Northeast Minneapolis resembles the suburbs. The houses are tiny and pastel-colored, not in rows; the streets are wide enough for two-way travel, plus parking, plus bicycles, plus sidewalks, driveways, alleys. Corner stores and highrises are scarce. Abandoned storefronts don’t court fears of condominiums. And there are lawns, sizeable lawns, for storing toys and for playing bags and for selling off the excess.
Every weekend assorted neighbors pile old things on their lawn, tons of things they no longer use so that others may discover new treasures or find something functional. These old things—or stuff, crap, or shit, depending on who you talk to—become someone else’s new things, for a short while. The things from a family that has been foreclosed on become the kitchen prizes of bargain hunters, trash artists, Craigslist looters, and collectors who just want to drink beer from the traditional steins of Nordeast heritage.
“We’re selling furniture, crap, plants,” Robin says. “I dug out my garden; I’m selling all my plants. I gave away most of ‘em to the people I know so I can come back and enjoy them.” In 48 hours, Robin and her daughters will be on the road in the lamentable American tradition of Tom Joad.
Yard sales are universal. We had them before the current recession, before the Great Depression. They probably existed long before we had a nation or lawns. We will still have them when we colonize the moon. They are the most homegrown form of the human entrepreneurial spirit, if we believe that laissez-faire capitalism is the natural way of things.
And there is no place for Marxism at a yard sale. In the world we live in we sell what we have to make money because we can. Unlike selling soaps or vegetables or records or books, yard sales involve a gathering and purging of what we’ve already spent our money on. Holding a yard sale is more analogous to selling stock on Wall Street than it is to slaughtering and packaging the juiciest cuts of livestock.
There are no rules or regulations for yard sales. They are beyond the law, beyond tax structures, unless you live in Beverly Hills, where yard sales are strictly back lawn only. But here in Northeast, every summer weekend, dozens of families and homes hold yard sales out in the open, attracting serious buyers and passersby.
It is the second day of Robin’s sale, and the lawn is still congested with a house full of decades of living. The furniture is scratched; the toys, abandoned sheets of plastic.
“We were foreclosed on and they threw us out in a minute, and this is what we couldn’t pack, couldn’t take, so we’re having a closeout. We were living there for twenty years, and their dad owned the property since 1973, he lived there,” Robin says. Her voice is even, almost cheerful, and there’s no anxiety or stress surrounding the day of her sale. What’s packed is packed, and how much emotion can one person attach to a box of tools or a dresser that needs fixing?
“We’re getting out of an ugly situation so we’re just going to quietly disappear and relax and have a nice week. That’s our plan.” Whatever was in the house is on the lawn, or packed away. It will be years before her family can acquire enough extra to have another closeout.
Greg’s lawn is similarly crowded with racks of clothes, furniture, window blinds, and original paintings, and all the stuff reads utilitarian rather than emotional. A washer-and-dryer unit stands at the driveway’s helm, and an inkjet printer with infinite cords holds court in a pile of semi-outdated appliances.
Greg’s sister has provided the original artwork and a display of handmade beaded earrings. Together, they have been planning this sale for over a year. He says, “I need space in my house. Period. And, plus, not only am I giving things at a decent value, I also have a couple items for free so the community can benefit from that. It’s not doing me any good when it’s not doing anything.”
Northeasters hang tight onto the idea of reuse when discussing their sales. All sales are somehow about community benefit, something good for the world. These sales make space for the seller—space for themselves inside while opening up to their communities.
Some mention profit along with the earth-friendly angle, aping corporate giants who just adopted a “green program.” Brandon says, “It’s just recycling the items. It’s better than throwing them away, and it’s a way to get a little kickback from having the items stored for a year or so.”
The well-planned sales focus on department-store style displays that remove the thrill of digging. Spread out on tables he made out of old doors is Brandon’s collection of pubware: cocktail shakers and strainers, shot glasses, mugs upon highballs, corkscrews. There was more, but it was cleaned out by an early morning rush of home bar connoisseurs. “Drinking is pretty prevalent, apparently, in Northeast,” Brandon says.
