As Yard Sales Boom in Hard Times, Sentiment Is First Thing to Go
NY Times, 10/25/08
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
MANTECA, Calif. - As the classified ads put it, everything must go. Socks. Christmas ornaments. Microwave ovens.
Three-year-old Marita Duarte's tricycle was sold by her mother, Beatriz, to a
stranger for $3 even as her daughter was riding it.
Three-year-old Marita Duarte watched as
her family sold possessions, including her tricycle, at a recent garage sale in
On Mission Ridge
Drive and other avenues, lanes and ways in this formerly booming community,
even birthday celebrations must go. "It was no money, no birthday," said Ms.
Duarte, who lost her job as a floral designer two months ago. The family
commemorated Marita's third birthday without presents last week, the occasion
marked by a small cake with Cinderella on the vanilla frosting. They will move
into a rental apartment next month.
An eternity ago, people in this city in
northern San Joaquin County braved four-hour round-trip commutes to the San
Francisco Bay Area for a toehold on the dream. Today, Manteca's lawns and
driveways are storefronts of the new garage-sale economy - the telltale yellow
signs plastered in the rear windows of parked cars Friday through Sunday
directing traffic to yet another sale, yet another family.
You can get great deals," said Sharrell
Johnson, 32, who was scouting for toys in the Indian summer heat last Friday
amid boxes of tools_faq_trashout_bank_reo.html and DVDs and forests of little skirts and shirts dangling from
plastic hangers on suspended rope. "Sad to say, you're finding really good
things. Because everybody's losing their homes."
The garage-sale economy is flourishing
here and in many other regions of the country, so much so that some cities have
begun cracking down. With more residents trying to increase their income, the
city of Weymouth, Mass., limited yard sales to just three a year per address.
Detective Sgt. Richard Fuller said it was now common to see 15 cars parked in
front of a house.
Richmond, Ind., has had such an onslaught of garage sale signs posted in the right of way that the city has
placed stickers on prominent light poles warning of violations and fines.
But it is a Sisyphean task: Manteca's
ordinance, restricting residents to two sales a year, is widely ignored.
The sales are part of the
once-underground "thrift economy," as a team of Brigham
Young University sociologists have called it, which includes thrift
stores, pawn shops and so-called recessionistas name-brand shopping at
"This is the perfect storm for garage
sales," said Gregg Kettles, a visiting professor at Loyola Law School in Los
Angeles who studies outdoor commerce. "We're coming off a 20-year boom in which
consumers filled ever-bigger houses. Now people need cash because of the bust."
And so the garages and yards of Manteca,
some tinder-dry from neglect, offer a crash course in kitchen-table economics
each weekend. On Klondike Way: "tools_faq_trashout_bank_reo.html, various household items, & much
more!" On Virginia Street: "Moving Sale! Fridge, washer & dryer, men's
clothing, bike, BBQ, dinette, dresser, fans, microwaves, recliner, DVD player.
Everything must go!"
When life's daily trappings and
keepsakes are laid out for sale on a collapsible table, sentiment is the first
thing to go. "The cash helps a lot," Constantino Gonzalez, Ms. Duarte's
neighbor, said of the family's second sale in two weeks, in which he and his
wife, Julia, were reluctantly selling their children's inflatable bounce house
for $650, with pump.
Since losing his construction job, Mr.
Gonzalez, 43, has been economizing, disconnecting the family's Internet and
long-distance telephone service, and barely using his truck and the Jeep,
strewn with leaves in the driveway. He has taken to picking up his children
from school on his bicycle, with 6-year-old Daniel on the handlebars, cushioned
by a terry-cloth towel.
The inflatable bounce house is the
children's favorite toy, but the family's $1,800 mortgage payment is coming. So
it sits propped up in its bright blue case, awaiting customers, many of them
desperate themselves. Customers are searching for bargains on necessities so
they might chip away at the rent, the truck payment, the remodeling bill on the
"We need to eat," Mr. Gonzalez tells his
children about selling off their toys. "I can't cover the sun with my finger.
So why lie?"
As he spoke, he watched his neighbor
across the street pull out of her driveway with her family for the last time,
their pickup truck piled high with chairs, firewood and other belongings, like
modern Joads from Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." "Bad loan," explained the
neighbor, Alex Martinez, who works nights at an automobile assembly plant in
faraway Fremont. The garage sale she had held the week earlier barely made a
woman with frosted hair wearing high
heels got out of a parked car and placed a sign in the window of the former
Martinez place: "Coming Soon: Innovative Realty."
This is McCain-Palin placard country,
where signs for the anti-gay-marriage state ballot measure, "Yes on 8," pepper
the landscape and billboards advertising "Buy Now/Low Rates" seem like
grim fossils of a bygone age. Manteca lies at an epicenter of the foreclosure
crisis, with median home values having fallen by nearly half since 2006, from
$440,000 to the current $225,000. In San Joaquin County, Moody's has estimated
that more than 1 in 10 houses with mortgages have a payment that is more than
30 days late. Unemployment rates have increased by a third, from 7.6 percent in
September 2007 to 10.2 percent this fall, said Hans Johnson, a demographer at
the Public Policy Institute of California.
Before the downturn, Manteca, population
67,700, and other towns in the northern San Joaquin Valley were on the leading
edge of growth, with stucco subdivisions carved out of almond orchards. Today
some 1,500 to 2,000 homes in Manteca, which is 32.7 percent Hispanic, are in
various stages of foreclosure.
Paul Farnsworth's garage on Widgeon Way
was a latter-day five and dime, his driveway an eclectic assortment of
artificial flowers, cookie jars, decanters, spotlights, radar detectors, Hot
Wheels miniature cars, a Dirt Devil. Mr. Farnsworth's recent garage sales
supplement his income as a manager for a beverage distributor, which pays about
half of what he made as an apricot and cherry farmer in nearby Tracy. (He was
laid off when the farm was sold.) Neither he nor his wife Ann, a beautician,
can afford to retire.
"People want things for half, and I
don't blame them," observed Mr. Farnsworth, 65, adding that only one couple
that morning had not dickered on the price. His own house, appraised at
$375,000 three years ago, is worth $200,000 today. He has resorted to holding
garage sales "to help make payments on a house that's worth less than what I
owe," he said, the irony not lost on him.
Ebi Yeri's yard held big-ticket items:
beds, a smoked-glass and black lacquer dinette set and - the piece de
resistance - a 51-inch Hitachi projection television that he had replaced with
a plasma flat screen. Still, it pained Mr. Yeri to sell. He had it set
thematically to the HGTV channel, figuring that "a judge show might offend
Mr. Yeri, 35, was decluttering to offset
losses in his 401(k), which he described as "in the tank." He said he also cut
costs by being "lighter on the foot," driving 10 miles an hour slower than the
speed limit on his 156-mile commute to and from his software job in San Jose.
On Chenin Blanc Drive, Robert Dadey, a
car salesman, was holding his 20th garage sale. "I need money," he said simply
about selling the Oakland Raiders memorabilia, teddy bears and $40 brown
ultrasuede recliner in his midst on the lawn. "It's bad times."
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