Alone in a car, driving an empty stretch of highway, it's easy to believe you're the only person in the world. In western Ohio, where dark fields of soy alternate with great blocks of green corn roofed with yellow tassels, the road runs flat and straight to the horizon. You could take things even further, there. You could convince yourself, if you tried, that there isn't even a world to be alone in. You're staying completely still, the scenery flowing backwards around you, an immersive illusion of motion.
But then a neon orange smudge appears a half mile down the road, just south of North Star, population 236. In a hundred yards, it resolves into a handwritten poster board sign announcing a yard sale. You turn off between the fields and you find a cluster of buildings — a house, an old barn, a massive tractor shed — and you slow the car and pull up next to a pickup truck and turn off the engine and open the door. The air smells like hay and old rain.
The family that lives here grows corn and soybeans like everyone else; they've been on this land since the ‘30s, maybe longer. They're a husband and wife, kids grown and gone, spending the day sitting on lawn chairs in the corner of the tractor shed where they've laid out the overflow of their lives, folding tables piled with baby clothes and knitting patterns and Garfield mugs. There's a doll in a green floral dress lying on the table just above some crocheted pot holders, with a yellowed porcelain face and muslin limbs. She's lying on an index card: "Doll is 80+ years old. $40.00."
There are a hundred stories told by that index card, a thousand more implied by it. Everything here, deliberately arranged on the lawn or the porch or the dusty card tables, implies a thousand stories, all the facets of a life you didn't live, a life that didn't need your presence to make it real. All objects have stories, and secondhand ones wear them on the surface. But unlike those obscured by the abstract glamour of a vintage shop, or the sterile impersonalization of a thrift store, the stories implied by the items at a yard sale are vividly present.
All these tools and shoes and pieces of silverware ended up here at this house; the man sitting in that chair over there is the very person who loved this $2 lamp over here enough to pay full price for it 30 years ago, the woman sitting next to him lived part of her life in its light, one of them eventually bundled it down to the basement, one of them hauled it back up yesterday. Presumably it will go home with someone new tomorrow. A yard sale is proof that the world has existed for longer than you've been looking at it. It's proof of human life.
It seems fair to say that the average yard sale has a few hundred items for purchase, maybe a thousand, between the bins of baby clothes and the stacks of books and the junk boxes full of old Happy Meal toys. That's a dense concentration of the evidence of lived human lives. But imagine even more. Imagine the sheer scale of humanity at the largest yard sale there's ever been.
Imagine the sheer scale of humanity at the largest yard sale there's ever been.
The world's longest yard sale runs for nearly 700 miles along a mostly vertical line connecting Alabama and Michigan, from the first Thursday in August through the first Sunday. It's called the 127 Sale, since most of it takes place along US Route 127, but that road ends in Chattanooga. There it's met by the sale's southernmost stretch, which winds for more than a hundred miles through the woody piedmont of the Appalachian Mountains, starting in northeast Alabama and veering over to slice off a corner of northwest Georgia, before coming to an end where 127 picks up just across the Tennessee line.
Chattanooga used to be the end of the whole sale, not just its namesake road. When it started in 1987, the sale was a 350-mile jaunt up through Tennessee to Covington, Kentucky, just this side of Ohio; it added the southern extension a few years later. Since then it's sprouted up the road in northerly bits and pieces, officially ending in Ohio for a while, and later barely sneaking into Michigan. For the last three years, the northernmost point of the sale has been in Addison, Michigan, 20 miles north of the state line, at the place where US 127 intersects with the town's sleepy Main Street. From start to finish, it's 690 miles.
That's a lot of country to cover in four days, even keeping up a grueling pace of early mornings and judiciously meted stops. By the time I pulled into Addison late in the day on Sunday, the town center was empty, no cars, no people. It was an Edward Hopper painting, flat and still, silent vinyl-sided storefronts baking in the yellow August afternoon.
It was hard for me to overlay that faceless early evening with what I imagine must have filled the same space at the start of the sale, the same sort of jubilant crush of capri pant-clad bargain hunters I'd been surrounded by four days earlier in Gadsden, Alabama, at the beginning of my journey. I'd woken up at sunrise and driven to the intersection of Body Street and Noccalula Road, just outside the southeast corner of the town's Kiwanis Park. There, each August, the town erects a sign that marks the 127 Sale's "point of beginning."
