Mining for garage sale gold

For the consumate shopper, the prize is always just over the next driveway
Friday, August 1, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:07 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Lisa Smith has been picking through other people’s junk to find her own treasures for 10 years.

However, there’s a method to her madness.

First, Smith reads the classifieds and marks the garage sales within her target neighborhood. Then she puts the sales in order of opening times, because being on time is important. She goes Saturday morning and doesn’t go to any that were open Friday, since they’ve already been picked over.

This particular Saturday morning begins at 6:45 with two of her four children in tow.

First stop, 6:55.

One woman is already at the sale, and two more drive up as the Smith family walks into the garage. Digging through a variety of clothes, knicknacks and books, 7-year-old Emily Smith finds her treasure for the day — a slightly battered “101 Dalmatians” game titled “Spin for Spots.” She collects Dalmatians in every form, from cups to miniatures and stuffed animals. Garage price — 75 cents. Retail price — $14.99.

Lisa Smith chooses to shop in the southwest part of Columbia because she used to live there and is familiar with the area. During the summer months she rarely goes alone.

“The more the better,” Smith said. “It’s very social.”

She said her children enjoy it, despite the early mornings.

“It’s hard to get them up for school, but on garage sale mornings they pop up,” Smith said.

From the back seat of the car, Emily chimes in, “Garage-saling is more fun than school.”

Smith began her habit with three other mothers who shopped every Saturday morning, leaving a collective 17 children at home with their fathers.

“We had an unwritten rule at that time — no children. Because if one went, they’d all want to go,” Smith said. “We’d have a blast and laugh and talk. Years ago, the dads would have pancakes on the table with a favorite tablecloth and we’d have breakfast on china when we got back,” Smith said.

The pancake tradition and the no-kids rule have changed over time, but the pace of shopping hasn’t.

Second stop, 7:05 a.m.

Smith points out a medium-size box full of souvenir spoons from Kansas to Disney World, marked 50 cents per spoon.

“You know these had to cost a fortune. They’re at least $5 a spoon.”

The family walks away from this sale empty-handed, though Smith is optimistic about the morning.

“Hopefully we’ll get something great,” she said. “Maybe it’s coming.”

Something great might have many definitions, but for Smith it carries little latitude.

“Something we need or want that we’d be willing to pay full price for, but we find for 90 percent off,” she said.

Prices within garage sales vary considerably. Two weeks before, Smith purchased 10 copies of Architectural Digest for 25 cents apiece; the magazine sells for $5 in stores. Here they were on sale for $1 to $3 per magazine.

Third stop, 7:10 a.m.

“OK, girls, maybe this will be it,” Smith said.

Although once again there is a driveway filled with great deals, Smith said you can’t buy everything that’s well priced.

“If you’re not selective you end up with a lot of junk in your house,” Smith said. “It’s important to be selective.”

There’s a “Beauty and the Beast” book, written in French, that’s selling for 25 cents. Wal-Mart’s price on the English version is $7.97. There’s also a full-size comforter selling for $5, while a similar one sells for $20.84 on sale at Wal-Mart.

They get back in the car, with shoes that are getting continually more damp from the dew. Smith takes a sip of coffee, and it’s on to stop four.

One of her favorite garage sale triumphs revolves around a vegetable sink. The Smiths were building a new house and bought one at a hardware store for $98. Several weeks later, Smith saw one at a garage sale for $2. She offered $1, and bought it. They returned the first sink.

She says the best way to bargain is by offering a price, or saying, “Will you take this price for this item?”

“There’s no formula,” Smith said. “Obviously that sink was worth $2. I would have been glad to pay $2. She would have taken it to Goodwill, so at least she got a dollar.”

Smith said that the most important part of the transaction is that both parties are happy with the price and the transaction.

“Getting the good deal, bargaining, is not my favorite part,” Smith said. “It’s important that the seller feels like they’re getting a good deal. I certainly don’t want the seller to be frustrated.”

The fourth, fifth and sixth stops run from 7:30 a.m. to 8:02 a.m. Smith fingers some clothes, even picks several items, but isn’t sold on any of them.

“OK, we’re virtually done,” Smith said. “I guess we’ll just wander around, but that’s usually not very successful.”

This morning is ending more quickly than usual.

Seventh and last stop, 8:05.

There’s nothing of interest to the Smith family.

At 8:07, done for the morning. Total damage — 75 cents. Smith says she usually spends $10 to $20. The most expensive item she ever bought was a 12-place silverware setting for $20 that was still packaged.

Smith says next Saturday will be better.

“It adds to the excitement because you never know when you’ll have a fabulous day,” she said.

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