June 2007

The Garage Sale Roadshow

By David Feela

Many people in America watch “The Amazing Race,” a television program where teams of young wanna-be millionaires compete by solving puzzles and wasting a lot of fuel traveling to various exotic destinations across the globe. Supposedly, it’s an exciting show, where contestants’ emotions are put to the test and tears flow like...well, like televised tears, I suppose. I wouldn’t know. I’ve only seen the show in passing – that is, while passing by it on my way to a different television network destination. You see, I experience the same emotions for the price of a local newspaper if it has a healthy listing of garage sales.

From what I can tell the strategies are similar. Most of the people I’m competing against arrive at garage sales in teams, having mapped a route that efficiently takes them from one end of town to the other, stopping at every advertised location along the way. Their bodies may not be muscular, toned, or perfectly tanned physical specimens, but I’d put their spirits right up there with the “Amazing” contestants I’ve seen on the screen. Of course, the challenge requires a keen eye and a steady hand.

Contestants must arrive early enough to grab the bargains – namely, the items worth more than the sticker price. Usually these items get marked incorrectly because the people holding the garage sale eventually suffer from sticker shock after a long night of unloading boxes, sorting items, and asking each other questions like, “How much do you think this metal thing with the hole in the cover is worth?” Five dollars is a figure that seems to work.

Usually I do a quick walk-about, scanning what’s out, picking up and carrying any curiosities, whether I intend to buy them or not. The trick is to snatch the item at the instant when the person next to me has almost decided to reach for it. When that happens to me I feel an irresistible urge to own the object, whatever it is, whether I need it or not, just because it was whisked away before I had the chance to decide I didn’t want it.

Naturally, “The Price is Right” is also playing in my head, and I’m fairly sure I’ve memorized the original sticker prices for at least two dozen of these items scotch-taped into their original packaging. At the Dollar Store, for instance, I remember seeing a plastic spatula for... a dollar, I’m pretty sure. This one’s marked 25 cents! And it appears to be brand new. When I glance at the woman sitting next to the cashbox who’s scrutinizing the pockets where I put my hands I realize she bears an uncanny resemblance to Bob Barker’s mother. Nobody has actually said the words “Come on down” out loud, but with a deal like this, who cares?

After my arms are full and I’ve stepped to the side to inspect and assess each bargain, my mind begins replaying an episode from “The Antiques Roadshow,” and I imagine there are clues any expert could read that reveal the item’s hidden value. Of course, sometimes it’s just a rolling pin, and I need a better rolling pin, or some pliers that aren’t rusted like the pair I keep in a drawer at home.

Sometimes, though, I am holding a true mystery, something that theoretically might be worth a few bucks. Maybe even worth a fortune, though a tiny voice in my head interrupts, Why would these neighbors, people whose house I’ve driven past a hundred times, be selling what appears to be a rare 1800s piece of Pennsylvania porcelain pottery for (I check the tag again to make sure) just five bucks?

My memory reaches for the professional voice instructing viewers about the markings on the bottom of pottery pieces or the sure-fire clue embedded in the glazing; I draw a blank, but I buy it anyway, just in case. And if you ever stop by my house I have cases of “just in cases” in my garage, just in case I decide to advertise my own garage sale.

David Feela writes from Cortez, Colo.