The real point of beginning (or ending — the sale goes both ways) is actually about a quarter-mile up the road, at the park's campground. At 7 a.m., the asphalt parking lot was already crowded with SUVs and pickup trucks, their discharged drivers and passengers milling through dozens of booths set up by locals who'd paid $15 apiece to cheerily hawk unwanted costume jewelry and VHS tapes and oil-pastel portraits of Gene Stallings, the former head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. The local news team had set up an anchor desk in the bandstand, crews of middle-aged women in matching shop-'til-you-drop T-shirts were snapping group selfies, and reporters were everywhere. "You're a writer, huh?" said a hefty, goateed guy sitting behind a table stacked with thousands of vinyl records. I'd asked if I could talk to him a little bit about the yard sale; it was barely 8 a.m. "You're the third one who's come by here and talked to me today."
The circus slowly faded away, over the days and miles. Where Gadsden had been riotous, Addison was ghostlike, a different kind of surreal. But I stopped my car anyway. It was the end of the sale, the geographic and chronological terminus of the world I'd lived in for the last hundred hours. I'm not good at sentiment, but it felt wrong to just pass through, to not do much of anything to mark my passage from the 127 Sale back into the real world. I pulled into a gravel lot across the street from a building that looked like it had once been a gas station. It had a vinyl sign tacked to the roof: "Smile, Smirk, Giggle and Grin! Oh, Just Come On In!" Out front there was a rack of clothing and a few five-gallon buckets. No one was around, but at least it was a yard sale.
Just as I made a move to cross the street, a young couple came out of the old gas station and started loading things into Rubbermaid containers and a Target shopping cart. I locked eyes with the man. His face was tired, he was balancing a toddler on his right hip while his left hand heaped what looked like Beanie Babies into a cardboard box. I smiled and started to wave. He shrugged and shook his head. No more this weekend. No more today. Come back next year.
Next year will be the sale's 29th. It's well-secured in the national calendar of domestic tourism, as firmly woven into the culture of small-town Americana as any state fair or thematic harvest festival. At this point in its life, the sale is so famous, so steeped in self-perpetuating ritual, that an official organizing body is a formality. The chamber of commerce in Fentress County, Tennessee considers itself the official gatekeeper of the event, but that's mostly a matter of running the sale's official website, keeping up its various social media accounts, and fielding a dozen or so phone calls a day from people who want to make sure it's still happening.
Still, if anyone does get to lay claim to these hundreds of vendors and tens of thousands of shoppers and gawkers stretching across six states, it's that office in Fentress County. The whole thing started there, the brainchild of Mike Walker, a personal injury lawyer from Jamestown who was the county executive back in 1987. He came up with the sale as a grand gesture to bring tourist traffic back through the small towns whose businesses had been blighted by the expedience of the nearby interstate.
That nearby interstate is I-75. In Tennessee, where it runs roughly parallel to 127, it's a shockingly beautiful stretch of highway, especially in the north, where it twists along the ridge of the Cumberland mountains. With the bonus of its four lanes, no traffic lights, and a generous speed limit, if you wanted to get from Georgia to Kentucky (or vice versa), you'd need a pretty good reason to take any other route.
Enter Walker, with his shoot-the-moon ploy: Forget drawing ‘em in with historic homesteads, homey restaurants, or campgrounds overlooking dramatic natural vistas. People will take the interstate anyway, coming in as close as they can get, and just get off at the nearest exit. If you want to bring traffic back to the road, you've got to make the road itself the thing. Don't sell the destination. Sell the journey.
It's probably no accident that a county official looking for a way to spark interest in his town would, in 1987, settle on something having to do with yard sales. As sociologist Margaret Chapman has noted, yard sales and garage sales are weird. Their origin "lies at the intersection of two contradictory economic dynamics," she writes. On one hand, you need to have such a significant quantity of extra, unnecessary stuff that you want to get rid of it. On the other, you need to be in a position where it seems reasonable to sell your personal possessions for extra cash.
For the first time, a lot of people had a lot of stuff, much of it new. And for the first time, there was better, fresher, more socially signifying stuff rolling in all the time.
