The month of May tends to be the beginning of garage sale season in many parts of the United States. A time when spring-cleaning gives way to a collection of unwanted artifacts and questionable Christmas gifts. For many, it is the great American pastime, with weekends spent scouring home after home in search of a needed item at a steep discount or treasure hunting for valuable baubles that missed the eye of their owner. Be it baby clothes, a dining room set or the first Van Halen record, there’s usually something for everybody at a citywide garage sale near you. Unfortunately, this is more accurate than ever in 2009, as many families are being forced to sell possessions which were household necessities a year before. For some, it is a means to make up for a lost job or a jump in their mortgage payment. For others, it is a forced liquidation as the home in which they are having the sale will soon not be theirs.
A feeling of dread comes across me as I walk from house to house in a development constructed less than a decade ago. Sales are everywhere the eye can see and bargains galore, if you can stomach the reason an $800 grill is selling for a hundred bucks. The signs of departure are sadly obvious. Boats, fish houses, foosball tables and nautilus sets priced to sell and sell quickly. These items can’t fit into an apartment or town home. They are physical evidence of a family trying to live the American Dream and failing. Many will say it is their own fault. Not reading the fine print of the mortgage loan, maxing out credit cards and failing to develop a monthly budget are fallibilities too common these days, but it is difficult, if not completely callous, to overlook the suffering on the faces of so many who were just trying to achieve what so many take for granted. It is easy for many of us to laugh at the saps profiled in the news who cry about not making ends meet on a six-figure income. It is far more difficult to see them standing in the back corner of their garage with a change box.
It is in our nature to take advantage of the financial mistakes of others, particularly if the plight can be reconciled inside the conscience. When I scored a 1959 Erector set, an original 45 of Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” and a copy of “Uncle Scrooge #6 (in which Scrooge drinks beer), it never occurred to me to tell the owner they are selling these items for peanuts. It’s their own fault, right? If they actually took the time to price these items or bring them to the almighty “Antiques Roadshow,” they wouldn’t be dumb enough to sell them for a buck. This is the conceit people who frequent garage sales and flea markets abide by: if you don’t know what it is worth – too bad. This philosophy works best with strangers and in towns a person does not frequent very often. I broke this unwritten code a few years ago when I saw a Carlton Fisk rookie card selling for a dollar at the residence of a man I had known most of my life. Joe is a good guy, someone who would never take advantage of another just to make a quick buck. I couldn’t in good faith buy the card of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer without telling Joe it was worth substantially more. Joe told me to take it anyway, stating the price was the price and he wasn’t into collecting baseball cards anymore. As I paid him, I realized Joe knew and abided by the unwritten rules of garage sales. Purchasing “Pudge” for that price still made me uneasy and I have yet to add it to my collection. It is still sitting on my bookcase, waiting to be given to a deserving recipient. For some reason I never thought I deserved to own it, at least not on those circumstances.
Americans lucky enough to have avoided this recession will find deals aplenty if they are willing to overlook the economic circumstances involved in the sale. It is doubtful anyone feels sorry for Macy’s when they get 50 to 75 percent off the entire purchase. Macy’s is just a store. It’s not a real person. That fallacy works if one forgets many people work for Macy’s and are facing employment elimination if the company’s profit margin continues to decline. We celebrate the great deals and brag about them to our friends because that’s just what we do. If the profit is impersonal, then it is justified. Most of the mortgage brokers, bankers and financial advisors who made a fortune bankrupting thousands of people probably thought the same way. It’s the customer’s fault if they don’t understand what they’re signing right? They’re not being forced to do anything they don’t want to. It is their choice to invest or take out a ginormous loan. If they aren’t fully aware of the consequences, well that’s just too damn bad. Sounds pretty vile and empathetic, doesn’t it? When we celebrate our garage sale and department store booty, aren’t we doing pretty much the same thing?
It is many American’s nature to want lots of stuff and not have to pay diddly-squat for it. Pyramid marketing scams work on many people for a reason. The concept of getting an “inside deal” better than most folks is like panning for gold in the Old West except there’s no guns, criminals, diseases, lawlessness and the actual chance of making a profit. Take a step back the next time you’re at one of these garage sales that seem too good to be true. When you see a sweet motorcycle for two grand, children’s trampolines for twenty bucks or a rockin’ stereo system practically being given away, think for a bit of the circumstances possibly involved in the situation. The garage sale is real but for many Americans selling their possessions, it represents the death of their dream. Our lives are indeed long and the potential of rebuilding all that is lost is possible, no matter how dire the situation may be. However, many families forced to give up so much may decide it is just not worth having their lives upheaved again. Their belief in the stereotypical “American Dream” has disappeared along with the home they thought they would live in for decades or a lifetime. These aren’t just garage sales anymore. They’re bloody funerals.
If you frequent any of these sales this year, maybe offer a little extra cash even if it goes against the unwritten garage sale code. Be thankful you have the extra money to buy the trampoline for your kids. Buy some of the homemade cookies and lemonade next to the change box and tell the seller how much you appreciate it. Look them in the eye and give them a reassuring smile. It may not mean much but it is the least you can do outside of ridding them of their George Foreman Grill. As you drive home, count your blessings alongside the great finds. Life takes many an unexpected turn as we live it. It is easier to live without things than empathy or conscience; unappraisable, invaluable attributes that are definitely not worth haggling about.
Copyright 2009 Adam Koeppe