Much of the material at the planned sales comes from thrift stores, estate sales, gathered up in alleys specifically for the purpose of being resold. Vintage glory carries as much clout as finding a bargain in this neighborhood.
Drew curated his garage into the living area of a mid-1960s one-bedroom apartment. Plush polyester couches, a stylish dinette, and pillows that would match hook rugs line his alley. An M.I.A. album blasts from a glowing stereo receiver, which is the focus of a gaze of mannequin heads and a rubber Dan Quayle mask. Svelte like Sedgwick, the whole area could be a movie set of a bachelor pad, but within twenty minutes, its appeal is picked off, piece by piece, by semi-stylish customers who seem, mostly, to be trying to furnish cheaply rather than swankily.
“In my free time, it’s estate sales. It’s a lifestyle. Wake up early, go find the cool stuff and hold onto it…All I can do is appease my own personal taste, and if I see something I know that belongs in a museum—it shouldn’t sit in someone’s garage—I have to take it and hold onto it for a year and then resell it,” Drew says. This personal sale is a bit of an accident; a planned vintage sale on popular 13th Avenue was shut down by the city.
Drew’s transactions remain collected and somewhat aloof. Rather than simply making space from a collection of junk, he knows the appeal of finding what looks impeccable. He says, “I’m of the persuasion that I’d like to live my short life around sexy shit.”
Sexy is available only selectively at the Northeast Minneapolis yard sale. Decidedly unsexy, but also for sale, are Stephanie and Rock’s collection of treetop Christmas angels, Casey’s familiar IKEA dressers, Scott’s giant plastic Wrestlemania poster, the bins of stuffed animals whose eyes follow you around the lawn, and the unavoidable tarp filled with jeans and graphic sweaters. Toaster ovens, which can be found at every single sale, are only sexy under the right circumstances. Most of what is sold is needless profusion from the compacting of life’s stories, gripping onto one memory or another before it’s resold.
At each sale, a good number of consumers look for treasure. At the one estate sale I visit, a woman rustles through the pockets of every dress in the closet, before the sale’s proprietor yells, “Please leave! You’re not going to find any money in there.”
At Opal’s* yard sale, a customer ignores the stuff-filled yard entirely, preferring to go inside the house to find items. Her friend brands these and other errant customers, “Weirdos,” which is a nicer epithet than most choose.
Pragmatically there is no real treasure to be found at any yard sale, only stuff which is temporarily useful. With proper effort, however, yard sale loot can be legendary. California antiques collector Rick Norsigian convinced us for a decade that he had found the lost negatives of Ansel Adams at a yard sale; despite the trademark infringement suit, Norsigian still stands as a model of American ingenuity and thrifty art fraud.
In all the yard sales I attend, there are few things that I could use, in fraudulent or legal ways. There are not many things I need, but there are a lot of things I could have, that would make my apartment funny or sexy or dynamic. I could fill my car with resold books that are rife with solutions like A Framework for Understanding Poverty, How to Stay Married for Life, or Always Believe in Yourself and Your Dreams. I could have a collection of Rollerblades and ice skates to make any true Minnesotan blush. I could buy a ceramic juicer, or a Pabst Blue Ribbon trucker’s cap, or a hula hoop. I could buy a desk that appears to be an exact replica of my childhood desk. Halfway across the country, a significantly less shopworn desk is in my parents’ house, where it was moved after it was not sold in my grandparents’ estate sale, where it previously resided as my mother’s childhood desk. I could buy the dingy doppleganger version of my mother’s desk to have here in Minnesota, but in all the sales, all I take home is a toaster oven from Robin and a white sundress from Greg’s sister.
A week after Robin’s yard sale is over, a tarp covers her deserted belongings in her neighbor’s yard. On the Sundays and Mondays after the sales, hiding in Minneapolis’s excellent alley system, are the unsold goods, the ones that have no new stories, the ones that are sent to the landfill. Charities accept some of what is left, but every sale includes remainders that failed to captivate their niche consumer: boxes of rusty knives, pairs of jeans with elastic waists, or piles of audio equipment trade magazines from the 1970. Paid contractors will remove the trash, and next weekend, someone down the street will hazard another sale to make space and a profit.