It takes a very particular confluence of factors for those two scenarios to coincide — and, if they do, for the resulting idea of a yard sale to even seem appealing. Yard sales and garage sales started creeping into American life in the 1950s, as the mass-production of cheap goods that kicked off after World War II collided with mid-century suburban expansion. For the first time, a lot of people had a lot of stuff, much of it new. And for the first time, there was better, fresher, more socially signifying stuff rolling in all the time: new colors of telephone, new styles of night-table, blouses with chicer patterns or different collars.
Modern consumption is directly enabled by mass production. Hemlines couldn't rise and fall at the speed they did back then (let alone the nanosecond fashion cycles of today) without a powerful engine behind them, one made possible by both a production volume and a cost efficiency that could keep prices shockingly low — low enough for the sort of consumer who was probably used to buying one new dress every few years to suddenly be open to the idea of buying half a dozen at once. Or even better, one step further: For her not just to be open to it, but to need to do it. And then to repeat that cycle every year, every season, and not just with clothing but with furniture, homewares, appliances. To shed an old skin and replace it with a better one, again and again. To have the act of shopping , not just the act of owning , become part of her identity. For a constantly updating identity to be, in fact, the most desirable identity of all.
The faster we consume, the faster we discard. In the late 1950s, Americans ( especially white, lower- and middle-class Americans ) got in the habit of replacing their possessions with remarkable frequency. All those outmoded, no-longer-needed clothes and objects — still perfectly functional, but not as good as the latest styles — had to go somewhere. Some people made donations to charity shops, some tucked their old, unwanted things away in boxes piled high in their spacious suburban basements. And some people started selling their old goods at home. The popularity of direct-sales companies like Tupperware and Mary Kay had opened minds to the inoffensiveness of an occasional cash transaction with your friends and neighbors, but being the vendor of your own personal possessions, without a consignment shop or auction house as intermediary, was a different matter. Yard sales were slow to catch on.
It wasn't until the 1970s that Chapman's two contradictory economic dynamics really started setting in, and yard sales hit cultural ubiquity. Two decades of postwar consumption meant that all those purchase-happy Americans, luxuriating in their yards and garages, were drowning in unwanted stuff. At the same time, the '73 recession meant even comfortable families were starting to feel a significant squeeze, and the idea of making some quick spending money started sounding more and more appealing.
But there was a third thing that came into play then, maybe the real catalyst for the era of the yard sale: the rise of retro. Before the ‘70s, out-of-date silhouettes and styles read as nothing more than out-of-date. But retro — even the word itself was new — recast oldness as its own style, an intentional, backwards-looking aesthetic choice. So a family with too much junk and not enough liquidity simply had to dust off the boxed-up ashtrays, steam the wrinkles out of last year's maxi dresses, tape up a few signs around the cul-de-sac, and watch the money roll in. Once it hit, the simple formula had sticking power. By the time Mike Walker came up with his idea in 1987, yard sales were as American as apple pie.
One yard sale is a crapshoot. Ten are a treasure hunt. The founders of the 127 Sale hoped a thousand could be an engine : for tourism, for revitalization, for economic growth. But nearly 30 years in, it's hard to say if Walker's plan is working out the way he'd hoped. Certainly for one four-day stretch of August, the towns along the sale route see a serious bump in visitors. Especially in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, where the road is narrower and the streets more residential, there are stretches so crowded with parked cars and jaywalking shoppers that driving slows to walking speed, backing up traffic for a half-mile or more. The visitors boost local economies, tiny farming hamlets filling up for the weekend with people spending their out-of-state dollars at family-owned diners and paying the local lodging tax on their motel rooms. And for the sellers themselves, the pile of cash counted out at the end of the long weekend is a windfall.
One yard sale is a crapshoot. Ten are a treasure hunt. The founders of the 127 Sale hoped a thousand could be an engine : for tourism, for revitalization, for economic growth.
But what happens to the 127 corridor the other 51 weekends a year? From Alabama to Michigan, the areas the sale winds through are mostly farm counties with low population density, low education levels, and high poverty rates. It's Confederate flag country, more churches than schools, the kind of place where a woman selling the Cabbage Patch Kids she's collected over the years picks up the only dark-skinned one, unprompted, and tells me that when she bought it, "I said well, you know, it may be black, but it's cute." This is an area in rough shape, for the most part, and things get a little bit worse every year.
