The front yard economy

When the Great Recession hit, economic desperation drove many Americans to slap price stickers on anything they could — bringing an extra poignancy to the process of letting go.

For the first time in several hours, the house is quiet. Eric and Michelle Short sit kitty-corner from each other at the dining room table, a pile of colorfully scrawled yard sale signs flanking Michelle’s left arm.

Faint strains of The Lion King’s opening sequence filter into the kitchen from the next room where the couple’s two rambunctious young boys sit zonked out in front of the television. Ben, 4, and Drew, 2, each with fluffs of blonde hair, have no idea that their comfy living room won’t be theirs much longer. Unbeknownst to the boys, their parents have made the tough decision to leave their idyllic home in Gardner, Mass.

Photo: Jillian D'Onfro
Drew Short cuddles in the arms of his mother, Michelle, after struggling to watch strangers walk away with his old toys.

Eric and Michelle met in college, fell in love, got married and both graduated with degrees in education. They planted themselves in Gardner because it was close to home, and not far from Lunenburg or Fitchburg, where Eric and Michelle found teaching jobs. Now, however, they need to move because of the city’s floundering school system. Over the last several years, the school budget in Gardner was slashed, and then slashed again. The system had deteriorated. Class sizes swelled, extracurricular options shrunk. It got so bad that the Shorts decided to put their house on the market in May 2012. “I love the house, and I love the street — the area, our yard. I’m going to miss it,” says Michelle. “But the schools have gone really far downhill.”

The two-story, three-bedroom house with the large pool in the backyard is the only one the couple has ever owned, the only house the kids have known. Over the 6 years, the family had accumulated more than they knew. Too much to take with them as they moved to a community with a better school system.

The Shorts needed to host a yard sale.

The couple hauled baby toys, old books, purses, and patio furniture into their garage. Michelle spent an hour with a bucket of soapy water, wiping down one plastic Elmo after the next. She Sharpie’d the colorful signs that Eric, armed with wooden stakes, a staple gun, and some tape, would spend almost two hours putting up around town.

Pricing proved to be a difficult chore. Determining a value on some items — such as an ill-gifted sock puppet kit from a relative — was easy. Ben and Drew weren’t likely to ever open it, and the only question was whether Eric and Michelle priced too high or too low. Other items presented a much greater challenge.

Two nights before the May 19 sale, Michelle and Eric sat at their kitchen table, sifting through their possessions, trying to separate themselves from the personal history of each belonging, trying to settle on reasonable prices. The toys could be divided into one, two, and five-dollar piles. What about the kids’ old jackets? To strangers, it wouldn’t be the coat their son, Drew, wore the first time he played outside in the snow with his older brother, Ben. It would just be a jacket: small, good condition.

Michelle sighed. “Ten dollars each.”

The yard sale represented a shift to a new phase for the Short family. Typically, hosting a yard sale is almost always linked to transitions. Death, divorce, or a move across the country often act as the impetus to spreading one’s belongings out on a blanket on the lawn, neon-orange price stickers screaming the proposed worth of each item.

In that way, yard sales tell stories. A sale can be a host’s accidental autobiography: each item becoming a piece of discarded history and a clue into who that person was and is. And a person’s discovery that they no longer need something — the costume jewelry sold off with the old coffee mugs and too-small T-shirts — can also hint at a shift towards a future self.

During the last four years, though, the Great Recession has hurt Americans, and so the type of transitions spurring yard sales has changed. Downsizing and an urgent need for extra cash to pay the bills motivated more and more sales. The need to sell off the excess replaced a relentless consumerism. During the Great Recession, the tone of yard sales changed. All across America, the “yard sale story” had grown much more grim.

Yard sales of yesteryear

The concept of the yard sale bloomed hazily far back in time. No one has written a definitive yard sale history, yet sources agree that, even hundreds of years ago, people all over the world placed items they no longer needed outside their homes to indicate what they wanted to sell or trade. The word “rummage” even offers a clue to understanding how yard sales evolved, according to an article on, a database that lists yard and garage sales by zip code. In 16th century England, “romage” referred to how a ship’s crew packed cargo into the hold of a ship. Cargo that was unclaimed or damaged after a voyage would be hauled out of the ship and put up for sale on the docks. Eventually, the phrase “rummage sale” was born.

