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2007 06 12
The Perfect Garage Sale
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Summer in Toronto is never complete without smog days, squabbling over Caribana, and Saturday morning garage sales. All across the city -- along suburban driveways, on downtown lawns, and in apartment courtyards -- residents spread out unwanted wares on rickety tables and frayed blankets, hoping not so much to score a profit as to participate in a social ritual that extends well beyond buying and selling. A garage sale is a great opportunity to meet neighbours, an open invitation to gawk at strangers' houses and gardens, and a perfect window into cultural practices and preferences played out in tabletop tels of other people's trash, trifles, and treasures. In short, garage sales are sociological projects revealing an astonishing amount about how we live as Torontonians.

My first garage sale memories are a jumbled recollection of "white elephant" tables and church rummage sales held in the east end Toronto neighbourhood where I attended primary school. After letting the four of us us pick out stuffed animals and storybooks, my parents would get down to the serious business of bargaining for furniture, tools, appliances, and (on separate occasions) a piano and pick-up truck. Over the years every object in my parents' house came to have a story connected with its acquisition. The Depression glass my mother bought second-hand as a starving undergraduate in the 1960s, the Persian rugs and library cabinets the University of Toronto off-loaded in modernist purges in the early 1970s, the machete that subsequently resided under the bed, the competent Canadian oils, the cannon, the actual garage my father bought at a garage sale in a moment of excessive enthusiasm.

In my twenties when I moved out on my own, I trolled garage sales not only for furniture and housewares but for books and artwork and odd little artifacts, like the set of hallmarked sterling silver Apostle spoons I bought for six dollars and bring out for infrequent brunches, or the set of skeleton keys in the drawer of an old farm table I was given for free because the garage it was in was about to be demolished. And as part of a policy of not buying things new, Peter and I have furnished our own home with garage sale finds, including an elegant round pedestal-based table we bought for $35, and (just a few weeks ago) a five-by ten foot semi-antique (Markazi) Persian rug we paid fifty dollars for, whose red tones complement the ten dollar velvet wing chair I carried home on my head a year or so ago and the Canadian landscape oil painting (from an eastern Ontario garage sale) my mother gave us one year for Christmas.

I feel fortunate, now, to live in one of Toronto's great garage sale neighbourhoods. The west end, stretching from Roncesvalles across High Park and the Junction and dipping toward Swansea, offers the perfect conditions for garage sales: dense, nearly century-old residential neighbourhoods running the gamut from rooming houses to nouveau renovations. The population is diverse, both culturally and socio-economically, and garage sales are the natural and regular by-products of leases ending, sellers cashing in on the real estate bubble, residents growing up or growing old, or neighbours simply acting on a seasonal desire to binge and purge. And on any sunny Saturday morning in May or June (and again in September and early October), the boulevards are festooned with signs pointing to the mounds of their discards, lined up and looking for new homes.

The perfect garage sale, to me, is a chaotic tumble of stuff only crudely sorted into categories. There must be books, first of all, or I am unlikely to get off my bike. I also like tables laden with kitchen wares, vases, trinkets, and breakable things. Old and new tools. Christmas decorations, especially 1950s glass balls. Fire King oven ware and Jadeite pieces. Unwieldy objects, like furniture and ladders and bicycles and stuffed moose heads. Some people like to see clothes, especially vintage dresses and fur coats, but I lack the patience to sort through them, preferring instead to dig through pretty scarves lined up beside the jewelery and egg cups.

I like prices to be clearly marked but negotiable. A major part of the pleasure of garage sale going is surely bargaining for a slightly better deal, and long before I was a union negotiator I gained experience trading offers with garage sale hosts. As a matter of principle, if I make an offer on something and the seller refuses to bargain, I'll put the object down and walk away. In such cases it seems to me that the seller has misunderstood that a garage sale is, above all, a social negotiation, not a store, with fair value being determined as much as through conversation as by any mercantile assessment. This view, it turns out, finds agreement in the scholarly literature on garage sales. In "Gift or Commodity: What Changes Hands in the U.S. Garage Sale?" (American Ethnologist, 24(4), 1997) American anthropologist Gretchen Herrmann observes that many garage sales operate as a forum of social transactions and are dominated by token payments reminiscent of a gift economy. In practice, this means many people hold garage sales for social and even altruistic reasons: engaging with the neighbourhood, diverting unwanted objects from landfills, and helping others who may not be able to afford things bought new.

I also like garage sales to be authentic. Displaced flea markets, home-based 'antique' stores, and regularly recurring garage sales make me grind my teeth. In my neighbourhood there are two or three recurring 'contents' sales consisting of lower grade or clumsily refinished antiques put out monthly (or in some cases, weekly) at what for garage sales are unusually steep prices. These sales provide little opportunity for genuine treasure-hunting: in many cases their operators appear to be frustrated would-be antiques dealers who know the book value of each piece. These kinds of sales are in fact contrary to Chapter 480 of Toronto's Municipal Code, which restricts residents to two garage sales a year and permits only the sale of household effects actually belonging to the premises.

I am ambivalent about 'charity' garage sales. Given the perennial problem of charities misappropriating donations for executive salaries and entertainment budgets, I am reluctant to donate to any cause where I cannot trace how my money is used. In the past few years in Toronto there has been a marked increase in garage sale events held to benefit various causes, including the Yard Sale for the Cure, which encourages residents to hold garage sales and donate part or all of the proceeds for breast cancer research. A laudable aim, but one whose execution can be dubious, especially when sellers indicate only that "part" of the proceeds of their yard sale will actually be donated. Similarly, charitable aims can be undermined by guilt-mongering and social coercion. A few weeks ago I encountered what struck me as a particularly egregious abuse of public charity at a church lawn sale, where a braying parishioner tried to bully those of us browsing through boxes of books into paying twice the price marked. As I put down the books and walked away he shouted, "Don't be stingy!" I took my stingy quarters and toonies to the next block over, where I spent them on trinkets and a beautiful scarf and contemplated my agnosticism.

Last Saturday morning, a month into garage sale season, I came home with a 1950s toy chest strapped to my bike, holding other little boxes, a 1960s lidded casserole dish, some pottery, books (including Earle Birney's Ghost in the Wheels), and an elaborately painted wooden rooster with dangling marionette legs which will join (in the kitchen, of course) the rubber chicken I bought at another yard sale a year or two ago. I'll be out again this Saturday, pedaling up your street, petting your dog, and asking if you'll take two dollars for that earthenware pot you've got on the table.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 06/12 at 09:57 AM

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