Used Stuff: Treasure or Junk?

Why some people salivate over used items and others avoid them like the plague.

Posted Sep 17, 2020

Different strokes. Ever wonder why some folks go ape over even the idea of attending a garage/yard sale, visiting the thrift store, or being first in line for an estate sale, while others avoid them like the plague? 

 Pexels
Source: Pexels

My first exposure to garage sale frenzies was when my daughter was small and her dad delighted in making a beeline to whatever neighborhood yard sales were taking place. He grew up under modest circumstances, so to him, garage sales were about “making a deal” for something he might not otherwise have been able to afford when it was new.

My enthusiasm for these outings was diluted. I realized at one point that I had always been a targeted shopper, focusing on finding one or two things I wanted in particular. To this day, “window shopping” is a hobby I rarely engage in unless I have a girlfriend in tow to keep me from getting bored. It was always a matter of finding the perfect sweater in the perfect size, the coolest in modern accessories for my dinner table, or boots with just the right height heels. 

As my daughter became a teenager, she began rejecting clothes at mall retail stores, hated the clothing at Target, and deemed everything overpriced and of low quality. We would shop all day and come home with nothing to show for it. She begged me to take her to thrift stores, where she would filter through racks and racks of clothes for items that looked vintage-interesting. Upon entering the store, I would inhale the musty-smelling clothing. Soon I was waiting outside for her, feeling no interest in any “gems” that lay hidden in the tightly-loaded racks.

I began wondering at one point why a number of people are like me and others salivate at the idea of discovering “finds” nested in piles of what I call junk and they call treasure. I realized I am a purger by nature, regularly “weeding” out closets and cabinets for items of no nostalgic value or for things I have not touched for several years. And yes — I am willing to wait in line in my car at a thrift store drop-off with garbage bags full of cast-offs stuffed in my trunk.

In doing a bit of research for this post, I found that there is a garage sale subculture and science I knew little about from the standpoint of the seller. In his 2015 Psychology Today post "Garage Sale Tactics," Jason Feirman points out how every year, more than 9 million garage sales take place in the United States, where $19 billion worth of consumer-to-consumer online auctions occur.

“Many of the sold items have personal stories and private meanings attached to them,” says Feirman. He speaks of a study done in Australia where 11 garage sales across the country and 39 online auctions were analyzed in order to uncover how possessions migrate across seller-buyer boundaries, resulting in three paths meaningful possessions take as they change hands.

The first was how a common identity facilitates a sense of shared self between the seller and the buyer. “The buyer is able to depart with an important possession knowing that it can still maintain its positive meaning with someone else,” says Feirman. In the case where the seller is not crazy about the item they are trying to sell, however, often those items are associated with negative private meanings — perhaps a former life best forgotten, an unwanted gift, something that belonged to a deceased loved one, or a conflict such as a fight with siblings over a family possession. 

Yet a third involved a variety of “divestment rituals,” geared to manipulating the meaning of a possession. “Without performing this process, shedding the item is emotionally difficult,” says Feirman of some sellers. He uses the example of a woman having her wedding dress professionally cleaned and then putting it up for sale, having “washed away” traces of herself from it, in turn making it easier to make it more of a marketplace commodity.

Interestingly enough, placement of such items within the sale itself seems to have meanings as well. For instance, sellers will position meaningful possessions apart from other items for sale, according to Feirman, who says, “Often, the researchers found, a seller's most prized possessions are displayed along the interior walls of an attached garage.” He refers to it as “symbolic clinging,” showcasing how the seller is reluctant to get rid of the item.

In my eagerness to find similarities between shoppers and non-shoppers of items with experience, I used social media for research. I posted a photo of a garage sale accompanied by the caption, “Garage sales. Swap meets. Estate sales. Thrift stores. I know a lot of people who are drawn to them like flies and have found treasures there. I drive by them with literally no curiosity about them. Where do you stand?”

The answers I got were all over the map, but I did find some themes:

Some are altruistic. “I used to frequent them when my kids were small and pick up items to re-sell so they could use the proceeds for a field trip or a fundraiser.” She also used them for school projects she involved herself in. Another said that she did this to donate the money she earned (after re-selling it) to a non-profit cause she believed in. And I would be remiss if I didn't include someone who said that they shopped at garage sales because of a limited budget, and that buying discounted used items helped them stay within their means.

“There’s a couple reasons I can think of,” says another friend. “Some people are addicted to the ‘chase’ of a good deal. I also think it’s based a lot on style choices. If you love modern looks then you will never find anything at a garage sale. If you love mid-century modern or other vintage and nostalgic items, [then] what better place than a garage sale?” Like a few others who responded, this person no longer delights in attending certain types of sales. “Now estate sales just creep me out,” she says, along with a few others.

There are always a few high-end shoppers as well — some looking for clothing and others looking for crystal, china, or art objects. “I look for vintage, upscale designer items. It’s like treasure hunting,” says another respondent, who says her goals are to find gently-used coats or dresses from the 1940s. It made me recall a visit to LA, where my daughter lives and frequents vintage clothing stores in certain parts of Hollywood. Having accompanied her to one, I found a couture French label blazer hanging at the end of a rack that ended up fitting me to a tee. I still consider it a prized possession.

And then there are those who generally don’t go to garage sales but stumble across something of which the owner of the item is naive.  An artist I know offered this happy tale: “I was driving by a yard sale once and spotted a framed painting from about 50 feet away I turned my car around and asked the woman her asking price. She said that she thought the frame was worth $1. So I gave her the dollar, but told her to keep the frame. As it turned out, it was a 19th-century piece of folk art — a landscape that a famous Chicago artist praised when he saw it hanging on my wall, where it is still displayed today,” he regaled.

I had a similar experience when looking for an area rug on Craigslist. I found a modern carpet just the right size with all the right colors to place beneath our dining room table and paid the asking price of $330. When I took it to get it cleaned, I was told it was an authentic vintage Tibetan rug worth thousands. Although the revelation was surprising, I bought simply because it fit the bill I intended it for.

In the end, most of those who love the hunt for previously owned items (some picked up the habit from their parents), and those who said they were (like me) more about giving used things away than buying them, do not change camps. With some it’s a pastime, even if they come home with a tiny trinket or two. As for me, I held two garage sales in my 40s — a few decades back. After a night of preparation, the result was my accepting pennies on the dollar — both insulting because I knew what they were worth, and relieving because they were hauled away. My interest in holding them waned quickly.

My second partner in life used to be a frequenter of art auctions and estate sales, and today our living room is filled with some Japanese modern antique pieces I have come to adore. Who'd a thunk I would end up with "used stuff" in my house? As for how my daughter turned out (even though she had a mom who hated looking for used clothing), she became a premier seller of vintage clothing on eBay, turning that success first into a website that included “vintage-inspired” stuff as well, and in the process made her a serial entrepreneur. So perhaps I don’t regret all those smelly clothing trips after all.