06/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Yard Sale Economics

Painted garden gnome: two dollars. Play Station 2: forty-five dollars. Assorted dishes and cookware: one dollar each. Winter coats: ten dollars. This Memorial Day weekend, out came the folding card tables and handwritten signs, lawn chairs, tarps, and boxes upon boxes of cheap plastic junk. As gas prices rose and the consumer confidence index plummeted for the fifth straight month, optimistic entrepreneurs took to their front lawns for that most venerable of summertime traditions: the yard sale.

With the recent economic hardships affecting Americans everywhere, it makes sense that there should be a renewed national impulse towards thriftiness. And what is more thrifty than a localized recycling of goods? For the seller, yard sales offer a low-overhead, non-taxable income source. For the buyer, they are the perfect way to pick up everyday household consumer products at bargain basement prices. And for the environment, yard sales provide a means of saving the landfills and reducing the heavy, fossil-fuel laden footprint of global manufacturing and shipping.

Nevertheless, the skeptic can't help wondering: do we as Americans really have it in our national spirit to spend our holiday weekends cruising the land for used mattresses and old stereo equipment? Will the easy consumption of big box stores prevail, endlessly spewing out more Chinese-manufactured cheap plastic goods, destined for the landfill in less than three years' time? In my home state of New Hampshire, I took to the back roads on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon to investigate.

"Nobody's around", said Tim Baker of Albany, New Hampshire. "The parking lots are empty. If people don't travel, money doesn't flow." As we chatted, a man approached with a large plastic wall clock bearing the logo for Schlitz beer. He liked the clock, but didn't have enough cash with him to pay the twenty dollar asking price. "How much you got?" Tim asked. "Twelve dollars? Fine. It's yours. Hey, you interested in this garage tent?"

Just a little way up the road in North Conway, Bob and Jackie Goode had several tables of items set up on their driveway. Jackie offered a more nuanced analysis of the market: "It's been hit or miss... There are some low bids, but then other folks will come along and pay the price." Jackie said they held a yard sale twice a year, each spring and fall. Were yard sales going out of fashion? "Not in this day and age!" Jackie responded. As proof of the flourishing yard sale economy, she pointed to the success of internet sites like eBay and Craig's List.

The couple's children had all moved out, so yard sales made practical sense as a means to downsize the family clutter. But it was also clear that Jackie loved the thrill of the bargain hunt. "These days, people are digging for good deals. If you keep looking, you can find anything. See that hat?" She gestured to a friend wearing a handsome leather cowboy hat. "I found that for three dollars at the flea market in Old Orchard Beach last weekend - three dollars!", she told me proudly.

Others, I soon discovered, see the yard sale business as a sheer philanthropic necessity. Later that afternoon, I followed signs advertising a "Huge Lawn Sale" down a dead-end street with cracked pavement. I parked my truck in front of a driveway packed with dusty piles of children's clothes, boxes of books, and tables of electronic goods. A man with a far-away look in his eyes and an impressive tattoo of a Scottish coat-of-arms on his neck greeted me.

"Do you need a stroller or any baby clothes?" he asked. He didn't wait for a response, but kept right on talking in soft, slightly resigned mono-tone statements. I don't think he was being rude or impatient - it just seemed that he could tell at a glance that I probably wasn't going to take any of the junk he had neatly arrayed around him.

The weekend had been pretty good, he said. "This has been my first lawn sale in two years, and I got plenty of stuff to get rid of." In fact, most of the stuff he would give away, for free. He just wanted to make sure that it got used. Times were hard and he knew there were people who couldn't afford things. He began to point out various items he had saved: Four baby strollers, a walker, a couple of boxes of Christmas decorations.

Ron, as he eventually introduced himself, just couldn't stand throwing away items that were still useful. As a last resort, he would take things to the thrift store at the local dump, but they often charged him 5 dollars to leave a working refrigerator or lawn mower. "How about that?" he asked. "Having to pay somebody else to take your stuff..." He shook his head sadly.

In all, Ron said that he had probably made around forty dollars that weekend. But financial success was a secondary concern. Ron had two rented storage units filled with more stuff that he was going to clean out that week. If he didn't get rid of the stuff in his garage this weekend, he would have no place to put the new junk coming in from the storage units.

"I just don't understand it... I'm willing to give this stuff away, and people still won't take it." His voice drifted off. I stood there in silence with him for a few moments, then took my leave. The drive home took me past the local Wal-Mart, and I couldn't help noticing that the parking lot was full, bustling with eager Memorial Day shoppers.

One thing's for certain: the yard sale economy has plenty of room to grow.