I’m a fairly easy-going sort. I do my best to get along and fulfill responsibilities I have to others in my life, but there are things that drive me crazy. Garage sales fit that category. I can’t think of anything worse than spending a perfectly good day pawing through piles of things other people are ready to dispose of. I’d much rather be reading, or writing, or at the beach or even cleaning my house. I understand that people with children, inveterate readers, Ebay resellers or folks with truly limited incomes may have a quite different perspective. But I’m not a shopper, and I’m trying to simplify. In my life, garage sales don’t help meet real needs. They simply provide a day’s worth of distraction and an indiscriminate pile of “stuff” which gets hauled home and hidden away before being thrown onto a different table for the next sale.
Unfortunately, my mother adores garage sales. She enjoys the social aspect – the banter, the dickering, the sense of unspoken competition for “real bargains”. She also enjoys the feeling of possibility, the hope instilled in every watcher of Antiques Roadshow that the $50,000 etching may be buried under the plastic poinsettias and hand mirror with the broken frame in the next pile. If she could, she would be out prowling the neighborhoods every weekend. But, since I have to do the driving and she knows better than to press her luck, we’ve struck an agreement. She won’t ask to garage sale every week, and I won’t gripe when we go.
Last week, when the huge island-wide garage sale in Clear Lake Shores was hampered by rain, I thought I had escaped. But, the signs went up for a repeat performance this weekend. Like a good kid, I told Mom she’d better find her money and her walking shoes: the show was going on. For nearly four hours, she dug through piles of detritus like a search dog on a good scent, while I sat around, petted assorted other dogs and cats, watched nesting night herons and people, and thought it all over.
The truth of the matter is we’re suckers for apparent bargains. We don’t need that cactus cookie jar with the 10-gallon hat for a lid, the beer bottle dryer, the ceramic owl pot-holder-holder, or the box full of old-fashioned metal ice trays, but there they are, and we bite. We convince ourselves that we’ll find a use for it, or that we can use it for a gift. Sometimes the cost is so low (only a dollar for that set of three fake snakeskin belts?) that we can’t help ourselves. They’re selling, and we’re going to buy.
As I sat and watched the activity this morning, it occurred to me that the American marketplace of ideas has devolved into precisely this: an intellectual garage sale, a psychological close-out, a swap meet where the illogical meet the uninformed. No matter which neighborhood you roam, there are authors, commentators, neighbors, journalists, family members, politicians and self-appointed experts ready to do business, with their wares spread out on tables and sawhorses, grinning like fools and saying, “Make me an offer.” They’ve got it all: worn-out attitudes, mismatched perspectives, kitschy opinions and old-fashioned prejudice, ready to be recycled and promoted as the latest thing.
The fact is, whether we’re confronted by the opinion hawkers, the cyber-gurus or the ecclesiastical multi-level marketers, we don’t need a single one of their intellectual trinkets, but when they’re in front of us, starting cheap and ready to dicker, it can be tempting to pick up a second-hand thought or two.
When I take Mom to her garage sales, there is one question I can count on hearing over and again, phrased in a variety of ways. The question may come from Mom herself, from the sellers or from other buyers who don’t mind sharing their decision-making process with anyone around: “Don’t you need this?” “Do I need this?” “Do we need this?” “Do we know someone -anyone – who needs this?”
At a garage sale, my answer is always the same: No, I don’t need that. Unless I’ve thought in the last day, “Gracious! If only I had a beer-bottle dryer!” there’s no reason to pick one up simply because it might be useful. The same is true at the various garage sales that now pass for the marketplace of ideas: sorry, I’m not buying. I’m happy to hear your judgments, your opinions, your attitudes and perspectives, but I don’t need to purchase them whole. I’ll form my own, thank you very much.
It’s not that I don’t need to make changes now and then. I understand that attitudes can benefit by evaluation and revision. It’s quite possible that old biases might need to be replaced. I’m not averse to adopting new ideas, or a different perspective. But before I buy, I want to think it over for myself. I need to know what I want, and I want to be sure of what I need. And, especially in the marketplace of ideas, I want to know I’m getting quality. I may pay more initially, but it won’t cost nearly so much in the long run.