transactions, giving away items or offering very low prices to personable or needy customers. Many hosts also enjoy the chance to temporarily own and operate a small business; in the garage sale setting, they are empowered to make business decisions regarding pricing and selling. The inclusive nature of sales often serves as a social equalizer, for they create a rare setting in which participants of all socioeconomic backgrounds can interact.

Due to the personal and social setting of garage sales, a certain etiquette exists that is absent from most other commercial settings. Buyers who violate this ethos risk having their offers rejected by offended hosts; sellers risk hosting an unsuccessful sale. Common buyer faux pas include arriving overly early to sales, paying with large bills, scoffing at sales items or otherwise disrespecting sellers' property, and haggling over-aggressively. Garage sale hosts are considered bad-mannered when they sell to early birds, over-price items or do not clearly mark prices, and fail to take down signs and items from their yards following the event.

Commercial Impacts of Garage Sales

In spite of the recreational aspects of sales, garage sales are at base commercial transactions, each year generating between 1.5 and 2 billion dollars in revenue nationwide. Profits often go unreported for tax collection, although many city governments benefit by requiring hosts to pay sale permit fees. The average sale generates from $100 to $200 in profits, with prices marked at around 20 percent of items' original value. Although in the past sellers held events more to clean house than to profit, in recent years sales have become increasingly profit-driven, a trend primarily due to the emergence of online markets for used goods. The success of the online auction site Ebay has encouraged a rash of online garage sales to spring up, allowing individual buyers and sellers to interact in a virtual environment. Some of these websites charge commission for items sold on site, while others profit entirely through advertisements. Another common profit-making tactic is for garage salers to resell their purchases online.

Although online sales have increased garage sale profit potential, traditional sales in the early 2000s are often viewed with bemusement: they are portrayed as an uniquely American oddity attracting participants who are at once eccentric and outdated. One sale even has become a national tourist attraction: the World's Longest Yard Sale, which extends 450 miles from Alabama to Kentucky, draws approximately 5,000 vendors and 50,000 gawking buyers over a four-day period each year. As diverse as their featured wares, garage sales reinvent suburban families as hagglers and entrepreneurs, old junk as prized possessions, and lazy Saturday mornings as exciting recreational opportunities.

See also: Auctions, Collecting; Hobbies and Crafts


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Abby L. Schlatter