THE FIRST SALE: A sun-baked corner lot, with four or six hulking old pieces of furniture out there plus the usual assortment of yard sale-y crap: old fitness props, the saddest holiday decorations, cookbooks promoting diets that have since been found to be profoundly lethal.
I had driven by the sale on my way home from church, and somewhere between executing a right turn and keeping up with my child's chatter about how she felt she ought to celebrate her half-birthday, I noticed a marble-topped dresser.
Inside a minute, I had found a place for it in the house, figured out what I'd displace to put it there, planned what it would store. A marble-topped dresser! It could be a bar. It could be used to hold dry goods and act as another work surface in our kitchen. With a bit of wit or irreverence, this piece could respect the old bones of our colonial revival foursquare without making the house feel like a museum piece.
All of this from a passing glance while saying, "No, for your half birthday, you get half a cake and we sing you half of 'Happy Birthday.' I am not renting you a Yo! Gabba Gabba bouncy house and requesting that the doctor who visits Toodee will be on it too."
When I finally got the husband and the child down for their afternoon naps, I grabbed my mom for some one-on-one time and yard sale-ing. My mom is my number one enabler: It was she who helped me haul home a white oak drop-leaf table someone had just left out in front of their apartment. Sure, the table was covered in eight layers of lumpy paint, in assorted shades of peach and maize, and the drawer that slid out of the center was broken, but that's why God invented incredibly toxic paint-stripping chemicals and stepfathers who glory at forensic furniture reconstruction.
I figured Mom would either abet me in this dresser daydream or unearth potential in some other hulking piece on the lawn.
When we got to the sale, I realized we would have been better off just sticking with the ten-second fantasy. The dresser was old, but "old" really isn't a synonym for "well made," no matter what anyone trying to sell you "heritage" anything says. Plenty of furniture manufacturers made crap furniture in the 1920s too.
The marble was stained and chipped, and slid precariously off the wide-open top of the dresser; the drawers were tacked together instead of joined via mortise and tenon, and they may have actually have remained in actual drawer shape by virtue of the many, many layers of full lining. There was a huge and splendid mirror that went with the dresser too, the kind of thing that Wednesday Addams would have wanted once she hit her teen years.
(At left: The general proportions, only imagine a mirror frame that is a lot heavier on vertical candle storage.)
I loved the piece for the sheer weirdness of the mirror and the lovely carved finish on the drawer fronts, but that marble was a lost cause and those drawers wouldn't stand up to the storage demands of a busy family in 850 square feet.
Still, it was a good yard sale because of who was running it. I ended up talking to the woman -- the stuff on the lawn had either been her very-recently-deceased uncle's, or it had belonged to tenants in the house. Her mother was agonizing over getting rid of that beloved marble-top dresser. She was ready to call Salvation Army right then, but she had promised her mom she'd stick around until 3.
So I stuck around and we chatted about the usual Bay Area stuff -- i.e. how insanely expensive it is to buy a house anywhere west of Stockton -- until more customers showed up, and left with "So great to talk!"
I hope her mom finds someplace to store that dresser. It was very well-loved and although I wouldn't pay $90 for it, I think it's invaluable to the right people.
THE SECOND SALE: A small bungalow in my old neighborhood, and I went mostly out of curiosity. The signs had listed it as an estate sale, which usually means that you get to wander through the house and paw through the belongings as you look for something good. I have been dying to see the inside of this place for nine years.
No such luck today -- the estate sale was held in the postage stamp of a front yard and along the driveway toward the back "cottage," i.e. 300 square foot studio building.
The merch was nicer, that's for sure. There were gorgeous old pieces of the same vintage as that poor, well-loved marble dresser -- an armoire whose polished cherry doors easily stretched four feet in either direction, a barrister's bookcase, a round pedestal table. And it was priced accordingly, from $100 to $1000.
What was remarkable was how absent the professionals were from this professionally run estate sale. I get that it was Sunday, the last day of the sale, and by this point, all the professional antiques dealers and eBay merchants and Etsy resellers have picked over the real stuff. But if it is your job to run other people's yard sales, then talk to the effing would-be customers. The two women who were running the sale couldn't even be bothered to look at me.
I've held a few yard sales in my time, and I can tell you, the key between getting your crap in someone else's hands and dropping it off at Goodwill often comes down to making a personal connection with someone. If you want people to part with their valuable money, you have to make them feel as though the transaction is going to add value to their life -- so you start by making it clear how much you value their time and attention.
I'm not a sales pro. (Indeed, it can be argued that as a member of the media, I am an expert in the exact opposite of making money.) But if I can figure this out and use it to make sales, why didn't the people whose job it is to run yard sales do this?
Man, if I hired that estate sales company to sell my stuff, I'd be furious. What was that homeowner paying for? They could have been sitting there all indifferent without losing a cut of the sales.
Here's the kicker: I can barely remember what any of those lovely, market-priced antique pieces looked like. But I am still seeing the details of that well-loved Wednesday Addams dresser in my mind's eye.
Good sales involves connecting with people and telling them a story -- or recognizing their story and telling them how you'll help it come true. It's too bad the pros couldn't be bothered.