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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 Manteca, Calif.

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 Goodwill.

"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 credit card.

"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 dent.

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 somebody."

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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