Inside Columbia


Yard Bargains: Finding Unexpected Items at a Garage Sale

By Inside Columbia
yard bargains robinson

It’s a rite of spring.

Start with the shoes. Then go through the closets, picking just the right outfits. Add accessories. Then expand your search to the kitchen and the garage where some castaways hide out of sight, but not out of mind.

Call it spring cleaning. Eventually, you reach a fork in the road. Either bag it all for Habitat for Humanity or Upscale Resale or Goodwill. Or roll up your sleeves and have a yard sale.

We choose the first route, swifter and less complicated. Still, I enjoy wandering through neighborhood yard sales.

You never know what you’ll find at a yard sale. I’m not an expert, since I don’t work the sales religiously. But some people do. They scour newspapers. They search websites. They plan their weekend strategies like Sun Tzu. They rise with the turkey hunters and the milk trucks, and like an army, they do more before breakfast than most people do all day. Not me.

“The bargains are long gone,” I can hear the members of the Serious Yard Sale Society chide me. Still, I sometimes score a few keepers.

Professional yard salers, the ones who show up at 5:30 a.m., aren’t usually after a battered book of Byron. Neither was I, until a recent neighborhood yard sale stopped my bike ride and flipped on my OCD switch labeled “books.”

Every yard saler’s switch is unique. Like a fingerprint. And every yard sale is a psychological study. The sellers organize clues to their past and spread them on a grid for buyers to pick over like blackbirds. A carny of card tables and cardboard boxes serve up a mix of function and folly, kitsch and utensils.

Yard sales operate on the simple principle that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Over and over, yard sales offer the best proof that Elvis never left the building.

One yard sale stands out in my mind.

My eyes grew wide when I snagged a four-pounder. It may have been my best catch of the day, an 1853 Works of Lord Byron, complete and unabridged, even as it sat without a cover on its back and spine. That’s okay, when I’m 160 years old, I won’t have a cover on my spine either. I held it tight like a new toy, even though I knew that for the rest of my life, I won’t sit still long enough to get through its 1,100 pages. “Reference,” I whispered to myself, justifying the acquisition.

“Good selection,” the lady said as she accepted my money for books, including a collection of Jack London short stories, and a 719-page story that begins, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but…”

“I never read Gone with the Wind,” I blurted. “But I did see the first half of the movie.”

She looked at me with pity.

“The Byron!” I changed the subject, clutching the old book with both hands like it was the Stanley Cup.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “I’m an English teacher … ” She explained she was getting ready to act on her life’s goal and launch into serious creative writing. I wasn’t sure why she would want to get rid of these classics. But she is an English teacher. She probably memorized most of this stuff … sees it in her dreams. Now she’s changing course.

Many of life’s transitions are marked by yard sales.

I thanked her for the treasures, wished her success in her literary career and took off down the street on my bicycle, two bags of books hanging from my handlebars like the scales of justice.

I smiled to myself as I rolled up to my back door. It was only a split-second impulse that I even stopped at that yard sale. It was late afternoon, so my timing wasn’t good yard sale strategy.

Some day my family will have to dispose of my acquisitions. I hope these books find good homes, where their pages will get a workout and their backs and spines will wear.

Passing on knowledge is the most satisfying form of recycling. That and yard sales.

Excerpt from John’s latest book, Souls Along the Road.

John Drake Robinson is a former director of the Missouri Division of Tourism.More of John’s travel stories are available at

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