The Magical World of Garage Sales

By Anna Mitchael

Puzzling It Together

It’s been over two decades since I was on the selling end of a garage sale. When I was a girl, every couple of years my mom and her sister would decide it was that time again. They’d designate a weekend and plan to get together for a sale. My aunt lived in the country (a fate that, at 13, I classified as worse than death), and so her sprawling yard was optimal for setting up tables with all of our no-longer-loved goods.

In the weeks leading up to the sale my mom would embark on cleaning out all the closets. Knowing I could keep the money from any of my items that sold, I would carefully comb through my possessions to decide what I was willing to part with. On the appointed day my mom and I would load the remainders from our lives into the car and drive to my aunt’s house. Inevitably, my father and brother would have other very crucial things — like changing the laces in their shoes — to do that weekend. When we arrived, we always discovered that my uncle’s shoelaces had given out at the exact same time. So, it was just us girls.

Sheets of pink and yellow square stickers were our companions for the 24 hours leading up to the sale. The night before we would stay up way too late with boxes of pizza and thick black markers, writing prices and then attaching them to our goods.

My mom and aunt taught me how to figure tangible prices, but they also passed on lessons about the actual value of objects. A yellow ashtray was not just a ceramic cigarette holder. It was that summer day they were playing tag in their childhood living room, and someone’s awkward adolescent arm swiped a table and sent the ashtray clattering to the floor. And, oh goodness, were they in trouble and had to clean the floors until they were spotless. But there was nothing messy about the memory. Now it was something they could laugh about until they cried, wiping tears from the corners of their eyes. The macramé plant holder that looked like a bunch of yarn to me was an almost-forgotten Christmas when everyone got one and no one was happy about it. There were children’s toys they decided at the last minute they couldn’t possibly sell, but then there were also last-minute additions my aunt suddenly remembered and sprinted into the house to retrieve.

The day of the sale was no different than the night before, in that my mom and aunt shared stories with anyone close enough to listen. We always had lemonade and water (not the bottled kind — this was before what came out of the faucet got a face-lift), and often strangers would linger over their paper cups, talking about other sales in the area and, if they were really on a roll, the great garage sale finds of their year or lifetime.

These sales went away eventually. I got older, and I guess my mom and her sister ran out of things they were willing to part with. I had not thought about the sales in ages until a few weeks ago, when I happened upon one. I saw the sign on the way to my son’s preschool, and after I dropped him off I thought, “Well, why not?”

The morning was unseasonably cold, like much of the spring we’ve been having in Texas. The sellers were sitting behind a table — a man and woman bundled under a shared quilt.

“Pretty cold to be out here, don’t you think?” the man said. I looked at his shoelaces, which were perfectly in place in his shoes. He could have learned a few things from the men in my family.

The woman told me to make sure and ask questions about any of the items, and so I found myself suddenly, desperately hoping a question might come up. I looked carefully through the items they had decided to sever from their flock of worldly goods. I flipped over old dishes and polished knickknacks so I could see the tags, remembering how important it is to draw the numbers with a steady hand so they are clearly legible and not up for debate.

Then at the far side of the sale a rather large picture caught my eye. Without thinking I cried out, “What is that?” and made a beeline for the item. The woman, who up until then had been content to chitchat from a distance, immediately stood up and met me at the picture.

“It’s so … different,” I said.

The picture was not art; it was actually a detailed puzzle that had been painstakingly put together and glued into a frame.

“It’s my dream shed,” the woman said. Her voice had taken on the faraway quality of the French back cottage that inspired the puzzle. I was thinking Provence, but maybe it was more Parisian, tucked away on the outskirts of the city.

She had held onto the puzzle for a long time, she said, hoping she would have a shed that looked like that one day. I imagined years of this woman pausing in front of the puzzle, taking moments out of her day to dream. I have always loved puzzles but have never had the patience to get past the first 50 pieces.

“Sold,” I said. I felt the $3 tag was inked just for me, and now the puzzle would be mine to love.

These days when I see it in my house, it makes me stop and think. Not about a dream shed but about resurrecting my family garage sales. From a distance the sales are easy to dismiss as someone’s leftovers, but when you get close to the good ones, you see there are stories passing from one person to another.

The transactions are much more than money changing hands. When the morning light hits them just right, they’re magic.