My yard sale addiction started as a casual Saturday morning diversion. I was 24, on a budget, and on my way to work when a fluorescent green sign beckoned. I had to pull over. For five bucks, I scored a vintage, flowered tablecloth and a much-loved copy of Jane Eyre with intriguing marginalia. When I discovered I could snag a stack of the latest hardcovers, a ’50s style Formica kitchen table, or an old-fashioned Olivetti typewriter, all on the cheap, I started hitting the sales every week.
It wasn’t until years later that I began to think of my hobby as an earth-friendly alternative to traditional American consumerism. Suddenly, hitting the sales wasn’t just about frugality, or a fondness for pre-loved items; it had become a satisfying challenge to see how much I could reduce my ecological footprint, swearing off all things “new,” and their excessive packaging to boot. The average American produces four and a half pounds of trash a day, contributing to the 245 million tons we produce as a nation each year, and I was on a one-woman mission to shrink landfills nationwide—one used toaster at a time.
I started to pause before buying anything new, confident that I could find it on my weekly yard sale jaunts. If I wanted a mixing bowl, I could squelch the urge to run to Target and instead strike out on the weekend in search of a much-loved and much cooler mixing bowl—and in the process, discover the charm of Fiestaware.
Cut to ten years later and I’m a hard-core yard saler averaging 20 tag sales per weekend. I look around my apartment today and can’t identify more than a handful of things that I bought new. What I can do is tell you the story behind each piece of furniture in my home. I can tell you about the colorful, young French couple who sold me their purple bookshelf and plump red armchair before they moved back to Europe. Or the burly man who sold me his giant rubber plant, maneuvering the heavy terra cotta pot into my backseat, nestling it in a blanket, and securing the seat belt. I can tell you who sold me my shabby chic bureau, my reading lamp, my vintage suitcase nightstand, even the clothes in my closet. “You got that at a yard sale?” my friends ask of my outfits, incredulous. I’m not much of a fashionista, but scoring a pair of Dolce & Gabbana skinny jeans for 50 cents (50 cents!) remains my most triumphant moment.
Sure, there are people who would never dream of buying a used item. A colleague who recently complimented me on my sweater was horrified to learn I had bought it at a yard sale. “Somebody else wore that!” she cried. Yes, I thought; to me, that’s part of its charm. I like to imagine the previous owner buttoning her favorite sweater before a first date. I’m not proposing you buy your underwear and dusty canned goods from the old woman down the street, but I do think the stigma of buying secondhand is fading. Plus, retro is all the rage these days—from cherry red KitchenAid mixers to fondue sets to Vespas.
Enter our 21st century Internet culture, and virtual yard sales like Craigslist and Freecycle are emerging as a way to scour your neighborhood for bargains without even hopping in a car. I recently acquired an entire used living room set via e-mail.
So don’t look for me at the mall on the weekends. I’m out cruising my neighborhood with the radio on, list of sales and map in hand. Or walking around town, enjoying the fresh air, poking through people’s yards, getting to know neighbors. The allure of yard sales for me is the possibility of discovering one unusual item that kindles nostalgia or fills a need. I’m not out to buy heaps of stuff—I’m adding a fourth “R” to the old mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle, rummage. And I’m a firm believer that it’s much easier to maintain a sustainable lifestyle if you’re wearing Dolce & Gabbana skinny jeans that you scored for less than a dollar.
Story by Jaqi Holland. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.