Column: Sale-ing on Saturday

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Happy bargain hunters at the Chequit Inn tag sale Saturday. More than $6,000 was raised to benefit the Tot Lot.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Happiness at a tag sale.

It’s yard sale season on Shelter Island. Spare me that tired line about paying good money for someone else’s junk. And I scoff at your environmental piety when you say, “It’s good to recycle old things.” And as for yard sales being the best way to find a bargain? Ridiculous.

Everyone knows that an Island yard sale is entertainment.

Most of the time, shopping is about getting things I need. I go to the store or my computer and joylessly buy the potting soil, toothpaste and garbage bags. For the things that I definitely do not need, there are yard sales.

A yard sale is when a person with stuff, who wants to find a new home for it, invites the community to examine the stuff, in hopes they will take it away. This transaction may not involve a lot of money, especially once the early morning rush has passed, and the yard sale-giver is faced with the dark possibility that some of the stuff may not be going anywhere.

To have a yard sale on Shelter Island does not necessarily require a yard. All you need is a folding table, some torn-off strips of masking tape and a Sharpie. And plenty of singles.

On a beautiful May morning recently, a West Neck Road resident stood a few feet away from three tables of jumbled items in his driveway, spotted a customer holding up two lace doilies, and said emphatically, “take them, they’re yours.”

It was day two of his sale, and once the first hours of day one had passed, he settled into a liberal definition of a sale, which seemed to include any transaction that would remove items from the folding tables; whether an exchange of money, barter, or pleasantries, (aka the I-Like-You-Please-Take-This-Sale.) He reported no shortage of customers, and an even split of men and women.

“I think people go to yard sales here because there is nothing else to do,” he said.

Some organize the outing with a strategic goal. My husband only looks for baseball cards and books. Fishermen always check to see if there are any scallop dredges for sale, and tools are often the focus of attention. But is this a reason to go out so early on a Saturday morning? To find a lightly-used power-washer?

Yard sales are the highest form of social event, casual, open to all, full of amusing distractions and family-friendly. Many an old friend has been spotted, and a new friendship made at a yard sale.
Marie Manuella and her son Richard consider their yard sale outings a chance for some quality time together. Sometimes they even make questionable purchases, such as the orange pocketbook Marie bought for $2.

Matthew Quinn Martin picked up an office chair from a yard sale years ago, “One of those heavy duty ‘Mad Men’ looking things from the 60s with a steel base and a brown vinyl seat,” he said. “I wrote my last three books sitting on it.”

Tom and Janet Junod own a 1974 Manhattan phone book, purchased along with a stand made specially for it, at a Penny’s Path yard sale. The book contains among other oddments, Donald Trump’s phone number from the time before Twitter.

Robin Drake cemented his reputation as a yard sale Zen-master the day he rode his bike past a sale on Menantic Road, spotted a museum-quality 1926 Bauhaus Sintrax coffeepot on a folding table, executed a U-turn and got the pot for $3.50. Shortly afterward, friends told him they would no longer accompany him to yard sales unless he agreed to a handicap — they could look for 15 minutes first.

Phyllis Wallace just retired as archivist at the Shelter Island Historical Society, and now has more time to curate her own collection. If she has a strategy, it’s to start late, “Saving old workmanship is always my priority,” Ms. Wallace said. “I look for items that make me smile and usually they are the forgotten ones left at the end of the day.”

Lois B. Morris says she was once competitive at yard sales, lurking with the early-birders, so when finally allowed in, she could race and grab. But time has dulled her sharp elbows, “I met lots of people who became my earliest friends here,” Ms. Morris said. “That’s why I go now. To see all my friends.”

Of course, goods are exchanged for money, but not much. And negotiation can take surprising turns, like when the price is so low it feels uncomfortably close to stealing. For those times, there is a maneuver called the reverse haggle, that results in paying more for an item than the owner was asking. “Fifty cents! That’s all you want for this pristine copy of Pat the Bunny!?  Gosh I don’t have change, will you take a dollar?”

Another kind of yard sale transaction is payment by appreciation, also known as “If You Love It, It’s Yours.” Mary Lydon recounted looking several times at a dozen charmingly mismatched dinner plates, each time walking away, since she did not need more dinner plates.

“As I was leaving, a woman handed me a package containing the 12 plates, carefully wrapped,” Ms. Lydon remembered. “She said she wanted me to have them because I probably loved them as much as she had. And I do.”

Some strongly prefer to be seller, not buyer at a yard sale. Peter Reich says he’s not looking to take on any ballast, “In my 53 years on the Island, I have never been to a yard sale but have held three.”
Having seen his garage, I advise anyone looking for nautical jetsam to be the earliest-bird the next time the man has a sale.

To anyone who says that yard sales are boring, prosaic events, I offer the comment of Bliss Morehead who describes yard sale outings that lead to “steamy flings with huge, portable cooking apparatus, such as lobster pots, steamers, Dutch ovens — all very old and lovingly battered.”

Like most people, I would like to get rid of stuff, and yet as I look around my house I see that many of the objects I enjoy most came from yard sales.

My favorite yard sale story is from Joanne Sherman, who used to comb yard sales in the company of her little granddaughter, searching for costume jewelry.

“When we got home we would throw it up into the trees that lined the path in the woods between our houses,” Ms. Sherman said. “She graduated this year and the path is long overgrown now, but, especially during the months when the leaves are off the trees, I sometimes still catch the sparkle of rhinestones.”

Now, that’s a good reason to go to yard sales.