The lush green of a Pennsylvania summer grabs at the breath with unparalleled beauty amid the return of perennial bloom. Crops wave in the country and fervent warmth dissolves the last memory of winter’s chill, fostering the myth it just might not return. All is lovely, a toe spreading, arm opening, head lifting season of delight, but for a singular blight that clamors forth in the midst of this bliss.
It creeps from the basement and down the attic stairs. Out of the closet dark it spills, spreading, spewing—till at last it belches forth upon the sunlit lawn, staining the green with the ugly secret contained within.
It is the American yard sale, the seasonal revealing of our Too Much Stuff. The past decade of our nation’s brazen excess sprawls unashamedly and gross, like the hairy roll of a beer bellied man bursting with a Cyclops’ eye from beneath a shrunken shirt.
Here are the Skittle-colored tot clothes stacked as anti-loaves of bread upon the folding tables, the plastic cartoon character toys, the video games, TVs too square and large to be tolerated, car seats worn bare and stained. Purses and shoes reveal fashion sense in furious disfavor. Paperbacks picturing pristine Amish lasses offer tales of temptation by the man posed just over her shoulder. On to the VHS tapes and DVDs incompatible with BluRay, the CDs recalling Madonna’s youth or ours, and–Lord help us–cassette tapes by the yard.
It was once a season for frolic, a delight for buyers, but as the recession tightens its grip, there is a new spirit upon the land. It is a desperate desire to get rid of the evidence—to make the stuff go away and, with it, the reminder of what we once spent on our every whim.
“We’re downsizing,” the sellers say, eyes pleading “Please take it!”
For others, there is no luxury of pride. The sell off is more immediate. Cash is needed. These are the ones who never had excess, even in good times, and they are scrambling. At the flea market, one or two has come on a gamble and is now desperate to raise enough gas money to get back home.
When the economy suffers, the stuff rolls out, but what if there is no one to buy?
Flea market buyers stroll by, amusing themselves with the displays and taking in the weather. A $10 item gets an offer of $5. At the antique show, wares that once sold get few glances. Shoppers pause at a rare cabinet, shaped like a spool of thread, priced $500. “Ten years ago, I sold one for $1,600,” the seller says.
The downturn produces a boom for the bottom layer; for the truth is we cannot overcome our need to consume. Many continue to buy, even if now the tag reads 50 cents instead of $50. Mini vans race the rounds of the yard sales, disgorging riders. They buy used what they once bought new.
Many make their pilgrimage to the local thrift shop daily, compelled by bargains. On Friday afternoons, the auctions close on items in the thrift’s silent offer case, and the same faces return to pop their bids dollar by dollar toward ownership of a used Coach purse or an antique bowl.
In the aisles at the thrift, a woman hunches over a wheeled grocery cart, humming as she fills it. Her purse sunk into the child’s seat, cradles a panel of decorated walnuts with plastic eyes and felt feet announcing “No one here but us nuts” for 35 cents.
The shelves at the thrift are constantly full: worn Teflon pans, Dollar Store dishes, coffee mugs advertising businesses now closed, tins from chocolates, baskets and books, chunky heeled shoes and chiffon neck scarves, jackets and sweaters. Rack upon rack. Some items retain tags from the original store. After the yard sales, the donations pour in. “They couldn’t sell these!” crows a volunteer, holding up a pair of spike heels like a murder weapon.
What cannot be sold is expunged. It is an exorcism of excess made possible by simply pulling up to the Thrift shop’s back door. The store rooms are stuffed to the ceiling like a barn readied for famine. The stock is testimony to a turning, a departure from the days of Must Have.
At my antiques shop, across the street from the thrift store, a few shoppers browse, whispering to each other: “I don’t need any more stuff.”
Pretty dishes have not sold for years. Furniture goes in fits and starts, but mostly sits. I can sell an $18 chair for the yard, a tin pail for flowers, silver plated iced teaspoons. Little things don’t make such a dent in the wallet or conscience.
In my shop, a Chinese grad student, here to study economics, waits as his wife browses. He explains that his own country is feeling the ripple. Americans are not buying what they did. His own people are too set in their ways. They save too much, he says, citing 30 percent. They put money away to take care of their needs if crisis comes. If the Chinese had some kind of welfare, like the U.S., then maybe they would spend more and save less, he says.
He is practicing his English with me, and I am stunned.
When I close the shop, I bring in the open placard and the red, white, and blue antiques flag. At the corner, the telephone pole is plastered in neon orange announcing the latest yard sale down the street.