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Jennifer Graham

Yard sales: Free market takes its toll

Shoppers looked at items during a festival of yard sales in Virginia.

Scott Mason/The Winchester Star via Associated Press

Shoppers looked at items during a festival of yard sales in Virginia.

“CALL IT an estate sale,” my mother advised. “You’ll get more people.”

But the furniture we hauled out to the driveway was clearly yard-sale material in harsh sunlight, so honesty prevailed. Proceeds did not. By late afternoon, the remains were piled on the street with a “free” sign, trumpeting to all passers-by that our household is full of things that can’t fetch even 50 cents in the free market.

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Ironically, it’s the free market that’s to blame — not the unfettered one touted by Western economists, but the non-paying one fueled by Craigslist and Freecycle. The preponderance of stuff that is available for free is turning the yard sale, that quaint meeting of neighborliness, thrift, and commerce, into a four-hour rest stop while hauling out the trash.

Call it a tag sale, a barn sale, a yard sale, estate sale, whatever. Bill it and they will come, but today’s shoppers, the self-identified “yard sailors,” won’t necessarily give you any money, regardless of the quality of your stuff.

Scanning the free stuff on Craigslist recently, I found a woman pleading for someone, anyone, to help themselves to what was left of a three-family yard sale. It was in Wellesley, where the median house price was $1.26 million last year. It reminded me of an episode of “Sanford and Son” in which Fred admonishes Lamont to pick up better quality junk for their South Central Los Angeles salvage yard. “There’s junk, and there’s junk,” Fred said. “That stuff is junk junk.” I’m pretty sure there’s no junk junk in Wellesley, but even there, they can’t seem to give it away.

Could it be that the yard sale is dying, victim of an ever more efficient economy? Two decades ago, people combed garage sales on Saturday mornings, hoping to score an inexpensive book or piece of CorningWare. But when you can get the basics of life — brand new — for a dollar, at a retail store, any day of the week, the yard-sale crowd recedes.

When customers do turn up at yard sales, it’s easy to spot the professionals, the yard sailors for whom Goodwill hunting is not a movie, but a job. They’re not so much looking for bargains as they are for steals, snatching things they can flip for a profit at flea-market booths or on eBay. They lend a certain ickiness to an already icky process, that of assigning the most minimal value possible to the stuff in our lives. One of my offerings was an antique telephone table, lovingly refinished and handed down to me by my mother. When no one wanted it for $40 on Craigslist, I dropped the price to $20 at a yard sale, where someone looked at it thoughtfully for a few minutes, and then, as if negotiating a seven-year ARM over the Internet, cautiously asked if I would take half that amount.

Bill it and they will come, but today’s shoppers may not give you any money, regardless of the quality of your stuff.

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No, I would not. Dignity has a price. For me, it seems to be $10.

There’s a temptation to see the decline of yard sales as another cold snip to the fabric of Americana. But that particular fabric is a little shabby anyway, and modernity demands an upgrade. It comes in digital yard sales, where you can haggle from your recliner on websites like One Man’s Junk and community Facebook pages like one on the North Shore. And conglomerates still do a brisk business; my church recently made $17,500 at a congregation-wide yard sale in Hopkinton.

Ultimately, however, the biggest threat to yard sales is not the free market, but the stuff bubble, the catastrophic accumulation of junk that occurs in a nation reverberating with four dangerous words: “It’s only a dollar!”

The stuff bubble is still aloft — the GDP numbers for the second quarter came in higher than expected — but it can’t stay up there forever. We are under assault by round-the-clock free and nearly-free goods. Our closets bulge. Our cupboards groan. We need to have a yard sale.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.
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