By the 1890s, churches often hosted rummage sales to raise money, collecting unused items from members of the congregation to sell for charity. The 1950s and 60s brought a surge of yard sales to the United States in particular. Emerging from the Great Depression and World War II with a humming economy, American industry began churning out goods — dishwashers, TVs, stereos, cars, and the accoutrements to go with them. Americans started buying. As affluence swept through newly sprouted suburbs, people took advantage of neighborhoods to walk through on sunny Saturday mornings. Selling disused goods and pawing through the castoffs of neighbors became an accepted and enjoyable pastime and profit-maker. By the 1970s, yard sales were a familiar sight and firmly woven into the American experience.

Since then, an entire yard sale subculture has emerged. Newspapers and Craigslist run classified ads. An entire yard sale lexicon has evolved. The nuanced difference between an ad reading “Everything priced to sell” and one reading “Offers welcome!” isn’t lost on those constantly scouring for bargains. Saturday mornings have become sacred to packs of devoted yard sailors who spend hours each weekend digging through the detritus in search of treasure. The best bargains earn bragging rights; the most unusual find get squawked about for weeks. The amount of garage sale related television shows has spiked in the last several years. There’s Lifetime’s Famous Yard Sale, the History Channel’s American Pickers, HGTV’s Endless Yard Sale, and more. Some shows are meant to fuel countless quests for the two-dollar sculpture that re-sells for $2,000 on eBay, others simply feed the fascination that people have with one another’s stuff. Increasingly, people have also taken to documenting their own adventures online — a Google search reveals dozens of websites and blogs devoted to yard sale enthusiasts.

Striking deals since '96

Take Chris Heiska, who dubbed herself the Yard Sale Queen in 1996 and has been blogging about the deals she’s snagged ever since. Heiska posts at least once a week on, where she dispenses advice through personal stories and observations. She confesses to “personal bad buys” (a pair of shoes that squeak “as if I am slowly torturing a mouse to death.”) and reports on gross things she’s seen for sale (a “feminine protection device for dogs in heat”). She also provides tips for how to shop smart (carry a small tape measurer and a bring a bag for hauling out acquisitions) and what to avoid (old baby cribs – “They often don’t have the proper spacing in the slats”).

“Not all yard sales are going to be great,” she says. Cue memories of the sale with used makeup, the sale that promised “multi-family” but had only a few measly tables, the owner with an inflated sense of the value of their possessions and an unwillingness to bargain. “It might be a while until you find a really good one. But just be persistent.”

To Heiska, it’s the lure of a steal that makes yard sailing irresistible (she also has a penchant for couponing and loves to frequent thrift stores). Did she leave her house Saturday morning hunting for a pencil sharpener? Does she even own any non-mechanical pencils anymore? No on both accounts, but when the electric device was priced at only a quarter, it proved impossible for Heiska to justify not buying it.

For Seattle-based Jenny Hayes and Meghan Smith, who have double-teamed the blog Yard Sale Bloodbath since 2007, hunting the quirky and bizarre is what makes yard sale Saturdays so entertaining. Scrolling through the blog’s recent posts creates a curious collage of the kind of cast-off items people uproot from basements or haul down from their attics: Teddy Roosevelt-inspired aftershave, a three-faced baby doll, an umbrella stand modeled after a bunch of asparagus. Hayes and Smith often end posts with a “trunk shot” showing off each day’s eclectic stash. Once a year, Hayes and Smith host a sale of their own: the yard sale circle of life in action.

Tom Zarrilli used to be another committed sailor. He started his blog, Yard Sale Addict, in 2004 and kept it up regularly until May 2010 when he called it quits to focus on lining up gallery exhibits for his collection of yard sale photography (which he hopes to one day publish in a book about American yard sale culture). Having written more than 1,000 posts and visited several thousand sales, he has become known as something of a yard sale expert, oft cited in news stories and on TV. Combing through the suburbs of Atlanta, he started to view his weekend ritual as less of a hobby, and more of a sociological study.

In an age of closed curtains, post-demise of the front porch gathering place, he felt that yard sales often provided the only glimpses he ever had into the private lives of his neighbors. “It reveals things,” he says of the scrapbook of stuff people choose to sell. Once, he stopped by the sale of a neighborhood woman and it dawned on him that he could recognize various life changes she had gone through based on the remnants spread in front of her home. In her abandonment of a pile of textbooks, Zarrilli could paint a picture of her undergraduate studies. Clues of sexual re-identification — a collection of books about lesbianism — nestled among Armed Forces memorabilia. Cast-off running gear denoted a loss of a hobby.

