Garage Sale Left Over, Ottawa, June 2012

Don’t be surprised if one Saturday morning, you wake up to a busier-than-usual street with cars parked on both sides or if your neighbour seems to have taken the garbage out too early—it’s garage sale season.

Canadians love garage sales. At least they certainly seem so, to an extent that sometimes confuses me. I guess this is another one of these cultural differences.

Just the name of the event is funny culturally speaking: French have “vide greniers” (literally “empty attics”) while Canadians have “yard sales” or “garage sales.” In France, few people have a yard or a garage, and junk is usually stored in the attic. But in Canada, there is no attic, junk is stored in the yard or in the garage (which is probably why so many cars end up being parked on the driveway all year long!). Interestingly, apparently, in the UK it’s called a “car-boot sale”—I guess Brits have neither a garage, a yard nor an attic!

Homemade signs affixed to lampposts or to community mailboxes are typically the way to spot an upcoming garage sale. Some houses fly solo after spring cleaning, but it’s more common to see a block or a street sale. And depending on the neighborhood, the event can be quite large. For instance, in Ottawa, the Glebe’s annual garage sale is a community event that attracts thousands of buyers, collectors and curious passers-by, mostly because it’s somewhat of a posh area and it’s a very walkable district close to downtown.

Canadians take garage sales seriously, and they typically start bargain hunting very early in the morning—I’m talking 6 a.m. or earlier on weekends. I’m not a morning person (most people in Ottawa seem to be) and I would never get up at sunrise on a Saturday to sort through someone’s junk but hey, that’s just me.

Indeed, garage sales go hand-in-hand with spring cleaning, which is why you are more likely to spot a broken vacuum and a flimsy WalMart bookshelf on driveways than a pound of gold and Star Wars collectibles. But people head there with the “Storage Wars” spirit. In the A&E series, teams of bidders are looking to score it big in the high-stakes world of storage auctions. In Ottawa, overzealous buyers can come knocking at your door at the crack of dawn to steal the deal.

Sellers throw garage sales with the same enthusiastic spirit, but there is a limit to “turning your trash into gold” and buyers aren’t usually very interested in the ubiquitous piles of old National Geographic every household seems to hoard. Never mind, households tend to have a lot to sell because Canadians are good consumers and spend a lot on accumulating junk. We are not talking antiques here, but old Canadian Tire furniture, piles of paperback books and magazines, outgrown sports equipment, computer monitors, board games, toys, etc.

Most households expect to get rid of said junk and make some money in the process. But when trying to convince early birds to buy used items at inflated prices didn’t work, a lot of people put up “free!” signs on the items and abandon them in their yard, which means “please sometimes drag away my old broken BBQ set so that I won’t have to.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Last Saturday, Feng and I went to the charity store to drop off some old clothes (that we had barely attempted to sell) and noticed a huge lineup of garage sale organizers bringing in their junk too. In a way, garage sales are a lesson in entrepreneurship: selling stuff isn’t as easy as it seems!

Are garage sales worth the effort? Certainly not for us, as sellers—we don’t own that much in the first place. I go through my old clothes once in a while and donate the “oops, shouldn’t have bought that” to charity, that’s about it. As buyers, we got a few items a while ago, such as a table and chairs (and yes, some National Geographic magazines that ended up in the recycle bin a few years later). But again, we don’t own much and don’t need more junk so I don’t feel like bargain hunting.

Ever been to a garage sale? Ever thrown a garage sale? Do you like these kinds of events?


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  1. Mr.G June 20, 2012 at 8:26 am

    My interest for Garage Sales changed with time.

    During my first year in Canada they were a “must”. It was the place to go to get all the stuff I needed for my new home: affordable and convenient you are always able to get interesting stuff (and gets even better if you know how to p[lay the “second round” card… but more on that some other day!)

    As time went by my interest for Garage Sales started to decline. I did not have an urgency or need for used stuff, my finances got better so I was able to buy new and,. at some point, I was not bale to find interesting Garage Sales anymore.

