When you gather misfit belongings of your household, open your garage door, and offer the no-longer-treasured personal property for a pittance to the public, you’re going to come face to face with strangers you would never have intentionally thought about inviting into your home. And oh, what a shame it is that we don’t do that more often. People who shop at garage sales represent the melting pot of society. They’re genuinely interesting and have stories to tell. We can expect to bargain with them. But by talking with these opportunistic visitors, we may actually learn something about ourselves.
In my family, “garage sale” is a verb, as in: “We garage sale.” I grew up with a grandfather who frequented tag sales, yard sales, rummage sales, and garage sales. Different areas throughout the USA tend to adopt one of these terms, but overall the idea is the same. Grandpa didn’t care what anyone called their sale. For him, each designation meant roughly the same thing: he could buy items cheaply and later sell them for higher prices. But at some point, he developed an affinity for Jim Beam bottles. He hoarded so many of the decorative containers that he decided to build a small home adjacent to the one he lived in just to house his collection. He officially dubbed the building The Treasure House and boasted that it contained the largest collection of Jim Beam bottles in the world.
My own parents also eased into the hobby of collecting. On family trips, the six of us piled into our Oldsmobile Delta 88 and drove to far-off destinations. That took much longer than expected, because “Rummage Sale” signs always drew us into somebody’s yard.
One year while my family was staying in a cottage in Wisconsin, our dog died. On our way home, my siblings and I were crying over Smokey’s death. We stopped at a rummage sale that just happened to have puppies, picked one out, and brought the little girl home. Mom thought of the perfect name: Rummy.
A childhood spent garage-saling inspired my sister’s profession. She and her husband built and own one of the largest craft and antique malls in Allen, Michigan. The business is so successful that there’s a waitlist of vendors, all vying for rental space to become available in the 23,000 square-foot building so they can sell their wares at the Hog Creek Craft and Antique Mall.
Although I don’t make a living at buying and reselling, like my sister does, I don’t snub garage sales or worry that some people look down upon them. Other people’s disdain doesn’t adversely affect my love for bargains. So, in search of a good deal, I occasionally stop at sales throughout the spring and summer. I do hate the amount of work it takes to organize and run these types of sales, but the hassle doesn’t stop me from doing so. Garage sales are full of fun, surprises, and inspiration.
When I stop to browse, I’m often asked by the homeowner, “Are you looking for anything special?” My answer is, “I’m shopping for our vacation Bible school program at church. I’m not really sure what I need, but I’ll know it when I see it.” With a theme in mind, my attention focuses on items that can be used as props and decorations to transform ordinary church rooms into exquisite settings for children’s enjoyment. I once bought an Ethan Allen wingback chair for $5 and felt horribly guilty applying metallic gold paint to the wooden arms. But I needed a throne for a king. Where else would I find one for that price?
I’ve had a lot of my own garage sales throughout the years. There have been many instances in which I felt like I was practically giving things away, and during my last one, I did that very thing. But I never anticipated all that I would gain simply by talking with my guests.
Here are my favorite encounters with garage sale people:
- I eased a mother’s stress by providing decorations for her son’s high school graduation party which was less than twenty-four hours away. Decorations included a custom-designed logo of the school mascot—an original piece of artwork—created on a Lite Brite. I threw in extra pegs at no cost.
- Realized gain: $4; pleasant feelings that I had helped an overwhelmed neighbor.
- I changed my impression of the eccentric woman whom most everyone in the community recognized by her flamboyant clothing but never talked to. She was friendly and seemed very smart. She bought Spanish books so she could teach herself to speak the language.
- Realized gain: $2; a spanking for allowing myself to mistakenly think that flashy clothing was the defining feature of this lovely person.
- I provided peace and tranquility to at least one shopper by playing classical piano music on a karaoke machine I was selling. The gentleman commented, “This is the classiest garage sale I’ve ever been to.” I eventually sold the music CD to someone else and ended up donating the karaoke machine.
- Realized gain: $1; bragging rights.
- I inspired a middle-aged man to break into a cheer. A set of Michigan State pom-poms encouraged him, but he must not have liked the pair well enough to buy them.
- Realized gain: $0; bewilderment and laughter.
- I gave what was left of my expired and nearly empty tube of Benadryl anti-itch cream to a woman who was having an allergic reaction. Earlier in the day, she had bought a basket at a different garage sale and was driving around with the purchase in the back of her van. Evidently, someone’s cat had used the basket as a daybed before the piece was sold to the poor lady. The medication itself wasn’t worth anything, but the heavy-duty industrial bag I gave the woman to stuff the basket inside of had some value.
- Realized gain: minus a dollar or so; feelings of goodwill.
- I generated smiles by reaching out in friendship to a young family from Paraguay. The parents bought tools and household supplies. Their eldest daughter settled on a whiteboard and dry-erase markers. I gave the youngest a bilingual doll that spoke English and Spanish. The father asked if I was a teacher.
- Realized gain: pure joy.
- I listened intently to a woman testify that she used to be possessed by demons when she lived in Peru. I seriously wanted to hear all the fascinating details, so I gave her my phone number and hoped she would call.
- Realized gain: awareness of evil at work in the world and thankfulness for my faith in Christ.
- I exchanged contact information with a woman who buys clothes for a homeless man and mentors young ladies. She was generous in many ways and surprised me by donating, on the spot, to the charity I co-founded in 2016 and promoted during my sale.
- Realized gain: a newfound friend.
- I cried. With nearly every sale, I handed out prayer cards to customers. The prayer was special to me because I learned it from my pastor who died eleven years earlier in a car accident. One woman read the card, looked at me, and softly said, “I knew Janet.” And that’s all it took for me to feel connected to this woman who I had never met before. More words weren’t necessary. We knew Janet.
- Realized gain: a flood of memories.
Garage sales are more than the perfect way for savvy sellers to get rid of stuff. They are more than a novel way for buyers to harness creativity and stretch dollars. These phenomenal American shopping experiences give us unique opportunities to express kindness and compassion. When we price things just right and open our doors to the world, we let in all sorts of fabulousness: priceless garage sale people.