The Fentress County chamber of commerce likes to say that it hopes the thousands of folks who visit the sale each year will come back to some stretch of the area for non-yard-sale-related vacations in the future. It's hard not to be skeptical of any real conversion, though. Most of the buyers I talked to, people who'd flown or driven in from big cities or far-flung places, were middle-aged and middle-class, drawn to the sale by a special they saw on HGTV or by a particular fixation with old cast-iron or Coca-Cola memorabilia. They didn't seem the type to want to come back in a few months to avail themselves of the glorious hiking and rock-climbing opportunities of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians.
The sale's organizers claim that top to bottom, there are over 5,000 vendors hawking secondhand goods at the 127 Sale. I started counting in Alabama; somewhere in the middle of Tennessee, I stopped even trying to try. But I'd generously top out the number in the hundreds, maybe a thousand. The sales are densely packed on the lower half of the route, but in the middle of Kentucky, where the bluffs and forests of the Cumberland escarpment soften into a viridian ocean of bluegrass, US 127 widens into a four-lane highway. Up there, even on a sunny Saturday, the busiest day of the sale, you can drive for miles without seeing a single poster board sign. Ohio's even flatter, and even quieter. Once I was outside of Cincinnati's suburban penumbra, driving through the fields of corn and soy that fill the rest of the western half of the state, I saw just a few dozen sales spread out over 200 straight-as-an-arrow miles. US 127 in Ohio during the sale feels the way I imagine the road does everywhere else, all the rest of the year: empty.
The 127 Sale officially kicks off on the first Thursday of every August. As early as the week before, church marquees and hand-scrawled plywood signs along the route start advertising space for rent in parking lots and cow fields; the out-of-town vendors and resellers start arriving shortly after, scouting for the right place to set up their temporary shops. After them come the food vendors, who park their trucks wherever there are already plenty of booths, hoping to catch the biggest crowds. The first serious buyers, usually professional resellers searching for underpriced treasure, start rolling through as early as Tuesday and are out in force by Wednesday. By the time the Thursday morning crowd arrives, the whole thing is in full swing.
If you live on the route, you don't have to do much to make money. If you've got things to sell, just set out a folding table, tape up a sign, and wait for the cash-wielding river to start flowing through. If you don't, you can spray-paint your front lawn into room-sized segments and rent them out for a few dollars a day to sellers without US 127 frontage. Or, as more than a few folks along the route seem to do, you can choose not to play: wrap the perimeter of your property in "Do Not Enter" tape, draw the curtains tight, and disappear for a long weekend far, far away from the steel-eyed tourists who've come hundreds of miles looking to buy.
Buying is a simple matter of will and means. If you do it right, everything you see is for sale. "How much for the bandsaw?" I heard a guy in a Braves cap ask the owner of a low-slung, vinyl-sided house just past Dogtown, Alabama. The front lawn was dotted with blue drop cloths bearing spiral-bound community cookbooks and Christmas cookie tins, but he was staring past all that into the open garage, where something that looked like an oversized sewing machine hulked under a half-draped tarp. "Well no, sir," said the owner of the house. "That one's not for sale." The buyer pulled out his wallet and produced a stack of cash. "Would you take three hundred?"
More than anything else, a yard sale is a crucible for the determination of value; an arena for extreme microeconomics, raw and uncut.
As I walked back to my car a few minutes later, after poking through old quilting patterns and a ragged pile of stuffed bears, I saw the two of them hoisting the bandsaw into the back of the Braves fan's truck. You could, if you wanted to, put a price on everything in your life. The only difference between the things that are lined up on the lawn and the things that aren't is whether or not you've stopped to consider how much it would take for you to let them go.
More than anything else, a yard sale is a crucible for the determination of value; an arena for extreme microeconomics, raw and uncut. There's no regulation, there's no pricing standard. It's just you, your possessions, your wallet, your desires, and your soul. It's simple enough to decide that a stack of sweaters you haven't worn in years are worth a dollar apiece, but things get harder after that. How much do you want for the books you never got around to reading? How much for the roller skates your daughter used to love but won't ever wear again? For anything, there's a point at which you'd rather have the cash than the thing, whether it's your mother's necklace, or your wedding china, or the bandsaw you keep in the garage. That's a painful thing to learn , that everything is for sale.
