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It’s Garage Sale Season

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. This rant I spotted on the funny Passive Aggressive Notes website recently made me laugh, because that’s a bit how I feel about garage sales, although I wouldn’t complain about it. 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 seem 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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