Have you noticed that garage sailing has become a cultural phenomenon along with skateboarding and rollerblading? Perhaps the younger generation assumes garage sales have always been part of the cultural landscape. But I am old enough to know that that is not the case. Garage Sales have snuck up on us in the past three or four decades. At least I did not hear of one – let alone attend one – until I was well past thirty years of age.
Garage sales arrived in our town before we did in 1983. Each summer one would see an occasional sign for a Saturday garage sale. I remember finding a few good deals back then, some of which I have stored in my attic to this day. Good stuff and good deals, perhaps, but not always that useful. Twenty-five years later Garage Sales have become a major industry where I live. Shortly after we arrived hand-scribbled signs began indicating that some garage sales would begin on Friday night. A novel idea to get a jump on your competitors. After a few years it was Friday morning, then Thursday night, then Thursday morning. Now some begin their sales on Wednesday night and run right through Saturday night.
So what? It’s a free country isn’t it? And besides you don’t have to pay sales tax on what you buy! So why not keep on sailing? I have done it myself on occasion with a certain degree of success, but these days I am more likely to bike past garage sales without even a sideways glance. However I know some people for whom this is at least a half-time job – all summer long. And it makes me wonder. What does this new phenomenon tell us about what has happened in our society
Firstly, it tells me that most of us have far too much stuff. Especially for the past thirty years or so, world shapers have been declaring that all of life should be viewed through an economic grid. And those living in affluent societies have mostly bought that line. The more stuff we have the happier we will be. And so we have begun dragging more and more stuff through our front doors. However, gradually we began realizing that we don’t have room for all that stuff. One viable solution to this problem is to drag it out the back door into the garage and put on a sale. Get rid of the surplus and make some money while you’re at it! I would consider that a better option than building a bigger house in which you can store even more stuff, as some are doing.
Secondly, I think the sharp increase in garage sales is an indicator of the disintegration of human networks once taken for granted. Some of this has to do with the fact that families are smaller and more scattered than once was the norm. But it also has to do with the scaling back of the number of friends people relate to regularly. And the fact that we have begun building six-foot fences around our back yards. It seems to me that in an earlier era people generally considered themselves to be part of a much larger community made up of family, friends and neighbors than we do today. In that context there was a natural “handing down” or “passing around” of those items one no longer found useful – a natural “give and take” dynamic. Stuff naturally flowed out the back door into the lives of others without a thought of making a few bucks in the process.
And thirdly, on a somewhat related point, garage sailing has become a social outlet for many who have few meaningful connections with other people elsewhere. An adrenaline rush comes with zipping from one garage sale to another. And wouldn’t you know it, you keep running into the same people week after week! You might even get to know the first names of some. Now isn’t that nice – getting to meet real people in a casual setting down your street or around the corner! I don’t think it is accidental that we now meet most of our friends and neighbors in our garages. Once this happened naturally on our front porches where we spent our summer evenings. It was even quite common to invite friends and neighbors onto our porches for a visit or to greet those strolling by on evening walks. Now that garages have replaced front porches, we still reach out instinctively to others – only now it is through contacts in our garages. Too bad that we need to commercialize our garages to make such meetings legitimate.
I am not proposing that we ban garage sales. Although I think our streets might be somewhat safer if we did, especially at corners where hard-to-read signs appear by the dozen. But I do think it might be good for us to stop long enough to think about what we are doing. And then, perhaps, make a few adjustments in our lives that would eliminate the need for five months of garage sailing every summer.
One thing we could do is simply buy less stuff. Much of it is junk to start with, which only becomes more evident in our own garages when we put these same items on sale for a dollar or less. Buying less might help us resist being defined as consumers that keep the economic machine rolling. Buying and selling stuff is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.
But there are other things we might consider. How about intentionally developing a larger network of relationships and then passing on our surplus items to those within that circle who need them – without charge. That would likely be more fulfilling than making fifty cents here and there. And if that doesn’t work, how about dropping off our surplus items at a thrift store where profits go to charity and people can shop for used items in relative calm. And if we really want to get radical, perhaps we should consider replacing our garages with front porches. If we did, we might be surprised how much things would change – for the better. I suspect garage sales would become history.