When something is yours, you become wrong about it. This is an inevitable fact of human nature. It has a name: the endowment effect. We assign greater value to things that we consider our own, whether hometowns or toothbrushes. We think they're worth more than they are, and we're inclined to demand more from people when we ask them to buy from us.
Economists talk about a related but slightly different idea: an item's "use value," the worth of a thing not just as an object in the vacuum of an efficient market, the price someone would pay to buy it, but its worth to its owner while she possesses it. This is the value not just of its function, this glass holds an appropriate amount of juice and doesn't drip it onto my lap, but also of its utility: I like how this glass looks. I like the person who gave me this glass. I like the way I feel knowing this glass is in my cabinet. I like that I don't have to buy a new glass.
But the endowment effect is a fallacy. Use value to a seller is meaningless to a buyer. If it's hard to admit that even the things we love have a price, it's even more difficult to learn that the price is actually far less than we imagined it to be.
And so the card tables at all yard sales — maybe especially those at the 127 Sale, where the buyers are tenacious and the sellers resolute — display old, damp things scrounged from basements and attics, items sellers had already forgotten they owned and that, therefore, don't force anyone to confront the inevitable conditionality of possession. Things that don't make us feel like we had to pay to end up with our profit. Things we're done with, that we've bled of want or usefulness to their last drop.
Or, maybe, sometimes, people sell things because keeping them hurts. At that very first sale in Gadsden, one of the tables was piled high with shiny rectangles that looked, from a distance, like birthday gifts. They were Barbie dolls, a few dozen of them, all in unopened boxes. I picked up an oversized one that read "The Royal Couple" in golden script, expecting to see Wills and Kate; it was Prince Charles and Princess Diana, in their wedding finery. "It's the Princess," said the woman selling the dolls. She was tiny and wrinkled, with a cloud of white hair and a dense Alabama accent. She picked up the box lovingly.
"My husband passed, and I've got so much stuff. I'm 76 years old. Well, I know I haven't got long to live now, and I'll just get rid of it."
"I've collected Barbies for years. She's my favorite, Princess Di," she said. I asked her why she was selling the doll if she loved it so much. "My husband passed, and I've got so much stuff," she answered. "I'm 76 years old. Well, I know I haven't got long to live now, and I'll just get rid of it."
Not far away, out of her sightline, there was another table also piled with boxes of Barbies. I asked the man running it if he knew the woman selling on the other side of the lawn. "Yes ma'am, she's my grandma," he said. His 10-year-old daughter chirped up: "She gives us these dolls every year for Christmas and we don't really want ‘em. So we're selling ‘em."
To be honest, it's less interesting on the buyer's side. You go through the same mental dance of trying to figure out at what point you shift from preferring the cash to preferring the object, but most of us don't invest meaning into the money in our pockets the same way we do to our clothes and furniture and things. And, after all, you step onto someone else's lawn under your own steam. The seller has to decide what she's willing to sell, and when, and for how much : a brutal, subtle existential burden, a reckoning of the self as defined by possessions. Meanwhile, all the buyer has to do is buy. I went back to the old woman's table, picked up a doll, and bought it for exactly the price she said she wanted to sell it for.
That's not how it's supposed to work. If you've been to a yard sale, you know that if a seller wants 20 bucks for her mint-condition 1984 astronaut Barbie, you offer 10. If you see a napkin holder marked $10, you offer $2. If you haven't been to a yard sale, you probably know this anyway, and it's probably part of the reason you haven't been to one. Haggling is an art and a nightmare, an intricate puzzle of timing, knowledge, need, desire, power, and emotional pantomime. It's not a part of our standard American economic vernacular, just as much as yard sales aren't a part of our standard American retail landscape.
Except that both of them are. Anyone who says that America has a rational economic system — that in this country, sellers determine an efficient price and post it, and buyers either pay the price or walk away — is looking at an incomplete picture. By most estimates there are upwards of 10 million yard sales in America each year, generating billions of dollars in revenue. No one's exactly sure of the numbers, but then again, no one's really counting. Excepting a handful of towns and counties that ask residents to buy a permit, yard sales are unregulated and unreported. They fall into what's called the "informal sector": complex economies of off-the-books transactions, rarely reported on anyone's taxes, mostly taking place in cash.
