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Column: What would you pay for that?

More to garage sales than meets the eye
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Seeing value where others don't

They date back to the 16th century when shipping yards would put unclaimed or damaged cargo up for sale at reduced prices. As they grew in popularity, they moved into community spaces such as churches and halls. Rapid growth of suburbia was followed by a rapid increase in these as well. They go by any number of names depending on where you live…garage sale, yard sale, tag sale, rummage sale, moving sale, stoop sale, estate sale or sidewalk sale…but the intent is similar: a vendor intends to sell items they no longer use to buyers who are looking for used items below market cost.

Estimates put the number of sales on any given weekend at more than 165,000 resulting in the exchange of two billion dollars between sellers and buyers, all by clearing out cupboards and closets and getting rid of the excess.

With so many items changing hands there can be some surprises along the way. A man paid $45 for a set of photographic glass plates with images of a national park and then discovered they were the work of Ansel Adams valued at more than $200 million. A sketch at a yard sale in Las Vegas sold for a few dollars to a man who subsequently found out it was an original Andy Warhol. A woman wore a piece of jewelry for 30 years that she paid £10 for at a jumble sale in London. Five years ago, the ring she thought was costume jewelry was appraised and found to be a 26.27 carat cushion-cut diamond.

Most sales don’t result in these types of astonishing transactions but rather the more typical exchange of a few dollars for things like books, puzzles, sports equipment, toys and dishes. And that’s what makes these events so fascinating. It’s the chance to see what others owned and now are willing to part with, and what might catch the eye of a new purchaser.

My sister and I helped our mom with a garage sale prior to my wedding and my sister’s move to university. After hours of sorting and set-up we were ready for shoppers. To make things interesting we challenged each other to pick the one item we were absolutely convinced would not sell. We came to the same conclusion: a rather ugly plate emblazoned with the name of a small town where we once lived with a very odd-looking flower in the middle. It brought back a ton of memories of the years we spent there, but what could it possibly mean to anyone else?

I took my place at the cash box table and quickly got to work adding up purchases. As one of the first customers handed me her items I was stunned. It was the ugly plate. She handed me her money and told me how excited she was about the plate because it was “just so colourful.” She saw value in something in a far different way than I did.

As you wander through sales, you are walking through the history of a household. Past renovations, former decorating tastes, celebrations, recreational pursuits, hobbies. Every item has connections. Every object has a story. It’s not just a cookie jar—it’s the cookie jar aunt Eleanor gave as a wedding gift. It’s not just a Christmas decoration—it’s the decoration we stumbled across on that fabulous holiday. It’s not just ball gloves and soccer balls. It’s hours of playing with the kids in the backyard or cheering them on from the bleachers. On it goes.

The challenge becomes separating the stuff from the story, because once we do we will see that this is where the true value lies. For sure, someone else may come along and agree to pay for the object, but the real worth is in the stories you, and you alone, possess.

We likely aren’t unknowingly selling artistic masterpieces or priceless jewelry, but rather items that filled our home, shaped our activities, and added to the ordinary and extraordinary events in our lives. This is what makes a garage sale such an interesting social exchange. Buyers can walk past dozens of items and nothing catches their eye, or they can leave with the most unusual purchase—all because we see worth in different things.

When we recognize that the value is held in the memories, we can easily deal with all our storage issues. So easily in fact, we don’t need boxes, shelves, closets or storage units. We can quickly and efficiently tuck each tale, emotion and reminiscence into our memory. Our brains have a storage capacity no tech gadget can match. So think about and remember the people. Recall the events and the funny or poignant emotions contained within each memory. Get rid of the stuff but hold on to the stories. It’s not about the collection. It’s all about the recollection. That’s my outlook.