Garage Sales: Markets, Gift-Exchanges, Both?

Now that summer is fully underway in North America, you can be sure to find garage sales (or “yard sales,” as some Americans call them) in your neighborhood on most Friday and Saturday mornings. From their initial popularization in the ‘60s, their rise to cultural ubiquity in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and up until today, garage sales have shown themselves to be fruitful objects of study for anthropologists and ethnographers interested in the social interactions and relationships formed between American neighbors.

The basic rules of the garage sale seem obvious to anyone who has ever held or been to one: sellers open their houses, yards, and garages to the public and place price tags on items they would like to get rid of; buyers find an item they want, perhaps haggle a little over its price, and then exchange money for it. Even though they take place in private and informal spaces like individual homes, garage sales appear to operate exactly like other markets: commodities are exchanged for cold, hard $$$.

A closer inspection, however, reveals that this “garage sale as market” model might not be the best one with which to fully account for the prevalence of garage sales in America. Gretchen Herrmann, an American ethnologist at the State University of New York, Cortland, questions the dominance of this market model in an article she published in the aptly-titled journal American Ethnologist: “Gift or Commodity: What Changes Hands in the U.S. Garage Sale?” After visiting nearly 2,000 different garage sales and conducting interviews with hundreds of buyers and sellers, Hermann postulated that a more accurate model of garage sales should incorporate the gift-giving which frequently takes place at them.

Herrmann found that, in most cases, garage sales generally only generated a trivial amount of money for the sellers—usually not even enough to off-set the labor costs of setting-up and organizing the sale in the first place. Items are usually priced at “give-away” prices, where the amount charged ($1 for, say, a blender or a pair of shoes) is simply nominal—the asking-price is used to “grease the wheels” of a gift-giving interaction between strangers or semi-strangers, who would otherwise feel uncomfortable giving each other gifts of used items. Hermann shows that many garage sale proprietors are aware of this dynamic, at least to some degree, and often modulate prices on-the-fly based on the perceived need of the buyer.

Price reductions are not the only gifts being given in garage sales, however. Hermann points out that many buyers make “gifts” of gratitude or personal information to sellers as part of the interaction. Many of these gifts involve the individual histories of the used items being purchased: “This was your grandmother’s rug? Oh, that’s wonderful, it will look so gorgeous in my dining room.” The knowledge that a particular item will be appreciated in its new home and that its story and history is known by its new owner is often of great value to a seller.

A piece of practical advice emerges from this study for those looking to get the most out of garage sales this summer. If you want a deal, share a piece of yourself with the seller. Show an interest in the history of the item, and share its planned future with them. Garage sales are held in homes, not in shopping-malls, after-all. Although many garage sales look like typical markets, complete with price tags, cash registers, and other browsing customers, sometimes a story goes further than a five-dollar bill.

You can read Hermann’s article here.