Last summer when I went to visit my friend Melissa on the east coast, I was plunged into nostalgia. Partly because we spent a few days at her family’s house on the Jersey shore, where she and I lived during the summer of ’99, but also because she and her mom were having a garage sale my first day there. Garage sales were a big part of my youth. My family would often stop at sales on the way home from church summer Sundays, and we’d have a huge sale ourselves one weekend every year. But after spending much of my twenties living overseas, many of my American cultural habits faded away. Going to garage sales was one of them.
For my dad, however, the art of the garage sale is second nature. He’s always been a wheeler and a dealer. He’s a born salesman and a man of the people, well-liked by everyone no matter how different their lifestyles and value are from his. He knows how to talk to people and make connections. When I was little, he managed an electronics store in downtown Buffalo. When the company went under, he took a lot of the leftover inventory home and set up a shop in our basement. He sold those goods—along with lots of equipment he salvaged and restored from garage sales—through classifieds in the paper and our own family garage sales. He later got into dealing Civil War memorabilia, taking advantage of our many trips down south to buy items cheaply and resell them at a higher cost in the north.
All these decades later, he’s still out there every weekend, looking for a steal. And he finds them or, when they don’t exist on their own, he masterfully negotiates them. Even in the age of Craiglist and Ebay, which he briefly attempted, the garage sale world holds its own. Two months after that visit to Melissa, I visited my dad and, naturally, we went to some sales. Having been out of the game for so long myself, watching him work was an interesting sociological experience. There are so many rules around garage sale etiquette and finding the best bargains, and so many secret codes and tricks. Here are a couple of takeaways:
- If you want the good stuff, you’d better show up an hour before the listing says the garage sale opens. At least. But don’t pester the homeowner. Sit patiently in your car for the sale to open.
- If someone else is there in their car before you, they have first dibs. If you cut in line and run up to the homeowner first to ask about a specific item, you’re asking for a fight.
- At the end of the day, the best goods might be gone, but if there’s still something you want, you can get a great deal. You can bargain hard because the seller just wants his stuff gone and knows no more customers are coming. My dad got a $5 book down to $3 and got the guy to throw in another book for free.
- When a listing says “hunting and fishing,” that’s often code for guns. Although private sales are illegal, you can always say you inherited the gun from a family member. That’s not illegal.
- It pays to remember names and faces because it gives you an “in” with people who otherwise might not give you the time of day. My dad walks right up to people who clearly don’t remember him, shakes their hand, and says “I remember you from X at Y,” and then the other person’s stony stare melts and they’re off on a half hour conversation.
- Frequent sellers need to stand by their items, just as a store would. If you’re the kind of person who buys up storage units and holds garage sales every single weekend to resell the valuables you find, people know you. If you sold someone a DVD that won’t play or a small appliance that doesn’t work, you have to give them their money back. A garage sale isn’t a trash rip off.
- Finally, even when the sale is in the house, you’re not supposed to use the bathroom. Being more of an ask-for-forgiveness rather than ask-for-permission kind of person, I went for it. I had to go and the bathroom was right there with the door open—it’s not like I went snooping for it—so why not? I flushed and walked out, and seconds later when the homeowner came looking for the offender, my dad happened to be walking by the bathroom door. He got quite the stink eye from the homeowner, who then shut the bathroom door. I almost destroyed his reputation on the informal, secondhand goods circuit of Western New York.
There was a lot more that I could have learned by watching my dad, but I don’t see me going garage saleing on my own any time soon, so the knowledge wouldn’t serve any use. I’ll leave it to him to make nice with the people who believe in aliens and the tattooed, tobacco-chewing roughnecks while in search of the ultimate deal. He’s got quite a talent for cross-cultural communication and making instant human connections, and it’s part of what makes him special. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
P.S. My dad can write too. Check it out!