“My favorite mystery is why is a person selling a bartending book and a 12-step guide side-by-side?” Zarrilli says. “I discovered more questions than answers. But knowing the questions sometimes feels more important than finding the answers.”

When the recession hit, some questions started to seem more troubled.

He describes seeing ratty duplexes, forlorn-looking piles of stuff for sale on unclean porches. Romance novels. A few cassette tapes. Decrepit looking kitchen items.

“And it’s like, ‘Is this the most you can come up with?’” he says. “’Is this all your life amounts to?’ And for me, it was … really sad.”

He saw signs of the recession most in the professional resellers. Resellers are considered a pestilent breed to many in the yard sale world, likely to commit the sin of early birding (showing up for a sale hours before its advertised commencement). That bad reputation got worse. “As the economy started to tank, all the resellers seemed to get more desperate,” Zarrilli says. “It had been a weekend thing, but then they lost their jobs, and were having to exist off of reselling stuff.”

Michelle and Steve Weaver, a couple from Lancaster, Mass., have spent the last eight years collecting extra cash by spending their Sundays re-selling goods at a local flea market. Until this summer, both Michelle and Steve also worked at a local college—Michelle as a secretary, Steve in food services. Then, the college lost accreditation and the Weavers lost their jobs. Although Steve was able to reel in some hours working security, Michelle remains unemployed. To supplement her husband’s weekly paycheck, she decided to host one yard sale a month (the maximum allowed at the couple’s apartment building).

“There’s no jobs,” Michelle says, “But I can do this.”

When the Weavers spread their menagerie of books, old furniture, and toys across their lawn at 9 a.m. on Labor Day, the blue sky seemed to promise ideal sale conditions. At the end of the day though, the couple had made only $47.

“It helps a little,” Steve says with a tight smile and a half shrug. He and Michelle have learned to seek out deals (99 cent loaves of bread, the three-for-five dollar specials on generic cereal), skimp on what they can, and stretch profits as far as they can go.

“We try to keep good spirits about it,” Michelle says. “At least it’s something.”

Yard sales represent a kind of underground economy. There is no national yard sale registrar. Some towns require a permit to host a sale, others don’t. Yard sale purchases are tax-free, so the government has no numbers to crunch. In his 2007 book Garage Sale America, yard-sale fanatic Bruce Littlefield estimated that people in the United States collectively make around 500 million yard sale visits a year.

That number likely increased during the worst years of the recession. From 2008 to 2009, garage sale postings on Craigslist increased by 80 percent nationwide, spokeswoman Susan MacTavish told South Florida Sun-Sentinel for an article about the changing state of yard sales.

The Great Recession had its real yard sale horror stories: the neighborhoods blanketed with foreclosures or the families selling everything to avoid one. RealtyTrac, a real estate information company, reported 342,038 foreclosure filings in April 2009, a 32 percent jump from April 2008. But yard sale culture changed for everyone, not just those hit the hardest. The Saturday morning atmosphere at yard sales across the country became darker, tinged by desperation.

Michigan photographer David McGowan spent the summer of 2008 unemployed, and during that time he began noticing more and more yard sale signs cluttering telephone poles, front yards, and the classified section of the paper. He started going to as many sales as he could, camera in hand. “I was finding people on hard times,” McGowan says, “People who needed to make adjustments to their family budgets and find different angles of revenue for the family.”

Hosting one garage sale wouldn’t provide enough money to pay off a year of credit card debt or guarantee the ability to make July’s house payment, McGowan said. But the extra cash helped. He met a woman who had just sold an old scooter minutes before he arrived at her sale. It had belonged to her husband — who had passed away from cancer just six weeks before. “It had meaning to her, it was an association with her husband,” McGowan says, “But it was something she didn’t need. So she was letting it go.”

He photographed the woman holding up a photo of her husband grinning brightly in an unbuttoned shirt, relaxing atop the scooter that, like him, had just left her life forever. McGowan snapped shots at a sale held by a couple to raise money to pay for the headstone of their son, dead at 23. He captured a young woman trying on her never worn wedding dress for the last time before sending it on its way to a new owner.