Just being informal isn't enough to shield an economy from outside attention — just ask sex workers, street vendors, or anyone in the drug trade. But somehow, yard sales have largely managed to elude the spotlight, as either social venues to be studied or as markets to be regulated. Maybe it's because of their ephemerality; open by 8 a.m. and gone without a trace by dinnertime, the microeconomy of a yard sale has the lifespan of a mayfly. Maybe it's because, compared to other informal economies, yard sales may seem less criminal, may give rise to less moral outrage.
Margaret Chapman, the sociologist who explored the social origins of the yard sale, is one of the very few people to have given the phenomenon any serious academic attention. Gretchen M. Herrmann, also a sociologist, is another; she's written extensively about the rituals and rules that inform how one person sells another a stack of old Saturday Evening Posts. When you negotiate the price of something at a yard sale, the air is humming with invisible threads, puppet strings of economic and social forces. It's messy and imperfect, tense and fraught. In her paper, Herrmann writes of haggling, "There is a level at which it is considered irrational or pre-rational, something practiced by the essentialized exotic Other."
Bargaining is a game, and by being a game, it doesn't so much break the rules for how we're used to shopping, as it grinds them to a powder and then sets that on fire.
This is precisely the allure, I think. Bargaining is a game, and by being a game, it doesn't so much break the rules for how we're used to shopping, as it grinds them to a powder and then sets that on fire. So much could go thrillingly wrong. Herrmann writes, "In the garage sale, bargaining, particularly bargaining negotiations gone awry, constellate a set of opposing values, present but muted by the niceness of most American commercial transactions." In other words, we may have been held in check by a tacit agreement to go along with the price tags at Target, but when the dollar amount is up for debate, when that "niceness" is stripped away? We become animals. Or at least, we become ourselves.
In a parking lot just outside Cincinnati, where the booths of professional flea market resellers from as far away as Iowa crowded in alongside locals getting rid of the last of their youngest kids' baby clothes, an older man in a blue cap momentarily mistook me for his wife. After we cleared up the confusion, he showed me the prize he'd found. "This book is marked $39 — or maybe it's $4? If it's 39, I won't buy it," he said, holding up an ancient-looking copy of Silas Marner. He thumbed through the first few pages, looking for a printer's date, and didn't find one. "That means it's pre-1913."
His wife — his actual wife — arrived then, and made a noise of excitement. "Silas Marner! My goodness," she said. "How much do they want for it?" Her husband showed her the unclear price and she laughed, saying, "I'd probably just pay the $39 like it says." She and I browsed a nearby table while her husband tried to strike a deal with the proprietor, a local guy whose claim that he's just getting rid of old stuff from his house was slightly undermined by how great most of the stuff seemed to be.
Seasoned buyers are skeptical of professional dealers. They're storytellers, for one, inclined to dress up a stoneware pitcher with some anodyne Civil War backstory to help ease a sale. And they show up at the yard sales early, defoliating them of anything likely to be of even marginal interest or value, robbing the amateur treasure-hunters of their treasure. But more than anything, they're less inclined to play along with the haggling game. They know what their goods are worth, and they're under no deadline to get them sold. If you won't meet a dealer's price on a Hopalong Cassidy hot chocolate mug, so what? She'll have another chance to sell it at the next flea market or swap meet that comes along.
So you get guys like the one in Cincinnati, a dealer who pretended not to be one, who pretended not to know the worth of what he had in front of him, like he'd accidentally stumbled onto a basement full of riches. But maybe he wasn't lying, maybe he really had no idea that a hundred-year-old novel might be worth a little. The man in the hat came back to where his wife and I stood, book in hand, barely holding in a grin. "Seventy-five cents! I got him all the way down to 75 cents!"
I asked him how he did it, and he wagged a finger. Won't tell. His wife was delighted, complimenting him on how well he bargained, a thing she didn't think she could ever do. "Well, you know," she said. "I still probably would have paid the $39, just to avoid the whole issue."
After they wandered off, I pulled out my phone to look up the real story of the book they'd just exchanged for some loose change. In half a second, I learned it was a 1905 printing from Massachusetts publisher D.C. Heath and Co., and that you can pick up a similar-looking copy online for about 15 bucks, plus shipping.
