My career in sales started and ended in my front yard, decades before Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and their ilk made it possible to unload your junk on the buying public without actually having to speak to anyone
“I’m telling you,” my friend Betsy warned me when I told her I was having a yard sale, “all kinds of weirdos are going to just come out of the woodwork. And they’ll show up early, so you’d better be prepared.”
It was 1992, long before the Internet made e-commerce a thing, and I didn’t believe her. Even though I lived right on Main Street, even though my yard sale ad was the lead ad in the Pennysaver classified ad section, even though I knew that my North Country neighbors frequented yard sales the way residents of Beverly Hills frequent Rodeo Drive boutiques, I fully expected that minutes after the sale drew to a close, I’d be be toting my Kitchen and Furniture Items and Odds and Ends off to Father Harry, the priest who ran the local homeless shelter and was always looking for goods to distribute to the poor.
That wouldn’t have bothered me; the point of the yard sale wasn’t to earn cash, it was to unload some of the junk I’d been schlepping around with me during the nine years since I’d graduated from college and been living on my own. A good deal of that junk had accumulated during the last five years, during which time I’d gone from being a newspaper reporter to a graduate student to an itinerant college professor. Now I was about to get married and move to western Canada, and there was no way I could afford to move all of my belongings across the border and the continent. Whether I sold things or gave them away was irrelevant, but they had to go somehow. The yard sale was my first choice only because I’d always wondered what it would be like to host one.
However, the possibility of weirdos turning up on my front lawn at 7 a.m. on a Friday morning unnerved me enough that I felt compelled to seek sales help. First I approached my colleague Deborah, a professor of Asian religion and something of a yard sale expert, having furnished most of her apartment with secondhand fare. Actually, I’d tried enlisting her several weeks earlier, at which time she’d offered to donate Odds and Ends. She even told me I could keep the profits.
Profits did not interest me: I wanted company, camaraderie, a business partner. I was desperate, and this time I had an edge: since turning down my initial offer, Deborah had been offered a job at a small university in Texas, some 2,000 miles away. She had to leave town. She’d be wanting to get rid of more than just Odds and Ends, and I was willing to bet she’d want to keep her profits.
Next I approached Lisa, my neighbor the sociology professor. An academic gypsy, she definitely needed to unload: her contract would run out in August and she had no job offers. So far her most viable option was to move in with her widowed father in suburban Philadelphia. But Lisa was prickly; I had to be offhand with her. I couldn’t let on that I was offering charity.
“So hey,” I called out to her when I saw her on her back porch one evening as I took out my trash. “You interested in doing this yard sale thing with me?” Sure enough, she was.
The last partner to join was Pam, my next door neighbor, the one person I hadn’t considered asking. After all, she and her husband were staying in town another year, and their apartment didn’t look overcrowded. But when she saw how much fun I was having preparing for my own personal Sale of the Century, she couldn’t resist. She even provided her own display table.
The evening before the big event, I hosted a pre-sale pricing dinner. Deborah, Lisa, Pam and Sybil — a first-year East Asian history prof who owned next to nothing and therefore had nothing to sell — were mulling over what we’d do if it rained and no one showed up, when an unfamiliar male voice wafted up through the open kitchen window.
“Hello! Anyone home?”
I looked out the window to the driveway one story below. A dark-haired man in his mid-thirties was standing by a half-ton pickup loaded with tools and junk — Odds and Ends in Yard Sale parlance. I figured he was from the university’s maintenance department, come to fix someone’s sink.
“Can I help you?” I called to him.
“You having a yard sale?”
Betsy’s words came back to me. “The professional yard sale people will show up first; they’re looking for bargains, for things to sell at their own sales.”
As it turned out, the man in my yard was more than a professional yard sale person: he was a “dealer,” a shopkeeper whose inventory came from yard sales. When I informed him that he was at the right place — albeit 12 hours early — he started dealing immediately, from the driveway. “Do you have any furniture? Antiques?”
“I don’t have any antiques,” I informed him. I didn’t have much furniture, either, but pride kept me from letting on right away.
“Yes you do,” Deborah piped up.
“No I don’t.” I was glad the dealer was outside. I suspected if he knew that we sales folk didn’t even know what we were selling, he’d assume we didn’t know the value either, and he’d try to rip us off.
“You do!” Deborah pointed to The Yard Sale room, formerly my office. A week earlier she’d left an antique chair and table there.
“It’s yours, not mine,” I reminded her. “He asked if I had anything.”
“Well, I do,” she said. “Let’s let him in.”
I was torn. If he came in, maybe I could make a few dollars before dessert. After all, I had one or two Furniture Items. On the other hand, I had reservations about letting a strange man into my apartment, especially an aggressive professional yard sale dealer. But Sybil insisted that we could take him if he tried anything funny. Sybil is about 4-foot-10 in her stocking feet and has a bad back and fallen arches, but I didn’t dwell on that.
Deborah went downstairs to let the dealer in. By the time she’d ushered him into the living room, she was on a first-name basis with him. His name was Ray. He lived up the road, in Ogdensburg. He was enthralled by Deborah, but then, who wasn’t? Tall, blonde, and impeccably dressed, she resembled Meryl Streep, not just in looks but in her cool confidence, intelligence, and subtle charm, which she appeared to be using on Ray.
Eager to get my customer back, I interrupted Deborah and pointed Ray in the direction of my Furniture Items. Immediately he dismissed my oak-veneer self-assembled desk hutch, the scrap-wood homemade stereo cabinet, and the plastic storage unit I’d bought at K-Mart. He turned his attention back to Deborah, who was standing by her chairs looking less like the expert on Buddhism that she was and more like a fair-haired version of Carol Merrill from the 1960s hit game show, “Let’s Make a Deal.”
