Column: I said never again, and then …


Roger VanHaren

A little over a year ago, we moved from a fairly big house to pretty small house, and in doing so, we had to get rid of a lot of stuff that we’d accumulated over the first 54 years of our marriage.

I’m not talking just about furniture; we had to get rid of more than two-thirds of the furniture from our big house. But there was also a whole lot of stuff stored in boxes on many shelves in the basement and a lot of other stuff in the garage.

There were pictures and mirrors on walls that would never fit in the new house. There were lots of “collectibles,” too – things we’d picked up at auctions over the years. We bought other people’s stuff to add to our stuff. Holiday and seasonal decorations for every occasion. Stuff.

George Carlin used to do a great routine about “stuff,” the crap we all go through life accumulating and shuffling around from place to place. “That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is – a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”

So, what do you do with all this stuff? Of course, you have a rummage sale.

About 10 years ago, I wrote a column about rummage sales because we’d just gone through the throes of having one. I thought at the time that I didn’t ever want to go through that again, but guess what?

Yup! We did it again! Several times.

Somebody famous must have said it because it’s been around for a long time: “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” And that’s probably just a corruption of an older idiom, also by somebody famous (probably Shakespeare; I should know this stuff, but I’m retired now!): “What is one man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

This doctrine of psychological chaos is obviously part of the driving force behind sales of this type. I think there’s a basic philosophy behind garage sales that says if you can’t possibly give something away, you can probably sell it.

One of the problems with having a sale of this sort is a semantic one: What are you going to call it? If you call it a “rummage sale,” does that mean you want people to actually “rummage” through your stuff? The dictionary says to rummage is to engage in an undirected or haphazard search; to RANSACK. Is that we want?

We could call it a “yard sale,” but wouldn’t that require us to put our stuff in the yard? We didn’t have any flat spaces in our yard, so that would be tough.

Some people like “thrift sale.” Well, anyway, we settled on “garage sale.” This made it easy in case of bad weather, all we had to do was close the door. No wet merchandise.

Well, no matter what you call it, this kind of sale is an education in human nature. I think sales of this type serve several purposes. First, there’s a social aspect. There’s no doubt about that; the sale is a very social event. You get to sit around and talk with your friends, drink coffee and eat doughnuts. And most of the people who come to the sale are very sociable, most of them quite polite: They even say “thank you” when they leave without buying any of your stuff.

Second, there’s a humanitarian aspect. We’re providing a service by offering stuff at prices that people with limited resources might not otherwise be able to afford. I’m making this sound very noble, aren’t I?

And, third, rather than pitching our stuff into a landfill, we’re recycling it! Giving it a new life. So there’s an ecological face to these sales, too!

Besides, the sale is very egalitarian as well. There’s no elitism or social stratification. People from all walks of life, driving all sorts of vehicles, rub shoulders as they sort through your junk – er, merchandise – and try to buy a $4 lamp for $3.50.

One guy who bought some of my tools told me he goes to sales and buys tools which he then donates to his church’s rummage sale. That’s pretty cool!

There’s an amazing amount of preparation that goes into a garage sale. Marilyn spent weeks “rummaging,” if you will, through the stuff on our basement shelves and in our closets. Where did we get all this stuff? And what are we saving it for? Will we ever use this again? And then, after hundreds of hours of sorting, there’s the pricing.

I didn’t get involved in the pricing of most of our merchandise. My limited involvement in this area is a definite drawback. I guess I tend to be sort of optimistic, calculating the total value of our “inventory” at slightly over $5,000, while Marilyn is more realistic, and stuff I’d mark at $20, she marks a buck. The few things I did mark didn’t sell until I put “reduced” signs on them late in the sale.

Some of the people who walked through were antique collectors/sellers we recognized from auctions we’d attended, but the few antiques we had in the sale didn’t seem to appeal to them. (Or maybe we’d priced them too high?)

There were no painted-over Rembrandts among the few pictures we were selling. No lava lamps or collectible memorabilia for racing or sports fans. Just stuff we decided we no longer needed. Still, we managed to get rid of much of it, made a few dollars (well below the minimum wage), and still had a generous donation for Easter Seals or St. Vinnie’s.

I’ll probably have to eat my words, but I think this was my last garage sale! But … never say “never again” again!