Why My Heart Belongs to Garage Sales

Finding the magic in other people’s things.
nightstand with retro phone and glass lamp

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I want a home filled with old things that used to belong to someone else. I want dishes that remind my parents of their childhood, and I want furniture that looks like it attended hundreds of cocktail parties (where coasters weren’t necessary). I want my apartment to be an amalgamation of memories, and not necessarily my own. So on weekend mornings whenever I can, I go to garage sales and try to capture a willing piece of other people’s histories.

This is something I come by naturally. When I was a kid, my uncle would pick up my dad and me on Saturday mornings and the three of us would drive around our part of the city and descend on all the yard sales we could find. None of us ever bought very much (especially me, because I was a child with no money), but despite usually coming away empty-handed, it didn’t matter: As they caught up, I’d lose myself in their stories about whatever we’d find that my dad and uncle had grown up with. I learned that everything had a story, and the seed of secondhand obsession was planted.

By the time I was old enough to begin decorating my own apartment, I was broke and obsessed with mid-century design (a terrible combo), so most of what I had came from thrift stores. Even when I was too poor to keep my first place and had to move back home, I turned to Value Village and Goodwill to make over my childhood bedroom. But unlike most 20-something romances, my love for vintage decor never went away. Years later, when I found my current apartment, I used pieces I’d found in antiques markets and thrift stores to populate my place with vintage chairs, art, and coffee tables.

But you can only justify shopping so much. So this summer, I put myself on a budget to ensure I’d stop buying lamps I didn’t have enough outlets for. Which seemed easy, until I drove by a garage sale. 

The thing about visiting garage sales as an adult is that you quickly realize how much more they are than a source for cheap things. With the owner (or family of the former owner) usually present, you’re extended an invitation to engage in their history—you get to participate in somebody else’s life. And as you comb through old plates and art and magazine racks in front of a person whose memories are tied up in them, you’re given the privilege of learning about what you’re buying, from whom, and why. (Which is why I won’t ever haggle. Who am I to determine the worth of one’s past?)

It’s actually very special for a stranger to let you have something that once belonged to them. And it’s even more special still, that as a result of that exchange, you make space in your own life for that thing (and that person) to live in your home.  

Which reminds me of how alone we’re not. Because while I know that the pieces I’ve found at Goodwill boast their own histories, their owners never physically watched me carry them away or shared with me that on every birthday, their late parents used the cake tray and topper I’m buying for $5. Garage sales, ultimately, are a main line to emotional intimacy. They’re a means of engaging people outside of politeness and day-to-day exchanges. But more important, they’re a way to curate your own life with decades of memories. Which is how I’ve justified buying another lamp.

See more on preloved items:  6 Genius Little Ways I Repurpose Used Candle Jars Heads-Up: The Furniture You Tossed to the Curb Might Just Become a Work of Art Now We Know How Diane Keaton Scores So Many Great Vintage Finds