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Down to Business: Garage sale's success may be sign of the times

Down to Business: Garage sale's success may be sign of the times

The air hockey table went first, to an “early bird” who wanted to make sure no one beat her to it. B

The air hockey table went first, to an “early bird” who wanted to make sure no one beat her to it. But there also were buyers for the dozen canning jars, the weight bench, the kid’s wagon, the toy box — each one a welcome surprise.

It was the second year they all had been offered at the summer garage sale, a one-day event organized by the civic association that plans family-friendly fare in my suburban neighborhood.

Last year, we almost unloaded the air hockey table, but wound up lugging it back to the basement. Not so the canning jars, weight bench, wagon and toy box: They simply were passed over.

So what was different this year, I wondered between waves of “customers” who arrived in car, truck and minivan. It was a gorgeous Saturday in August, same as last year. The sale had been advertised via Web and print, same as last year. Some 75 addresses were featured on the “official” map and flier for buyers, about the same as last year. But this year, we had fewer leftovers when the sale ended.

Did the economy play a role? Maybe. The recession that began in December 2007 hasn’t been assigned an end date yet, and just last week the Federal Reserve expressed concern that the recovery may have slowed. That would seem ripe for putting buyer and seller together at garage, yard and flea sales, the buyers to snag merchandise cheaply, the sellers to earn cash from cast-offs.

I can’t tell you, though, whether tough times have added to the volume of garage sales, since statistics are hard to come by — even in communities that require organizers to obtain a permit.

In Rotterdam, where garage sales are limited to three days each and to just two a year, the town clerk’s office says the permits are lumped in with miscellaneous items and not tracked separately. In Schenectady, the city clerk’s office could find only limited data in the computer (July-December 2009: 129). In Watervliet, the information is handled solely by someone on vacation.

And while I was able to get a year-by-year breakdown from the city of Glens Falls, the picture produced by the numbers was fuzzy. In 2005 — pre-recession — the number of garage-sale permits sold was about 25 percent higher than the total seen in either 2008 or 2009.

So maybe we were able to move more merchandise this year because we chatted up browsers or rotated displays of skates, skis and bikes to draw attention. Or maybe it was the rock-bottom prices — 5- and 10-cent stickers galore and a “free” bin to boot. (The pricing didn’t stop one curmudgeon from offering a quarter for a tackle box-size makeup case marked at 50 cents.)

Having so many sales concentrated in one place at the same time probably helped, too. That tactic seems to work for Warrensburg, which has been staging what it calls “The World’s Largest Garage Sale” over a weekend in the fall for three decades.

But just as likely was the allure of finding something valuable in the flotsam. It’s a now-popular story line on cable TV, with shows like “Pawn Stars” (a three-generation shop in Las Vegas) and “American Pickers” (two guys poking around old barns for treasures). In production for the fall is “Storage Wars,” where the contents of repossessed storage units go to the highest bidder.

No matter what drew buyers’ interest at our sale, I’m just glad the air hockey table, canning jars, etc., are no longer my storage problem.

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