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Column: Finding lives and treasures in yard sales
If you want to create a feeding frenzy on a Saturday morning on the Island, have a yard sale. We hosted one a couple of weeks ago. It’s a good way to make a pile of money from things you don’t want. The cross-section of people who attend yard sales is a demographic of the Island: the wealthy mingle with the workers who arrive on bicycles; young families converse with the elderly. All share a single quest: snagging a bargain before the next person gets it.
At our sale, a hugely pregnant woman bought a painted white dresser to turn into a changing table; a toddler amused himself by making faces in a mirror while his mother and grandmother shopped nearby; and two young sisters, independently of each other, picked up the same cheap angel ornament with a bright red plastic stone for a skirt and asked me if it was a real ruby. I tried to give it to them because they were so cute but their parents insisted on paying the $1 it was marked.
A woman bought an odd painting I’d picked up at another yard sale and never hung. Chinese characters circled two wild black horses in a chipped wood frame. She loved it because they looked like her horses.
At the end, no matter how much you sell, there’s always a staggering amount of things left over. What to do with it? Goody pile? Salvation Army? A bonfire?
Other people’s yard sales, though not as profitable, are much more fun. A collection of books is often as embarrassingly personal as if the owner left her journal open on the table. The self-help books: “Divorce for Dummies,” “The Atkins Diet” and “The South Beach Diet”; the dog-eared Danielle Steel novels next to “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sun Also Rises,” their spines never cracked open. And always, a couple of college textbooks. Big resale value on 20-year-old molecular biology textbooks.
I’ve scored some great finds at yard sales, things I didn’t know I needed. A vintage unopened “Spirograph” game complete with all the notched wheels; a Chinese gong with mallet to decorate my son’s Asian garden; and one of my favorites — a 1970s German-speaking Barbie who, with her big hair and mod disco outfit, bore a startling resemblance to a singer from ABBA.
Yard sales, like ebay — I’m a big ebayer — are the ultimate form of recycling. You sell something you don’t want to someone who will use and appreciate it.
One of the most poignant sales I’ve attended recently was from the estate of an older woman who died of a heart attack. I knew her slightly from my knitting group. She rarely came, even though she was a beautiful knitter.
A painter, a quilter and a pack rat, she left behind vast quantities of stuff. Her dimly-lit garage overflowed with craft supplies, dolls, sewing machines and oil paintings. She bought her yarn and knitting needles from my friend’s shop so I knew she bought expensive yarn. When I realized it was her house, I went in search of her yarn stash.
Outside in a steady drizzle, partially finished quilt tops languished with abandoned knitting projects. I grabbed all of the yarn and the works-in-progess. It seemed wrong that all of her creative efforts had been left outside in the rain, sold for almost nothing by two antique dealers who never knew her. Though a lot of what I bought I didn’t need, I wanted to give her handiwork the dignity it deserved.
When I got home, I sorted through my treasures. There was a lacy shawl knit of lavender silk, nearly finished. Inside the bag, I found the printed pattern and her shaky, hand-written instructions. Lace knitting is not my usual choice and I rarely wear shawls but the yarn was beautiful, the pattern delicate. I found where she had left off in the pattern. I picked up the attached bamboo needles and knit until the shawl was finished.
It seemed strange to knit a dead woman’s shawl.
I wore it at my sister’s wedding. I think the woman would have liked that.