Another gorgeous autumn morning gave my family the perfect opportunity for a leisurely few hours of tag sale treasure hunting. I’m always on the lookout for great buys on seasonal décor that I would not pay retail for. This particular morning, we found ourselves at two different sales offering Christmas decorations.
The first sale we nearly passed by, because it was held at a clapboard cottage so modest, buzzing with so many people, that I almost prejudged that there would be nothing of value. Spread out on a tarp were several pieces of Christmas kitsch, with a sign asking a dollar per item. The offering included a pre-decorated small artificial tree, a box of glass ornaments and several stuffed reindeer. In a brief conversation with one of the family members hosting the sale, I was told that there had been some deaths in the family, and several items from storage needed to be disposed of. So, it seemed that a large extended family, complete with children running around the yard, was offering quite a variety of things, from clothing to the Christmas stuff, for around a dollar or less per item.
My excitement over a decorative Santa figure and an angel tree topper turned to disgust when I realized both had a bit of what appeared to be vermin excrement on them. How long had these sat in storage somewhere? Were they from some deceased grandmother’s attic? Why didn’t anyone care enough to keep them in good condition? I wasn’t willing to risk disease over items that couldn’t be properly cleaned. So I passed over the Santa and angel. Instead, I justified that I could thoroughly clean a large, wooden snowman figure that we chose from atop the tarp. For only a dollar, it became part of our family’s collection. After loading our new treasure in the trunk, everyone in our car got a big glob of hand cleaner to guard against germs, and away we went.
We followed a small sign to the next stop on our treasure hunt, to find a sale at a sprawling brick rancher in the cul-de-sac of a much newer neighborhood. Inside the pristine double-bayed garage sat tables full of household items that included some impressive Christmas finds. I was drawn to the grouping of Santas dressed in red velvet and wool tartan outfits. They sat alongside bright red and green towels — the kind you decorate the bathroom with during the holidays without letting anyone really use them. I scooped up two Santas, some festive towels, plus a couple of related items that I didn’t really care about, and marched over to the well-heeled group of neighborhood women sitting quietly together. I tried to remember Aunt Ruby’s advice when haggling, so I was polite. However, I tried a quantity buying technique that has often worked for me at tag sales. I let the women know that I only had a ten dollar bill to spend, and asked what they could do. In almost every case when I try this, sellers are so happy to get rid of a large quantity of junk that they offer me around a fifty-percent discount on the most expensive items. I hadn’t even totaled the merchandise, because I knew it was all somewhat overpriced for a garage sale.
While I waited politely, three women quickly divided up the items into the lap of each respective seller, deciding what those items were worth to them. They were so sure of their prices and so seemingly attached to the items, that they would not budge. One lone seller finally decided to give me a token fifty cents off her Santa. Another seller justified her four-dollar price on a musical stuffed Santa by telling me that she had paid thirty dollars for it new. I spent $7.50 to get the three items I really wanted (two Santas and a Santa cookie plate; the Santas were spotless, really cute and well-made), but I would have spent the entire ten if more items had been priced low. Just a few minutes before I had begun negotiations, I heard an open admission to me that lavish spending for unnecessary items was the norm in this family. Apparently, buying overpriced department store items translates into inflated tag sale prices. A grandmother, also one of the sellers, had shared with me how she gets no joy at Christmas time anymore, because the children in her extended family don’t visit her for the holidays.
I enjoy chatting a bit with the hosts of garage sales, not only haggling for the best deal, but understanding the sellers’ motivations. I’m intrigued by our attachments to things. I wonder if after a several years of enjoying our large wooden snowman and velvety Santas, our family will value those items beyond the few dollars we spent on them? I wonder if I’ll be the one who hastily throws them down on a tarp to sell for a dollar, not concerned about whether they are clean or dirty? Or will I be the one perched in my chair, running my hands over the velvety fabric of a stuffed Santa, not quite ready to let go of something?