Mr. Chatterbox

By Robert Plunket April 1, 2009

Here at Sarasota Magazine, where we are the arbiters of all that is glamorous and expensive, I am not, naturally, encouraged to write about garage sales. Which is a shame because they are the New Retail. They’re everywhere—have you ever seen so many? Many blocks around town now have two or three on the same Saturday.

The reason is simple. If there were ever a time to raise a little cash, it is now. But these sales are serving another function as well. People who live to shop can keep doing it, more than ever, for pennies on the dollar. Where you used to go out on a Saturday and blow $200, you can now blow $20 and have just as good a time.

Of course, garage sales are hardly new to “our crowd,” and many of the most prominent professional persons in town, particularly women, are addicts and have been for years. Some feel shame at their garage sales issues, and several refused to be interviewed for this column. But enough were willing to talk, brave, courageous women like Linda Desmarais and Karin Gustafson. Thanks to them we are getting a clearer picture of the local garage sales situation.

First, let’s talk technique. It’s much trickier than you think. Successful garage sale attendees have a plan. Some adhere to the “great circle route”—you drive in a big circle around a large area of town and look for signs. Others check the ads and head for what seems like the most promising sale, timing their arrival at exactly 15 minutes before the sale opens—usually meaning  at 7:45 a.m.

Yes, you have to get up early to do garage sales right. (To me, their main drawback.) The good stuff goes immediately; after all, you are competing against professional “pickers,” people who go to garage sales for a

living, reselling their booty to dealers. If you go later in the day things are pretty much picked over, leaving you the broken Fisher-Price toys and the crock pots, George Foreman grills and homemade macramé.

Next, rich or poor neighborhood? Experts always opt for the best neighborhood available, particularly if it’s older and has big houses. A sale in Harbor Acres is almost too good to be true. The museum area? Jackpot. Southgate is great also. Its retirees tend to be hoarders. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find spectacular stuff in the more working-class neighborhoods. (These sales are held in what is known as “fooler houses.”) Keep in mind they might have nice stuff that Granny left them, or maybe even some nice stuff Granny doesn’t know they’re selling behind her back.

To bargain or not? Always bargain. What have you got to lose? But do it without denigrating the merchandise. After all, these things are people’s possessions, and they’d rather be complimented than insulted. (The only exception is to point out a flaw that the owner may not have noticed. Hopefully he or she will now realize that his possession is virtually worthless and let you have it for a dollar.) And speaking of dollars, don’t haggle on items 50 cents or under. That pegs you as a loony.

What about estate sales? Believe it or not, they are often pooh-poohed by true garage salers. Too many rules, too much standing in line, plus zero fabulous bargains thanks to the professional staff who know exactly how much everything is worth. The one exception: if you go late, just before they shut down. Then the staff is willing to make deals rather than pack it up.

Safety: Keep in mind that garage sales are like casual sex—you must protect yourself. Pillows and rugs do not enter your home; they go directly to the cleaners. Check wooden furniture carefully for termites and insects. Don’t forget wooden picture frames!

Things you should never buy: Electronics are just too risky unless you test them first and they are incredible bargains. Bedding just doesn’t seem right—unless it’s a comforter for the dog. And the thought of wearing someone else’s underwear is just too awful to contemplate, unless, of course, that’s your “thing.”

Best buys in the Sarasota area: designer clothes and accessories, art and collectibles, coffee table books, Florida items from the 1950s. For some reason there are a lot of Judith Leiber purses floating around. Diane Roskamp got one for $40. Always check out anything silver; it might be sterling. That ugly picture might have a beautiful frame, and vice versa.

What you do with all the junk you accumulate is obvious. Have a garage sale. All of the hard-core addicts have regular sales that are looked forward to eagerly by their friends and the general public. Marjorie North and Mary Lou Wingerter and Diane Smoler had one with a special preview for their closest friends, where they served wine and cheese. The quality and level of taste can be quite high.

When holding your own, keep in mind the basics. Advertise. It really works. Signage: Keep it clear and easy to follow and write real big. Have friends and/or family members help. When it gets busy, keep your eyes on the expensive stuff. Thievery happens, and sometimes it’s the little old ladies. Yes, it’s unpleasant to have to pry open a gnarled hand to retrieve your rhinestone brooch, but sometimes it must be done.

If you’re selling your house, you are being foolish if you don’t have a garage sale, whether you need to or not. Many more people attend garage sales than open houses, and if your house is nicer inside than out, it’s a great way to get traffic in to see that you have a real nice pool or back yard.

I guess everybody has warm and fuzzy memories of their most spectacular garage sale purchases, and I’m no exception. I got a Louis Vuitton wallet, still in its box, for $2, and a pair of Heywood Wakefield end tables for $15. True, the Cartier watch for $5 turned out to be a fake, but if you wear it to dimly lit events nobody can tell. Still, after all these years, the purchase I feel best about is the jar of silver polish I got for a dime. Why, it must be worth $7. And I got it for a dime! Yes, it’s still sitting under my kitchen sink unused, but I feel good about myself, as a person and a shopper. And that’s what garage sales are all about.

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