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Habitat Of The Modern Hunter-Gatherers Garage Sales Bring Out A Different Breed Of Folk

Wed., July 5, 1995

Linda Kuhns is looking for something she can’t live without.

She doesn’t know what it is yet.

She sips the last of her coffee, puts out a cigarette and glances at a list of checked-off addresses from the morning’s classifieds. Kuhns, 50, is ready for another weekend in her two-decade-old ritual of garage sale shopping.

Twenty years ago, when living on welfare, she did it to clothe her five children.

Today, Kuhns lives comfortably in her South Hill home. Instead of hunting for basic necessities, she spends her Fridays and Saturdays shopping simply for the pleasure of finding a bargain.

Her expedition begins Friday mornings about 7:30. Flipping through newspaper ads for more than 300 Spokane garage sales, she marks the sales that are close to her home and that sound like they have

the best stuff - baby clothes for her grandchildren, furniture and any other jewels that call out to her.

“I like to shop and it beats the hell out of Nordstrom’s,” she says.

Once the blueprint is drawn, Kuhns hits the road in pursuit of second-hand gold.

Not everyone is as adamant about garage sales as Kuhns.

The average person might bump into a sale on the way to the grocery store and wander through, looking for nothing in particular besides maybe a decent lawn chair, a pair of work gloves to use in the yard, or maybe some toys for the kids.

Then there is the society of shoppers that has a more serious take on garage sales.

Some shop for their livelihoods, such as antique dealers. Others, like Kuhns, shop as a passionate hobby for the fun of the hunt.

These are the people who show up at the same sales often enough that they are on a first-name basis with each other.

They may arrive hours early - sometimes an entire day early - to get the creme de la creme of secondhand goods; which explains why the good stuff usually is gone by Saturday afternoon.

South Hill resident Ev Nyholm holds one garage sale a year, and she is used to getting at least one rude early arrival.

“You tell them you’re not open and they slam the car door and speed away,” says Nyholm, 45. “They are either dealers or people trying to beat the dealers.”

Ann Pitsnogle sees her share of early arrivers, too, and they’ve been aggressive at the least.

“They want to rip your door down,” says Pitsnogle, 28. “They show up at 6 in the morning and ask to come in. They start asking if they can buy the furniture in my house. If they see any antiques they’ll try to barter with me.”

Al Tinker once had so many earlies lined up, he tied a rope around the driveway until he was finished pricing his items. When he untied the rope, customers poured in.

“They ran right up the driveway like people out of a fire,” says Tinker, 62.

Antique dealers employ various techniques to persuade garage sale holders to open early.

Some use a reverse directory to find the telephone numbers of garage sale addresses advertised in the classifieds in order to call and get a preview of what will be on sale.

Others go to sales early and pretend not to be antique dealers. Instead, they might say they’re shopping for a sick relative or make up some other excuse.

John Moyer, of Moyer’s American Antiques, 1018 N. Division, has been faithfully shopping at garage sales for 20 years. He has no convictions against going to sales an hour early, except when “no earlies” is advertised. Then, he may go only 15 minutes early.

“Sometimes I’ll even go an hour early because competition is so fierce,” Moyer says.

He once raked through a garage sale when the owners still were bringing out items. By the time they were done pricing, Moyer said, he and about a half dozen others already bought anything of minimal worth.

“It’s almost like playing bridge,” says Moyer, 46. “It takes years and years of figuring out how to go about things.”

Not all antique dealers harass garage sale holders at the break of dawn.

John Benson, owner of Benson’s Antiques, 5215 N. Market, doesn’t shop early because he hates to wake up people, if not for common courtesy, out of fear of being blasted off of their property.

“I can’t imagine going to someone’s door at 5:30 in the morning,” says Benson, 51, who knows of other dealers who go to sales that early. “I swear someone is going to get shot off the porch one day.”

Kuhns agrees ringing someone’s doorbell at daybreak isn’t the most polite way to shop.

Still, the creed stands: So many garage sales, so little time. So this Friday she gets the jump on the competition by looking at one sale early.

An older couple still is moving furniture out as Kuhns strolls up. She makes conversation as the couple unloads unwanted possessions in the front yard.

Judging from the amount of furniture, it’s a moving sale.

Kuhns offers to help carry something but is turned down. She scans the tables and makes her way back to her white Subaru station wagon.

She pulls up to another sale two houses away and pauses.

“This doesn’t look real great,” Kuhns says, stepping out of the car but leaving her wallet behind.

Part of the garage sale adventure is going from sale to sale without any idea of what’s in store, from expensive jewelry to junk jewelry to just plain junk.