Far more than professional dealers, it's the internet that's truly killing the beautifully improvised economic choreography of yard sales.
Far more than professional dealers, it's the internet that's truly killing the beautifully improvised economic choreography of yard sales. Haggling is inefficient, it's unfair. It relies on the buyer and seller having unequal access to information about all sorts of things: the worth of the object to the buyer, its worth to the seller, its worth to the rest of the world.
Before the internet, this inefficiency was wild, and it was beautiful. If a buyer wanted a $4 rice cooker but also wanted to avoid the poker-tell pas-de-deux of a yard sale negotiation, he could do the same kind of bargain hunting at a thrift store. The very allure of a yard sale was its friction, its strangeness, its risk — what Herrmann calls its "shifting and uncertain terrain."
A few of the dealers I saw along US 127 were selling the classic sort of collectible: old coins, stamps, comic books. They were serious-minded, their goods meticulously arranged. Often, there were dense paperback pricing guides on the table next to their display cases, phonebook-thick volumes full of tiny columns of fiat-issued values.
Ostensibly the dealers had the buying guides out so their customers could feel reassured that they weren't getting ripped off. But really, it was just showmanship. Everywhere I stopped, I saw at least two or three people pick something up, put it down, then pull out their phone and start speedily typing. Anyone looking to buy things of real value — mid-century teak, Prohibition-era bottleware, pop-culture kitsch — had a tiny computer in her pocket that was already cued up to open eBay and Etsy Vintage and AbeBooks, and double-check the going rate against what the seller was asking. Except for the really old folks, the sellers had also all checked their stuff out against eBay.
Everyone — sellers, buyers, and dealers — knew exactly how much everything was worth, and knew that everyone else knew it too. There's no joy in haggling when you know the price is fair. There's no joy in a yard sale without haggling. The inefficiency is the source of all the fun. The victory isn't just in the purchase itself, but in the battle fought to earn it.
Twenty-five miles north of Chattanooga, where Signal Mountain gives way to the cow-dappled hills and white church spires of the Sequatchie Valley, I followed a sign for a barn sale to a narrow farm road that climbed back up the same hill I'd just driven down. At the top, I found a long, low stable and a massive barn, both so packed with mazes of folding tables that it was hard to navigate, the tables themselves covered with uncountable thousands of things for sale: kids' sneakers, egg plates, cowboy hats, xylophones, toaster ovens. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff, but in all the chaos, my eye was caught by a small, white enamelware bowl with a chipped blue rim and freckles of rust.
There were at least four generations of women manning the barn sale; they run it every year, collecting together all the unwanted clothes and junk from more than a dozen farms in this end of the valley. One of the older ones was puttering around inside the stable when I found the bowl, straightening piles and talking to me and herself and the empty room about the weather and the dust and the day. I asked her how much she wanted for the bowl, and she didn't even look up. "Ten. You've got a fancy camera."
I put it back. Three miles down the road I realized I'd made a mistake, and I pulled over at another sale, planning to turn around and go back and get the bowl. But there, stacked on top of an oak dresser, were four exactly like it, with a tag taped to the top one reading "$5 each." Ten miles later I saw a set of eight. Just over the Kentucky line, a dealer in a church parking lot was unloading a whole kitchen's worth, plates and platters and basins and bowls, a hundred pieces in all, for an even $80.
There may be some truly unique things in the world, but they don't tend to be sold at yard sales. One blue-rimmed, rusty bowl in a dark, crowded stable at the top of a hill overlooking the most beautiful valley in the world — that's a moment. That's special. A dozen more of the same bowl, even at a cheaper price, is just old, unwanted stuff.
But after 700 miles, stories start to emerge, you begin to see the outlines of old, discarded lives. Everyone around here had those enamelware bowls, for a while. And then at a certain point, everyone got new ones. They're sturdy bowls, though, thin half-spheres of steel covered in porcelain, not the sort of thing you throw away. So you pack them into a box, and then six months or a year or maybe 30 years later, when you're throwing a yard sale, you pull them out and dust them off. You put them on the table, and you figure out your selling price, and you sit back and wait until someone else is willing to buy.
Helen Rosner is the features editor of Eater.
Click here to see the people of the world's longest yard sale.
Editor: Julia Rubin