Keeping it civil at the yard sale

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 7/14/11]
The yard sale.

Few other activities better represent what it means to be an American. As a society that has turned the accumulation of stuff into an art form, the ritualistic casting off of these items, once spent, is an inevitable and significant act — a necessary, sacred rite in which one man’s trash is in a very real way transubstantiated into another man’s treasure.

Let’s face it; storage units are so plentiful in this country that we have not one but two television shows about them. The yard sale, then, becomes a climactic act of closure — a “cathartic regurgitation of a family’s material history,” as my friend Will so poetically put it.

Simply stated, we buy too much junk and, every now and then, need to get rid of it to make room for more.

Sure, there is something to be said for the opportunity a sale provides for the reuse of our possessions — awarding them a second life with a new owner — which beats tossing something that is perfectly good into the junk pile at your local dump.

Where it all breaks down for me, however, is the way in which people conduct themselves at yard sales. It’s almost as though the sight of one triggers some kind of primal response that causes people to completely lose their minds.

Traffic laws are disregarded, common human decency is abandoned, the entire social contract goes out the window. Is it really worth shoving that old lady out of the way for a 1991 Chicago Bulls Championship hat or a DVD collection of “The Sopran o s’ ” s e as o n t w o that’s a disc short?

(I hope you answered no on that one.)

To be fair, there are, on occasion, t r e a s u r e s t o b e found. I know a few savvy yard-salers who often strike gold, reeling in quality antiques and other valuable artifacts that end up being discarded for one reason or another.

So, yes, there is value in this ritual, but it seems I am not alone in my assertion that a bit of etiquette would go a long way to making yard sales more civilized.

Good yard sale etiquette begins and ends with signage: Make them legible — preferably not scrawled in black Sharpie on the back on a pizza box — and take them down when the sale is over. Cast in point, there’s one telephone pole I drive by every day on East Washington Street that is littered with signs of sales past, melted by the rain like the faces of the bad guys at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

(On the other hand, along with public rest-room walls, utility poles will provide fascinating studies for anthropologists of the future as they attempt to decipher our complex social rituals.)

As I asked around for this story, I kept hearing complaints about the “early birds” who arrive promptly at 6 a.m. to be first in line for that Keebler Elf cookie jar that you’re finally ready to let go of.

Having never held a garage sale myself, I was unaware of this phenomenon, but apparently this is a common practice of the hardcore salers, who are vying for all those unadvertised door-buster savings.

On the road, yard-salers pose a threat to themselves and everyone else. The sudden discovery of a sale is cause for abrupt, unsignaled stops and capricious, panicked parking decisions because, of course, the safety of everyone on the road around them is secondary to making to the sale before it’s too late.

Laurie, a Rutlander and avid cyclist, lamented this behavior saying, “It is most scary on a bicycle and they just stop and then open their car door.”

My suggestion for all those excitable salers out there is the next time you see a yard sale, take a deep breath, signal, pull over properly and maybe check your mirrors instead of blindly swinging open your doors. It’s part of sharing the road and, who knows, you might even save a life.

Wanting to be fair and balanced, I sought out an actual yard-saler to shed some light on this matter. Darren, an unrepentant saler, best articulated the complex inner workings of the yard saler’s mind: “Traffic laws be damned. When there is yard selling to be done, it must be done. Park where you will and get to shopping. Time’s a wasting and there’s another around the corner.”

Darren’s hyperbole aside, there might be something to that — the search for a deal, a find, a bargain, something “new” creates a sense of urgency that overtakes us sometimes, occasionally manifesting itself in ugly ways. Look no further than the annual holiday stampedes that occur in department stores around the country. Another thousand words and I might be able to begin to unpack the ills of society’s rampant consumerism and its existential consequences, but deadline is fast approaching so, maybe not.

At the end of the day, when we’re all minding our manners, yard sales are not only good fun but also an opportunitya for us to exercise our God-given American right to buy stuff we don’t need at a bargain price.


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