Monday, May 01, 2006

Priced to move

Yard sales can be lots of fun, but you shouldn’t put a fundraiser in charge of pricing.

More to the point, you shouldn’t put someone who enjoys giving away money (as I do) in charge of determining how much money comes in from the aggressive sale of everything from ladies’ skirts to old vegetable steamers (yes, one actually sold).

One spring day, our family was a Selling Machine. We teamed with our next-door neighbor on Linden Street in Hamilton and had a two-home yard sale from 8 a.m. to 12 Noon. It was a Saturday, and the weather was a little better than forecast: mixture of clouds and sun with a high in the low 50s. We hadn’t planned far in advance; our neighbor told us about five days prior that she was doing one, and we decided to join in.

What with my growing up in New York City, families didn’t do yard sales. The closest thing to this suburban ritual in the City is a drug-crazed transient with an old blanket on a street corner, selling various items, one of which looks strangely like a cable-knit sweater swiped from you while picnicking in Central Park six months earlier. (That happened to a friend of mine. I think she had some bargaining room.)

I, for one, was concerned about security, so instead of a cash box, we used fanny packs, and since we have three young sons, and since uniformity and parity are more important than pragmatism or reality, we had to borrow five fanny packs from various neighbors. Neon yellow poster board signs, meticulously written up by my architect wife, announced from surrounding telephone poles that we would be open for business.

We had been warned by friends that people show up early. Our first customer (about an hour before we opened) was – I learned later – a dealer. I was soon to discover that getting mugged in Central Park is a lot like getting mugged in your driveway, except in the latter case you’re a lot closer to your refrigerator and the bathroom.

Dear Reader, I had “priced things to move,” having been advised by these Same Friends to do so. What I didn’t know was what the market would pay for some of these things were they to be displayed in an antique store where the purveyor offered espresso and played Mozart over the Bose sound system. My wife, Karen, the Super Shopper of the family, was horrified beyond words – though she didn’t lack for the perfect words while communicating with me later – when she saw that I had priced some artwork at $2 (yes, Two, as in the integer following One). She reminded me, and anyone else who answered their phone later that afternoon and into the next day, that this was the same value I had affixed to the unused Child-Proof Toilet Seat Lock (“Yes, honey,” I retorted, “but it retailed for $8.00!”).

Infraction #2 came a little later, when three men Karen said later were no doubt shopping on behalf of a local second-hand store approached me to purchase the Peg Perego Prima Pappa high chair. This item my wife had spent at least 45 minutes the previous day scrubbing with bleach and cleaning the nooks of with a pipe cleaner. She had made a special sign, beautifully crafted, showing the original price of $185. (I think I will remember this original price longer than I will remember my birth year, if the number of times I heard it yesterday is any indication.) We had it priced at $30. The negotiator of the three men offered $20, and I took it. No comeback like, “Would you split the difference,” or, “Let me check with my wife; she knows about this chair,” or “Do you have a fast car? I just sold some artwork for $2 and need a getaway vehicle...” Just accepted his bid.

When Karen and I exchanged words, my only comeback - as Store Manager - was, “No fighting on the sales floor,” knowing that my performance evaluation was soon to come and no merit pay increase would I enjoy by the Board of Directors, of which she is Chair.

Yet, despite it all, we had fun. Stuff I was sure would sell (my Donna Karan jacket and suit, or the Peg Perego stroller) were barely looked at. Stuff I was embarrassed to put out seemed to strike a fancy; id est, one ancient and slightly rusted vegetable steamer. Go figure.

The night before, the boys and I guessed how much we would make. I said $150; Carter (age 7) said $200, Bennett (5) said, “a thousand and 88 dollars.” We made a little over $400.
Our customers were all looking for a bargain, and I guess I was in their mood.


This was a Readers' Choice reprint. For this essay and others like it, watch this Spring (2007) for "LULLABYE: Memories, Madness, and Midnight Snacks" by Howard Freeman. Get on the pre-publication offer mailing list at Ten (10) percent of the profits are being donated to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

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