The Godfather: Peter Corris on the death of the garage sale
Do you remember the boot sale, when cars pulled up in municipal car parks and displayed items for sale at cheap prices from the back of the vehicle plus, perhaps, a small folding table? Some of the cars hauled trailers but this was thought to be not quite right. No doubt some of the objects on sale had been acquired for the occasion but, especially at small-scale events, there was a ring of integrity – these were things to be got rid of to those who wanted them.
The garage sale was similar. In many cases it was a Saturday-morning feature with the goods – furniture, clothes, CDs, video cassettes, books, toys, and so on – stacked outside the house, on the footpath or in the front garden. The hope of each seller was that there would be enough bargain-seekers in the neighbourhood or, if some advertising had been undertaken by radio or newspaper, from further afield.
The exercise was brilliantly satirised in Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious movie Borat (2006) when the bemused traveller automatically assumes that a woman selling items on a table outside her house is one of his sworn enemies, a gypsy.
Jean and I arranged a garage sale at our house in Bellambi on the south coast as we prepared to move to Sydney. We put some work into it, with a newspaper advertisement and posters scattered around the area. The morning dawned bright and clear, the first requirement for success. Brightly coloured balloons on the gatepost, the gates opened dead on time, a swept path, no barking dogs, middle-of-the-road music playing, an air of welcome. We had clothes on racks, furniture, books – spines displayed – sporting goods, household items, tools, all attractively presented in the driveway and back yard. Major items were price-ticketed and other things subject to negotiation. Our grandson Vincent, aged then about seven, conducted sales and made change.
The event was a great success, with almost everything on offer being sold with a gratifying cash return.
Several years later, after a time in Sydney, we decided on a final exit from Bellambi and mounted another sale with quite a few substantial things, such as bargain furniture and a lot of accumulated detritus not needed because we would be downsizing. Our campaign was much the same as before but the result was a disaster.
Unlike the former event, when buyers queued before the announced time, the crowd was sparse and most of the stuff remained unsold. The only substantial sale was of a scarcely used barbecue – a bargain at the price.
We ended up ferrying many of the unsold goods to a nearby second-hand store and some went to the tip.
Why the change? The unanticipated answer was clear. In the years between the first and second sales, eBay had taken over the market and with the click of a key it had swept the feet from under the neighbourliness of the garage sale with its elements of inquisitiveness, gossip and bargaining. Digital, impersonal, online commerce had arrived, for better or for worse. The very few garage sales I see now have a sad, defeated look. I remember that feeling, but I also remember the first event when the punters came into the house seemingly prepared to buy everything that didn’t move.