“This one’s good southern maple,” she said as Ray held the chair upside down and inspected it. “I’ve got a couple of T-backs at home. They need to be refinished.”
Ray looked at her admiringly. I didn’t get it. Her chairs were old and flimsy looking. My Furniture Items were sturdy, useful. The only problem was, they didn’t have classy names. Polyuerethaned Desk Hutch Put Together by Two Yale Ph.D.s lacked the panache of Caned Shaker Rocker. Orange Stereo Cabinet Hand-Built by Providence Journal Copy Editor wasn’t grabbing Ray either, nor was Plastic Kitchen Storage Unit, K-Mart, Circa 1991. I had just about given up when Ray’s attention drifted from Deborah’s Southern Maple chair to the pile of stuffed animals I’d dumped on top of a yard sale box when I was in too much of a hurry to find a more appropriate place for them.
“Those for sale?” he asked.
“Nope,” I told him.
“That green one,” he said, reaching for the pile. The only green thing was a faceless mouse, a handmade Christmas gift from Pam. Shows what he knows about antiques, I thought to myself. That thing’s not even six months old. But what he pulled up was my owl puppet, the one with green marbles for eyes.
“That’s around 33 years old,” I informed him.
“Are you selling it?”
“No,” I said.
Obviously hadn’t been convincing. Ray slipped the owl puppet right over his hand and began studying it carefully. Warm angry feelings began to wash over me. Ray, the sleazy salesman with a fake gold chain and bad teeth, was wearing my puppet.
“It’s a Stip, a Stipple, a Steep.” I struggled for the brand name, which I’d heard once or twice in my life, not that it seemed to matter: Ray had probably never heard of the company. He wasn’t listening to me anyway; he was too busy playing with my owl.
“Is it worth a lot of money?” Deborah asked Ray.
I glared at her. She didn’t speak again.
Ray was silent, focused completely on the owl.
I kept struggling for the name: “Steeple, Steeful, Steef.”
“It’s a Stieff,” Ray said. “You want to sell it?”
“NO!” My vehemence shocked Deborah as much as it did me. I could tell what she was thinking: Now you’ve blown it. He’s never going to buy my chairs after this.
He wasn’t going to buy them anyway, I wanted to tell her. But I stayed quiet, my eyes trained on Ray as he removed the owl puppet. I snatched it from his hands and carried it into the kitchen, where it remained until he left several minutes later, empty-handed, but with a promise that he’d return.
He did return, the next morning. Purchased a couple of tiny enamel trays I was selling for a quarter. Years earlier they’d been presented to me by a great aunt who had unearthed them while cleaning out her attic. I’d never been sure of their function, so I’d just dumped them on any available surface, where they collected dust. They were clutter, Odds and Ends, worthless. Or so I thought until Ray wanted them. I found myself wondering if maybe I shouldn’t have charged more — maybe a dollar, maybe a dollar-fifty. But then, if I’d done that, maybe he wouldn’t have taken them.
I second-guessed myself that whole day — about the enamel trays, about the perfectly good drinking glasses I couldn’t sell for fifty cents each, about the brand new heater that didn’t go until I took a customer’s advice and cut the price from fifteen dollars to eight. My salesmanship deteriorated further the longer I stayed on the front porch, which my fellow peddlers and I had turned into yard sale heaven — close to a half dozen tables loaded with bric-a-brac, not to mention two clothes racks and several unwieldy Furniture Items.
Early in the afternoon, my heavy-duty Olivetti Littera typewriter broke down in front of a potential customer, and I felt compelled to give it away instead of collecting the twenty-five dollars I had originally expected to get. Meanwhile, Lisa sold her broken plastic Smith-Corona manual model for thirty dollars. She was also selling cheap jewelry at a rate of about one piece a minute for fifty cents each, and she had moved her futon on to the porch, where, by the end of the night, our downstairs neighbor had agreed to buy it for one-hundred-and-fifty dollars, most likely because it was blocking his door and he figured that paying Lisa was the only way he’d manage to get into his apartment.
I learned important lessons at my yard sale, among them, the more ugly, useless, and worthless I thought something was, the more likely someone else was to want it. My almost-new juice glasses and mint-condition Penguin classics might as well have been used paper towels for all the attention they warranted; our customers were far more interested in Lisa’s cheap costume jewelry and Deborah’s old clothes.
That I am a lousy salesperson was not news to me. I have never excelled at convincing people to spend money. My attitude has always been, if they want it, they will let you know. What did surprise me was how competitive the whole experience made me. When potential buyers approached the porch, I’d automatically assume they were heading for my stuff. After all, the sale had been my idea. When it turned out they were interested in something else (usually Lisa’s costume jewelry) a powerful feeling (okay, I admit, it was envy) would shoot through my body, carried, no doubt, on waves of angry adrenaline.
By dinner time, I was as eager to end the sale as I had been to have it. I hadn’t unloaded all of my goods, but I’d made about $100 and, more important, I was sick of selling. Besides, the weather was turning bad. Rain was in the forecast. The four of us packed up our inventory, tidied the porch, and went our separate ways.
The next morning, at about 8 a.m., I heard a loud clomping noise on the porch. I looked out my window to see Deborah and Lisa pulling out the clothes racks and display tables and unloading cardboard boxes of unsold junk. Beyond the porch, the sky was dark. Rain pelted the lawn.
“You’re nuts,” I told them, but when they offered to sell the rest of my goods — and to forego the commission, yet — I let them. I may be a lousy salesperson, but hey, even I know a good deal.