Sunday, August 10, 2003

More mysteries of yard sales

Nearly every Saturday morning for more than 25 years I've gone to yard sales.

It started in New Haven, where Mike Maffeo and I would scrounge for fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins. Picking up pottery, kitchenware, furniture, and tools was a sideline.

We waited for more than an hour one morning outside a suburban house in Branford to get the first crack at a collection of antique planes, only to see a local dealer walk out the front door with the whole set before the sale opened. We felt much better a few minutes later when I made off with a $200 Roseville vase for $2.

Cape Cod, where my parents had retired, was a treasure trove of yard sales (or, as they call them in New England, tag sales). My mother has a revulsion for anything previously owned--she'd pass by a 100-year-old Sarouk in favor of a "nice" new synthetic rug from Jordan Marsh--so when we visited her I used to sneak out to sales, pay for the goodies, leave them with the sellers, and then make the rounds collecting them on my way out of town the following day. The purchase I remember best from the Cape was a pair of cotton braided rugs. My then-husband, Ted, had gotten fed up with tag sales and had stomped back to the car in a huff, causing the woman running the sale to give me the two rugs at half price. Ironically, when we got divorced they were two of the few items he wanted, telling me how much he'd grown to like them.

Seattle yard sales are a bit different--no Colonial or Victorian gems out here, but some good finds none the less. My best was the vintage Fiesta salt shaker loose in a box of crummy Tupperware.

To me, the most mysterious aspect of yard sales is clothing. The $72 petite polar fleece robe I buy from Land's End makes me look like a yeti, but the $2 cherry red terry cloth robe from the yard sale looks stunning. The best chinos I've ever owned (Riveted by Lee) I discovered for $1 at a yard sale; the yard sale pants were one size too large, but I could tell immediately that the style and fabric were perfect for me and managed to locate them in a smaller size at Fred Meyer--a store I'd never have considered for clothing.

And, of course, there are the people you meet at yard sales! Seattle photographer and historian Paul Dorpat has for some years been working on a video about yard sales and the people who put their belongings on the block. In the process, Paul's become a yard sale legend himself. When we lived in Wallingford, not far from Paul, he always stopped by our sales with his camera. Zorg and I will never forget the frumpy older woman, at our sale with a friend, who sidled over to me and indicated Paul. "Watch out for that man!" she hissed. "He's always at yard sales. And his camera can see through your clothes!." I managed to ask her to pay Zorg, then made a mad dash for our backyard, where I collapsed in hysterical laughter.

Is there anything you can't get at a yard sale?

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