At a friend's garage sale several years ago, I saw a copy of Ivan Doig's book, This House of Sky. I bundled it with my other purchases, but when she went to ring it up, I said, "Jean, I'm not going to pay for this one."
"Why not?" she demanded. I opened the front cover and showed her my name written inside of it. "Because I loaned it to you two years ago."
Our town is so small that I always expect encounters with previous owners of garage-sale items. "Oh, look!" someone standing in my kitchen might say. "You've got our toaster!" He'd have sold the toaster several years ago — perhaps even several garage sales ago — and it circulated around to me.
I understand that some people might find shame in such an encounter, but to me it is all part of a natural cycle. You benefit from a toaster until for some reason it has no benefit left for you. Then you pass it along to where someone else can gain additional benefits from it.
Such exchanges happen in the big city, too, but there you're not likely to re-encounter your castoff appliances while visiting a friend. Here, when the couple who sold me my rice-cooker comes over, they wax nostalgic about it. I offer to sell it back to them at twice the dollar I paid for it.
I became a garage-sale aficionado 15 years ago when I was an impoverished young bachelor just arrived in town. I had no furniture. So I went to garage sales. During my first couple of weeks in town, I bought a couch, easy chairs, bureau, kitchen table, cooking pots and pans, plates, glasses and silverware. I bought sheets, blankets, and the mattress to put them on. I laid the mattress and sheets on the floor until I bought a garage-sale bed frame.
Eventually, I started operating on both sides of the garage-sale equation. For example, when I first arrived I bought lots of coffee tables. I just thought a living room needed them. Whenever I saw a used coffee table, I'd judge whether it was better than the one I had. If it was, I'd upgrade, and my discards went to garage sales, where I hoped they would entice some young budding collector.
Likewise, I once decided I needed a waffle iron. I found one at a garage sale. But when I took it home I didn't like the way it worked, and so I sent it off again. Then I bought another waffle iron, but I didn't like it either. (It wasn't the same one, was it? The thought just occurs to me now.)
I typically donated such items to cause-based sales, such as my town's annual Habitat for Humanity function. Some people treat garage sales as personal fund-raisers, but to me it's more about the flow of useful goods, a sort of community recycling program.
There are some items, of course, that never fit in the program. I've never bought a toothbrush at a garage sale, or underwear. They're just too personal. Nor have I ever found a file cabinet, or a dog toy. For some reason those are both items that you absolutely hold onto until they completely fall apart. Or candles: Candles are part of a totally different economy.
Recently, I've gotten married and so entered that candle economy. Furthermore, thanks to our combining of households, I've become a net garage-sale donor. For example, my wife bought me a new gas-powered barbecue grill, so I took my old one to Habitat for Humanity for its sale. The igniter is chancy and the lid dribbled just a little with roofing tar, but I attached a piece of masking tape announcing to prospective buyers: "Works!" I trust that it is now serving its purpose for someone at a different stage of life.
Our town is small enough that I may meet those folks someday. I hope they haven't scraped off the roofing tar, because I'd like to recognize their grill. I could tell them some stories about it.
John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). His new book, The Cowboy Girl, is due out next year. He lives in southern Montana.
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