Sunday, September 29, 2019

What I Learned from Yard Sales

I picked up a wickedly pointed metal object from the dining room table, holding it by its hollow handle, and asked, "Mom, can we sell this garden trowel?"
She looked up from the box of file folders, staplers and paper clips she was sorting and said, "That's not a trowel, it's a bayonet. Give it to your father."

This was some thirty-plus years ago, when I went back to my parents’ house in Yardley, Pennsylvania, to prepare for a yard sale.

Before I arrived, my mother placed ads in the local papers, announcing a garage sale, featuring furniture, household goods and tools. The first customers showed up a little after eight on Saturday morning, while we were still finishing breakfast. They were so interested in what we had to offer that many of them helped us empty boxes, loading books, handbags, jewelry, office supplies and toys onto our folding card tables.

One of our best customers was Tony, of Tony's Auto Repair, the local AAA towing agent. Tony's wife cruised by early in the morning, and walked around back to my father's basement workshop. I was down there with him handling the cash and trying to make sure no one walked off with any of his dozens of hand tools. She looked around at the clutter, the piles of sawdust and metal shavings, and said, "I'm going to bring my husband back here. This is his kind of place."

Tony himself appeared around lunch time, and after scoping out the basement and the garage he bought a couple of wrench sets, a screwdriver, and my father's drill press. Tony's auto shop is next door to the insurance agency on Ferry street down by the river, one of the four streets that make up the center of Yardley. Before he left, he told my father that the insurance agent next door to him was looking for a circular saw, and that he'd send him by. Yardley was still a small town back then, where you know your neighbors and the kind of tools they're looking for. Even though the ad in the paper said the sale was from nine to three, we were still doing business at nine o'clock at night.

One of our late customers was a mechanical engineer who lived on Main Street in Yardley, a block south of the commercial center, which consists of a few dozen stone and clapboard buildings. Back then, we had five real estate brokerages, a grocery, a delicatessen, a state-run liquor store and a number of boutiques, insurance agencies and doctors' offices. The five and dime closed when I was a teenager, and the hardware and feed store at the corner by the traffic light was replaced by a real estate broker a few years back, as the area surrounding the town made the transition from rural to suburban.

The engineer was a referral, from a co-worker at the Navy turbine plant in West Trenton, just across the river. He bought the lathe, which took us nearly an hour to get unbolted from my father's workbench. I found out that my grandfather had built the workbench, something I'd never known. He was a good carpenter-- I knew he'd built the old back porch on our house, the one we took out when we built the big modern deck.

While we were carrying the lathe out to his car, I learned that the engineer had gone to Pennsbury High, as I had, and graduated in 1960. He was from Levittown, the suburban megalopolis on the other side of the highway, but he said he'd had a girlfriend in Yardley so he'd spent a lot of time there. That’s one of the reasons why I set the golden retriever books in a town that’s very much like Yardley, though a few miles farther upriver. So that as I did during those yard sales, Steve could run into old friends and their families, and people who shared his background.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Neil, I got to this delightful post via your post about it on Dorothy L, which is about your parents' stuff, from the baby grand in the basement to the china cabinets full of collectibles (in New York we call them "chotchkes") to the countless books, as well as the much less than six degrees of separation that I call small world stories. There's nothing to feel bad about in what some people call clutter, even if you never get around to that yard sale you've been talking about for decades. What I usually say if someone comments is, "We flunk feng shui, but it all says, 'Interesting people live here.'"

Merrilee Robson said...

My parents were the same, a result, I think of growing up in the depression. My father was always bringing home something he found that he though "might come in handy some day" or storing some broken thing that he thought he could fix. Clearing out the house when it finally sold was a nightmare. On the plus side, when I lost a small screw in my glasses one time, Dad said, "I think I have something that will work" went to the basement and returned with a screw that fit exactly!