Ralph Gardner Jr: The Lure Of Garage Sales

May 11, 2019

The last thing I need at this moment is to spot a garage sale. I have enough material in our own basement to stock a dozen garage sales of my own – furniture, clothing, glassware, antiques, electronic equipment, tchotchkes of every imaginable permutation. And that’s not even counting the crap, though some of it is respectable crap, that I recently inherited from my parents.

Yet the siren song of garage sale weekend beckoned last Saturday in Kinderhook, NY. That’s the annual occasion when we put out our ravaged bicycles, skis, boots and poles, LP records, books, etc. In other words objects that while they still possess potential charm, have been made obsolete by forces ranging from the erosion of time, to children having grown up and moved away, to the relentless march of technology.

So why do I go? Why do any of us brake for garage sales when the offerings are typically slim? When it looks like the owner’s major curatorial challenge was deciding between selling the stuff on the front lawn or throwing it into the trash, the former winning out for reasons that often seem obscure if not brazen.

Hidden treasure is the obvious answer. The hope that you’ll find a lost Renoir among the framed and fraying Currier & Ives prints or Aunt Irene’s bumbling and gratefully abandoned foray into plein air painting.

It also helps if you possess the collecting gene, have a predilection for kitsch, and a sentimental streak. By that I mean that you perceive the majesty in some shard or remnant imbued with family or minor American history that the seller can no longer be bothered with because, unlike you, he or she has a life.

I’m thinking of an attractive 19th century commemorative plate that I bought at a Kinderhook garage sale a few years back. Called “Our martyrs” it came decorated with images of three of our slain Presidents – Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.

I hung it from our bathroom wall and broke it after I brushed against it and it crashed to the ground, far beyond repair.

What was it doing in a bathroom in the first place, you might ask? That’s typically the other thing about garage sales. They involve a spouse or significant other who frequently harangues you to cease and desist from acquiring neighbors’ hand me downs, cast-offs, rejects or just plain unadulterated garbage. And refuses to give it the place of honor it deserves.

But the hope springs eternal that you’ll find that one magical item that will make years of gas consumption worthwhile, that you may even be doing your small part to strike a blow for beauty or to preserve the historical record in some obscure way.

The secret, of course, is finding a garage sale seller who shares your rarefied sensibility, who has your impeccable taste (even if that aforementioned spouse or significant others regularly questions your taste and occasionally your intelligence.)  They may be motivated by a misguided compulsion fueld by the concept’s current trendiness.

It takes but one such enlightened soul, one such Joan of Arc, to balance the cosmic scales, to erase all the outrages against quality and good taste that is the typical garage sale.

We found her last weekend, and a rainy unpromising weekend at that, in the person of our friend Pamela Salisbury.

Ms. Salisbury, an artist, had arrayed on her front steps and lawn and hanging from a coat rack, a selection of stuff that instantly stimulated whatever glands those are that activate avarice.

It also didn’t hurt that she whet our appetites when she generously threw in a selection of excellent small paintings she’d done, copies of Corots and Churchs, and a delightful landscape she’d painted in Scotland.

Did we really need the colorful kilim rug we bought from Pamela? Probably not, especially since it possessed the distinct perfume of spaniel. Though the artist apologized and suggested a professional cleaning or at least an extended airing out.

Then there was a set of heavy yellow speckled Murano-style drinking glasses that appeared brand new. And most exciting of all two wide mustard colored wicker armchairs that seemed throwbacks to a more genteel era.

That’s the other thing about garage sales. You not only get the benefit of the use of the object. But also the heightened self-esteem and deep muscle satisfaction that comes from knowing you got a deal.

That’s also really all the impetuous it takes to send you out next week and the one after that. Or at least to pull over when you see a handmade garage sale sign. Your effort will likely amount to nothing. But then again you never know. You just never know.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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