Outward bound

It was a gray day in Sun City, Arizona. I followed the signs into a silent retirement community where green painted rocks passed as lawns and residents drove to the grocery store in golf carts, only to find the all-time most pathetic excuse for a garage sale: three plates, three dollars. Each. That was it. No one in sight, I turned away disappointed, but not broken.

Either you love 'em or you hate 'em. You drive around and see signs promising love and salvation on every corner, or wonder why anyone would pile their junk on the lawn. Call them what you will—garage, multifamily, lawn, yard, carport, estate, moving, or rummage—such sales offer the irresistible opportunity to go on a search (often never ending) for the absolutely perfect something.

My aunt Marnie, who has made brilliant garage sale scores, says the best time to shop is anytime. "When you're on the way to a wedding, and you're already late. Or when you're headed for the airport to leave the country. That's when you find the best stuff."

A little strategy:

1. Never, ever, judge a sale by its house. The best stuff comes from the most surprising places, and you just never know until you check out the prices.

2. Resolve vs. serendipity. Do you pore over the Saturday morning ads in the newspaper, or float from one telephone-pole sign to the next? Garage salers come in two types: the list maker/map plotter and the "it must be karma." Either style can yield good results.

3. Timing. The serious shoppers who line up on the curb early in the morning do get good stuff. On the other hand, great deals can be had at quitting time; choices are thinner, but so are the prices.

4. To buy or not to buy. Test yourself: Will I wear/use this item tomorrow? 2. Can I buy it later? If you answer no, then yes, walk away immediately, or you'll be inexorably sucked into a bad purchase.

5. Always bargain. For those of you who have traveled in the Third World, bartering is a piece of cake. Offer half, or group several items and suggest a package price. Don't be shy.

6. Shop with small bills. No one wants your check, and bargaining doesn't work with $20s.

7. Dig deep. The best stuff is invariably buried in boxes.

8. Drive-bys. The quick scan breaks rule no. 1, but it works well if you've got a long list.

9. Weekly habit. Make sure you've got space (a garage?) to store all the crap, uhh, good stuff you come home with.

10. No luck? Hang on; (free) junk day is just around the corner.


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