Letters From The Editor: Scenes from a garage sale

We returned from vacation to learn our neighbors were organizing a group garage sale the next morning.

Did we want in? asked one.

We did. Need the space, we said.

Our tidy block of tiny homes was to become an open-air bazaar — OK, a flea market — where shoppers would stroll among unwanted waffle irons and Christmas sweaters.

The neighbors were excited, and we couldn't resist their enthusiasm. That's because we live in cottages — most less than 1,000 square feet — constructed in the 1920s with closets built for the modest consumer habits of that era.

In my house we've never been big on stuff. We are the opposites of pack rats, whatever that is. (Minimalist mice?)

But we have a book- and puzzle-loving child whose grandparents spoil her, and that means our closets and drawers overflow with the under-used results of good intentions. And we do like books — you know, the kind that are printed on paper and bound.

So early that Saturday morning, most of the folks on the block hauled out the unwanted junk. My family's contribution consisted of barbecue tools, a lightly used exercise ball, some old chairs, an Easy-Bake Oven, wine glasses, toys, the aforementioned waffle iron and assorted bric-a-brac that may or may not have been on our wedding registry.

The neighbors hauled out their clothes, oversized prints, compact discs, DVDs and other 20th century relics.

Organizers did minimal advertising: a few signs posted on nearby streets, a classified ad, but when the sale started about 7 a.m., it was amazing how many, um, customers appeared. They came with cash, big pickups and surprisingly strong haggling skills.

Many of our items sold. Many did not.

But what made the day was something I didn't expect. We bonded with the neighbors.

My daughter sold doughnuts, Girl Scout cookies and croissants. Another neighbor brought the coffee. That helped break the ice.

The conversation among the residents flowed as we all walked over to each other's driveways to eye each other's stuff. As it turns out there were stories behind all of these unwanted goods. Life stories. And by hearing neighbors joke about an old Pink Floyd record or a little-used stair climber we got to know a little more about them, what they liked, and what they can live without.

Our junk says something about us. Belongings have cultural currency, showing that at one time we thought, say, that it was important to buy a Tiffany lamp or a spatula from Williams-Sonoma. Or that country and electronic dance music can coexist in the same music collection. Or that the guy down the streets owns a strangely sweet collection of rom-coms — on VHS.

A garage sale can also reveal business prowess — or, in my case, a lack of it — and other personality traits. One nice neighbor turned into a hard bargainer, managing to hold her prices, or get close to asking. Another woman produced 20 (!) pairs of shoes on sale for $20. Did she have any left to spare?

Someone asked me how much I wanted for the slightly used Easy-Bake Oven and I replied, $10. The potential buyer was so put off he just walked away, and my neighbors later told me I was crazy for not chasing him down and asking for $5.

Toward the end of the day, the neighbors began sharing the unsold items. We ended up with a pretty decent vacuum. We gave away that exercise ball.

And then I rounded up the unsold items from all of the houses and took them to a local charity, where the volunteers were happy to have what we couldn't sell. That made me feel good.

Though a couple of neighbors raked in $500, we didn't earn much that day, maybe $50 or $60, but what we lost in potential earnings we gained in relationship-building and neighborhood pride.

And now we can close the closet doors.

JOHN CANALIS is the editor for the Daily Pilot, Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot and Huntington Beach Independent. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and john.canalis@latimes.com.

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