“People were departing with things that had sentimental value to them that they would have preferred to keep,” says McGowan, who created a multimedia piece with his pictures, published by the online magazine burn. “But they were just bleeding out and needed the money.”

Yard Sale by McGowan

A photo from David McGowan's multimedia essay, I'm One of Those Americans. (Photo courtesy of David McGowan)

Sellers needed money, and buyers needed a cheaper cost of living. The yard sale economy kept people afloat (and gave purpose to the unemployed). Today, the financial nosedive has leveled out slightly. Situations like the Weavers’ still exist, but hints of an upsurge dot the financial horizon. Yard sales have lost some of their edge. “I think no matter what year it is you’re going to be able to find people who are selling things that mean something to them,” McGowan says, “But I don’t think that now there’s that same huge rush to sell stuff out of need.”

Although the difficulty of selling off one’s meaningful possessions will survive the waxing and waning of the American economy, Garage Sale America author Bruce Littlefield says that the connections between people that are sparked during garage sales can help ease a seller’s wistfulness. “Americans: we love our things, so letting go is often very difficult. We are a pretty sentimental culture,” he says. “But the one thing that is fantastic that I’ve found about garage sales is that people who are selling things love that they get the opportunity to see who is going to now give a new life or a new love to the thing that they once loved.”

Selling a once useful or favorite old object inspires a musing bout of nostalgia, but in the post-poingant wake of letting go, many find comfort in seeing the fragment of their life take on new meaning for someone else — a continuation of its story.

Doris Gallant, a sixty-something single woman living in Leominster, Mass., needed to host a yard sale because ten years of being unable to get rid of anything had rendered her house hopelessly cluttered. “It’s almost choking me,” she says.

Wearing a pink tank-top (inside-out, large oval sweat-stains), she huffs and puffs in the late summer heat as she digs through boxes and lets her eyes dance over crowded shelves, sifting through the chaos of her basement. She places things in the “For Sale” pile, only to remove them again ten minutes later. A stack of Anne of Green Gables novels: too sentimental, she read them with her daughter. A small souvenir cup tucked away behind boxes of old software: oh, but it would be the perfect gift for an old friend — she’ll mail it to him eventually. She cradles a pair of white satin pumps that no longer fit her feet, which weight has swollen several sizes wider. “These always made me feel so sexy,” she says wistfully.

Later, outside, Gallant unabashedly haggles over the price of several lawn decorations with a potential buyer (“Nah, that’s too cheap!” she cackles at an initial offer). But when a young woman browsing her sale chats with her pleasantly, expressing interest in a variety of things, she impulsively makes a gift of the shoes.

“The happiest part of the day was giving away those shoes,” she says.

Gallant feels content with the memories she made in the pumps — the raucous evenings out with friends, the intoxicating nights of dancing — and a smile curls across her face at the thought of their continued dance on a younger woman’s feet.

Back on the job

Although the Shorts had posted their sale as starting at 8 a.m., early-bird pickers had arrived close to 7. The first five hours had brought non-stop traffic, car after car after car pulling up with its load of deal-seekers. Some sales that promised an object’s reinvention brought particular pleasure to the Shorts. The pool stairs that they didn’t need that would bring a new family a summer of splashing in and out of cool water. A young couple bought a kid’s car seat and the wife beamed her thanks to Michelle and Eric with her hand on her enormous, pregnant belly.

By 2:30, the sun had lowered enough in the sky for a cool shade to sweep over their driveway, over the long tables standing almost desolate. Michelle sat cross-legged on the grass while Eric sipped a beer from a chair in the driveway watching their older son motor around the empty street in his Tonka truck. The couple had made a grand total of $950. “It was a lot of work, but it was worthwhile,” Eric says. “I don’t think anyone walked out of here today that it wasn’t a win-win.”

The Shorts’ even sold each of Ben and Drew’s old coats, one for much cheaper than it had originally been marked. Watching Ben cruise between the jagged patches of light on the road, those past winters—the adventures outside in those jackets — seemed so far away. In a few months, he would dress for the weather in something new — maybe a red coat this time. Some new kid, however, would don the dark blue parka. For that first snow of the year, his mom would zip him up tight and off he’d run, prepared to unfurl a whole new set of stories of his own.

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