In Georgetown last summer, I left a friend's place for a walk down the street and soon came upon a mystifying sight. The contents of a house were out in the little front yard and on the sidewalk. I saw chairs, dishes, pots, pans, clocks, ashtrays, some cheap jewelry, records, books, clothes and electric appliances. Lest you think that this was the most unimaginable of Georgetown events, an eviction, let me put you -- and the citizens' association -- at ease: It was a yard sale.
I stopped. The couple who own the house are acquaintances of mine. He is a well-known physician. She is a former network executive. She stood behind her household items, hawking them in an understated fashion. He lurked inside the house, occasionally peering out the window. The yard sale was not his idea, his wife said with a giggle. My heart went out to him.
I pretended to poke about. I made a pass at rummaging. I saw nothing I really wanted, but I hadn't stopped to buy anything in the first place. Instead, I wanted to further investigate the phenomenon of the yard sale. It has long mystified me, and this one, maybe, mystified me most of all. After all, the couple holding the sale are affluent -- maybe even rich. They live in Georgetown. They are well known in both the neighborhood and the city. And yet they were spending a good part of their weekend putting items out on the street, selling some of them and, at day's end, taking what remained inside. People like that could not be having a yard sale for the money, I thought.
Of course, for some people the motive is money. A study of yard sales by two New York State academics reports that the average take is $200 to $250, but many sales gross into the thousands. The academics also report that there is one yard sale every 15 seconds in America and that the total annual gross from those sales is close to $3 billion -- tax free. The scholars report that no state taxes yard-sale profits, and while the writers know quite a bit about yard sales, they obviously do not know about the brother-in-law of a friend of mine. Every other Wednesday, he rises at dawn to beat the trash trucks to worthwhile items that have been discarded. Once a year, he has a yard sale that nets him considerably more than $250 since he didn't pay anything for the items in the first place.
Still, people for whom $250 is petty cash had to be having yard sales for some other reason. I myself would not have one. Like the husband who would not come out of the house, I have no desire to appear mercenary, to seem to care about money. Indeed, maybe because my parents were born poor and seemed to save $2 for every $1 they earned, I have affected a nonchalance about money that, besides being a total lie, has left me in considerable debt. For one thing, I will not bargain, and bargaining is what yard sales are all about.
Bargaining is not beneath my mother, though. I first realized that when she dispatched me and my father to pick out a new car. I was about 16 at the time, and her words -- or an approximation of them -- still ring in my ear: "You pick the car, and I'll come in and talk money." We picked, and she talked. Aside from the car itself, our other pickings were what are usually called accessories. Not by me. Ever since my mother came in to bargain with the dealer, I've thought of them as "You'll-throw-them-ins." For every accessory, my mother said, "You'll throw them in." She said that phrase with such deadly seriousness, such menace, that I think all the accessories were thrown in. We drove off in a bargain.
To my mother, the world was one vast yard sale. But it wasn't to me. I considered bargaining beneath both me and contempt. I had the second generation's false ethnic pride. I would rather pay more, get suckered, than appear to care about money. I was a professional, a college graduate. I do not do windows. I do not bargain.
And so I concocted all sorts of reasons why people who don't seem to need the money have yard sales. I had theories galore. For some people, it's their only chance to play merchant. Most of us are salaried and have Walter Mitty fantasies about how well we could have done if we had decided to make big money. The yard sale is our chance to play -- to test our salesmanship. I thought also that for some people, the yard sale provides an excuse to dispose of an item that still has some use. As every robber baron knows, a profit pardons anything.
I theorized that the man who would not come out of the house while his wife held the yard sale is like me. He was born into modest circumstances. Not so his wife. Her family was rich. He would not stoop to bargain with anyone -- to pretend to care about the cost of an item. She would not hesitate. He was chagrined at her activities. She was having a grand time.
But still, the reporter in me insisted on firm answers. I called the woman. Why? I asked. It was fun, she said. She liked to meet people, and this was one way to do it. It was fascinating to see how people bargain. Selling old items made it easier to dispose of them, she said.
My wisdom was confirmed. Money had nothing to do with it. I was immensely pleased with myself and told her all my theories. She laughed. There was one other reason for holding the yard sale, she said. She made lots of money -- about $700 -- and then quoted me the price I paid for an item I had bought, a Gerald Ford commemorative medal.
I should have bargained. ::