    You can ask for the famous Glebe one. IMHO, it’s just a good excuse to go see some freaks selling overpriced junk.

    Now I think you gave me an idea for a post…


    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:48 pm

      Come to think of it, that kind of describe our situation too. We were happy to buy a few items when we were very poor a few years ago but now, it doesn’t worth the trouble… not that we are rich though!

  2. Cynthia June 20, 2012 at 9:17 am

    I actually love selling stuff at garage sales, I set really low prices so must of the stuff is gone by the end of the day and there’s 100 to 200 CDN lining my pockets 🙂

    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      Wow, you must be a good seller!

  3. Jeruen June 20, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Oh garage sales are something I still fail to comprehend. I wonder why would someone want used stuff like that? I can understand it if we’re talking about furniture and other big products, but sometimes, I see the things they sell on garage sales and for me, those are just junk and trinkets.

    Perhaps it is because I am so used to moving (I’ve moved domiciles 8 times already, all of them international), that I tend to be minimalist in my house, and not keep junk. After all, it’s costly to have to ship junk across wide expanses. So I tend to have minimal property. And I am aware that this seems to be the exception.

    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      Like you, I have very little “junk” at home and I’m always impressed by the things people hoard at home.

      I don’t mind second-hand stuff but you are right, there is a difference between second-hand and junk!

  4. Elisabeth Stewart June 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Although my garage is full of junk (most of it not mine – somehow it’s become a storage place for other peoples’ stuff) I would never have a garage sale. I’d rather give it all away – and will if people don’t get their stuff out fairly soon. I guess I’m lazy – the thought of pricing and putting junk out front and possibly ending up having to put it all back – has no appeal for me.

    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      I don’t even bother trying to sell clothes, I just give them away, so I understand you perfectly.

  5. barbara June 21, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Hi Zhu,

    You are making me smile and remember these quaint practices. I can also add another cousin to the garage sale the “Estate sale” when the contents of a home are being cleared following a person’s passing away(often by the children).My cousins had one a few years back.

    I neither are attracted to rumaging inside someone’s “stuff”. In France, I never do vide greniers. Not my cup of tea, though people are crazy about that.

    To each hs own 🙂

    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:51 pm

      I’m surprise you don’t do vide-grenier, a lot of expats in France are really into it. But again, you aren’t really an expat, you are more French than I am!

  6. shionge June 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    In Singapore it is known as flea market and some expatriates going back will advertise as garage sale 🙂 I have never sell my stuff but my sis-in-law did and it is interesting to know that she manage to sell off some of her stuff really quicky 😀

    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:52 pm

      Considering how much S’pore seems to like to shop, I’m not surprised 😆

  7. barbara September 5, 2012 at 2:57 am

    Hi Zhu,
    I think that I might need several suitcases or a really big one if I want to take home some garage sale souvenirs :).
    I am wishing you well as we ease into Fall. I am sorry that we will not be traveling towards ON. We will only be heading east this time, between QC & NB. Take care and see you soon.

    1. Zhu September 5, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      Hi Barb,

      No worries, it’s a big country and I can perfectly understand the timing to meet isn’t right! I haven’t been to Paris (or through Paris) in a while myself. I do hope you will enjoy Canada though! Let me know if I can help in any way.

  8. Gagan March 28, 2015 at 2:11 am

    I loved your marketing wisdom “In a way, garage sales are a les­son in entre­pre­neur­ship: sell­ing stuff isn’t as easy as it seems!” well said!

    It is quite interesting, for an outsider. I saw this on ‘Modern Family’ as well, interesting. I would definitely like to walk-in at least once into one of these things, maybe just for the heck of it.

    1. Zhu March 28, 2015 at 11:25 pm

      You don’t even have to wait for a garage sale, on garbage day (garbage are picked up once a week at the curb in Ottawa) people put out all kinds of stuff for free. Saw two sofas today, in excellent condition!

      1. Gagan March 29, 2015 at 7:40 am

        LOL, I am speechless

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