I like to think I’m a fairly easy-going sort. I get along with most people who cross my path and I’m able to fulfill most of life’s responsibilities without too much grumbling, but there are things that drive me crazy.
Yard sales (aka “garage sales”, “tag sales” or “rummage sales”) fit that category. I can’t think of anything worse than spending a perfectly good day pawing through piles of stuff that other people have judged not worth keeping. I’d much rather be reading or writing, spending a day at the beach or even cleaning my house.
People with growing children and limited incomes, inveterate readers, quilters and crafters, Ebay re-sellers or folks with a passion for the act of buying have a different perspective, I’m sure. But I’m not a shopper, and I’m trying to simplify. In my life, yard sales don’t help meet real needs. They provide little more than a few hours of distraction and a pile of purchases which need to be hauled home, hidden away and then handed over to the next neighbor who decides to hold a yard sale.
My mother adores yard sales, though it’s been well over a year since she participated in the ritual. She enjoys the social aspect – the banter, the dickering, the swapping of tales about “unbelievable finds” and “real bargains”. She also enjoys the feeling of possibility, the hope that stirs in the soul of every Antiques Roadshow afficionado who just knows the next $50,000 etching is buried beneath those plastic poinsettias or the hand mirrors with the marvelous lucite frames. In her heyday, she prowled the neighborhoods every weekend. Once I had to take over the driving, she knew better than to press her luck and we struck an agreement. She didn’t ask to go to yard sales every weekend, and I didn’t gripe when we went.
The year that a local, neighborhood-wide yard sale was hampered by rain I was delighted, thinking I’d escaped the day-long ordeal. I should have known better. Having gathered their goods, the neighbors were unwilling to send them back to storage and signs quickly went up for a rain date. Being a good kid, I told Mom she’d better find her money and her walking shoes. The show was going on.
The next Saturday, while she spent hours digging through piles of detritus like a search dog on a good scent, I sat around, petted some actual dogs and cats, watched sociable mallards and competitive people, and thought it all over.
The truth seems to be that even the most resolute can be sucked in by a smooth-talking seller and the lure of an easy bargain. We don’t need that cactus cookie jar with the 10-gallon hat for a lid. We don’t need the beer bottle dryer, the crocheted owl potholders, the chipped glass insulators or the box full of old-fashioned metal ice trays, but there they are, and we bite. We convince ourselves we’ll find a use for it, that we can use it for a gift, that it might come in handy “some day”. Often the cost is so low (“Only a dollar for that faux snakeskin belt?“) we just can’t help ourselves. They’re selling and we’re buying, in one of the great weekend rituals of American life.
Looking back over a lifetime of yards littered with life’s priced-to-sell leftovers, it occurs to me the American marketplace of ideas has devolved into precisely this: an intellectual yard 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, spreading out their wares 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 re-purposed into the latest thing.
Before being confronted by these opinion hawkers, this motley collection of cyber-sellers, ecclesiastical multi-level marketers and pandering pols, it wouldn’t cross our minds to buy any of the flimsy goods they’ve set out to glitter in the sun. When they’re right in front of us, starting cheap and ready to dicker, it’s a different story and we’re easily tempted to pick up a second-hand thought or two.
One thing is certain. No matter where you do your yard-saling, you’ll hear the same question humming through the air, persistent as the inevitable mosquitos. Sometimes I heard it from Mom. Sometimes I heard it from the sellers and sometimes I heard it from buyers who didn’t mind sharing their decision-making process with a yardful of strangers: “Don’t you need this?” “Do I need this?” “Do we need this?” “Do we know someone -anyone – who needs this?”
Today, my answer generally is, “No, I don’t need that.” Unless I happen to have thought in the last day or so, “Gracious! If only I had a beer-bottle dryer!”, there’s no reason to tote one home simply because it’s there. More and more often, I find myself responding in similar fashion as I pass through the yard sales now serving as the marketplace of ideas. “Sorry,” I say, “I’m not buying. I’ll be happy to hear your judgments, listen to your opinions or ponder your attitudes and perspectives, but I don’t intend to purchase them whole. I’m not sure I need them, and my mental closet’s pretty cluttered as it is.”
It’s not that I don’t change an opinion now and then. I certainly do. I understand how attitudes can become warped over time, how old convictions grow worn and need replacing. I’m not averse to trying out a new idea, or a different perspective. But before I buy what that nice, new seller on the block is promoting, I want to think it over. I need to know what I want, and I want to be sure of what I need. Especially in the marketplace of ideas, I want to know the seller and I want to know I’m getting quality. I may pay more initially, but the cost will be less in the end.