Shooting salads and other oddities

There are countless signs that spring is finally on its way: Seed catalogs in the mail, buds on the trees — and every weekend, without fail, yard sales. It’s a natural progression. The weather starts getting warmer, and homeowners and apartment dwellers, dustpans in hand, are suddenly itchy to rid themselves of everything from that set of salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like the state of Oklahoma to the once-beloved Partridge Family lunch box.

A yard sale benefits everyone involved. The seller succeeds in weeding out excess gewgaws and gets spending money in the process. And the shopper gets great prices on that long-sought-after ________ (you fill in the blank here; almost anything would be appropriate).

If you’ve never considered shopping on your neighbor’s front lawn — or some total stranger’s garage — make this the spring you leap into the fray.

To find the best yard sales, you’ll need to sacrifice a few hours’ sleep. Set your alarm for early Saturday morning. While you’re sipping that first cup of coffee, scan the classified ads — the best ones will give you not only the location and time of the sale, they’ll tease you with a short list of the items you’ll find there (tools, plants, boys’ clothes 2T-4T). These lists are your personal guides to the sales you can’t miss: Say, for example, you’ve always pined after a Salad Shooter (and are licensed to carry one, of course), then “small kitchen appliances” are your key words for success.

Hate reading the paper? Try just driving through neighborhoods, looking for signs — professionally or crudely lettered, on neat poster board or ragged flaps from cardboard boxes, stapled to telephone poles or planted proudly in the soil. Read them quickly as you drive by, taking care not to endanger your life in the process (this is a skill that comes with practice.)

Why do Americans have such a fascination with yard sales? That’s easy. We’re cheap. We don’t want to pay full price. We love a bargain. Why pay mall prices, when you can have “any article of clothing in this box for 50 cents”?

Then again, perhaps the real reason we love yard sales so much is that we love to pick through other peoples’ junk. It appeals to the voyeur in us all.

Where else but at a yard sale can you tell so much about a person? You can see what books they’ve read (“Paperbacks 25 cents each!”). You can even tell what kind of housekeeper they are. Are the clothes washed, folded, ironed? Are they in good repair, stacked in boxes neatly labeled “For Garage Sale.” Watch out. This seller is way too organized for her own good. Prices may be high. (This is the person you hated in high school — the one who always had her hand up with the answer and her homework neatly typed.)

For the most part, though, yard sales are, by their very nature, messy affairs. After all, you’re buying someone’s discards. Be prepared to get down and dirty.

You’ll have to trek across many a dewy expanse of fresh-cut grass, so (unless you’re partial to green) don’t wear your pristine white sneakers — wear old ones. Jeans are essential. You may want to get down on your knees to flip through a milk crate full of record albums — yes, actual LPs, and they usually go for a dollar or so apiece. (Who knows? You may find that rare Perry Como album that’s been missing for years from your collection.)

Dress in layers. The long-sleeved shirt that felt so good in the early-morning chill won’t be so appealing after you’re heated up from hiking steep driveways and haggling over prices. Wear a T-shirt underneath, so you can shed a layer. And a fanny pack for carrying your spending money is stylish and leaves both hands free to dig in boxes.

A travel mug is good. You’ll be out there a long time, and many a yard-sale host will be cradling a steaming cup of java as they make change and count their windfall. Some crafty homeowners even sell coffee, doughnuts and soft drinks — for exorbitant prices, of course.

Many types of folks frequent yard sales. College students root through albums, add to T-shirt collections, and purchase vintage clothing. Couples just starting out debate about choosing a dining-room set. Young mothers lovingly handle children’s clothing, checking those tags carefully for just the right size. And why not? Yard sales can be a gold mine of bargains on name-brand children’s play clothes (like Weeboks and Osh Kosh), often in mint condition.

Occasionally, you may find a yard sale that benefits a worthy cause. Civic groups and churches sponsor yard sales to raise funds and boost awareness of their purpose — to gather money for a family in need, say, or to send a group on an outing, or perhaps to start a scholarship fund. A sale of this nature leaves the shopper with not only a bargain, but a good feeling, too.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule as to what kind of neighborhood has the best yard sales. Sure, sometimes you might find a better quality of junk in more upscale areas, but the prices are likely to be higher, and the homeowners less receptive to haggling. Don’t be fooled by appearances. You may find the best deals on antiques or vintage clothing in less-affluent areas. And college students, eager for fast cash, host great yard sales. A slow cruise past the sale is usually the best way to select one that’s right for you.

Finally, a few traffic tips are in order. Parking at yard sales is often a nightmare. Be courteous. Don’t block the driveways of neighboring homes, and stay off the grass and flowers. Parking on busy thoroughfares can, of course, be dangerous. Be careful crossing the street, lest you be run down by some other anxious bargain hunter, craning her neck to get a glimpse of the bounty spread out on the lawn.

— additional reporting by Marsha Barber

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