Most of the sales Kuhns hits this day boast nothing of remote interest.

Even sales that look promising from the street turn sour. The dead ends remind her of the time she was checking out a water bed at a sale.

“It looked like a decent yard sale but the closer I got, the more I could pick up the scent,” she recalls. “Have you ever smelt where a cat’s urinated? It was permeating the entire area. It was obvious a cat had urinated all over the bed. Strangely enough, I couldn’t find anything I wanted at that sale.”

She has an escape plan for times like that.

“I’ll tell them I’m looking for something real specific, and I’ll make sure it’s something they don’t have,” Kuhns says.

Even those who have been in the garage sale game for years hit an occasional stinker.

Victors and the victims are separated partly by experience, partly by skill, but mostly by chance.

The best finds aren’t strategically located. They’re stumbled upon. Consider the successes and failures of these Spokane residents:

Nathan Holy, 24, picked up a lap-top computer for $150, as well as a set of skis, poles and boots for $50.

Jody Kirby sold a ceramic Pillsbury Doughboy cookie jar for a dollar and later found out from an expert collector that it was worth about $50.

Moyer was shopping at an apartment sale for his antique shop when he bought an oak dresser for $80 and found between the drawers a 3-carat platinum and diamond wedding ring set that was appraised at $4,000.

When he returned the jewelry to its rightful owners, they gave him some barber cabinets from the turn of the century, which he said are worth $500.

Moyer also bought a lamp at a garage sale for $10 and resold it for $700.

From underpriced collectibles to dust-collecting underpants, anything can be found at a garage sale.

At her South Hill sale, Betty Stotts encounters an old pair of men’s briefs in her garage. She trots to the back yard, displaying the underwear in hand to her daughter, Melody Gonser.

Stotts tosses the drawers into a cardboard box labelled “free,” and asks Gonser, in sing-song fashion: “How much do you think I can get for these?”

Gonser, 40, is an old hand at the business - she once bought some jewelry, sold it, bought the exact same set of jewelry, and then sold it again, all at a series of garage sales. She doubts anyone will take the underwear, even for free, and bets her mother a bowl of sizzling rice soup at Peking Garden that the briefs still will be there when the sale ends.

Gonser loses when an old man approaches the box, examines the underwear, and mumbles to himself, “they’re about my size.”

Kuhns’ game plan for this Friday falls apart.

Five hours, 12 garage sales, $7.30 worth of purchases and half a pack of cigarettes after she started, she collects her booty from the back of her station wagon.

She looks over what she bought - a Fisher Price lawn mower, Rod Stewart and Elton John cassettes and an “ugly apron” that will be a prank gift for a friend.

Plotting out a series of good garage sales to hit is like betting the trifecta at Playfair. You win some. You lose more.

Even for such a prolific shopper, the big finds are rare.

She can live with that.

“It’s like one treasure hunt after another. And the trip finding the treasure is as fun as the treasure itself.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. GARAGE SALES AND THE LAW Some people hold garage sales so often that it becomes a business. It also becomes illegal. City and county laws place restrictions on residential garage sales. A city ordinance requires anyone who holds garage sales more than twice a year to secure a license as a dealer in used goods. The law applies to even a single sale, if it lasts longer than three days. County laws do not specify how many sales one can hold over any period of time. But they do state that commercial activity is not allowed in a residential area. If a neighbor brings a couch to your garage sale, that’s a commercial activity, according to the county. Neither the county nor city takes action against violators unless neighbors complain, officials said. - Isamu Jordan

2. GARAGE SALE TIPS Garage sale veterans shared these tips:

Buying Shoppers should seldom have to pay the marked price for an item. Offer 25-50 percent less, and don’t let on that you care a lot about the item. Look for garage sales that are neatly organized with merchandise on tables instead of in boxes. Shop Fridays and Saturday mornings. By Sunday, anything worth buying already has been bought.

Selling Kids’ stuff - such as toys and clothes - sells. Old copies of Readers Digest don’t. Seasonal items such as Easter baskets, Christmas ornaments don’t sell well. Be friendly and talk to customers, but don’t annoy them by following them around. Be prepared for early arrivals. If possible, set items out the night before in the garage or covered in the back yard. To cut down on early arrivals, note “no earlies” in newspaper ads. Keep dickering customers in mind by pricing items a smidgen higher than what likely will be paid. Don’t bother having a sale on a Sunday. Consider donating items not sold on Saturday to charity. Keep it clean. People don’t like to shop in filth. - Isamu Jordan

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. GARAGE SALES AND THE LAW Some people hold garage sales so often that it becomes a business. It also becomes illegal. City and county laws place restrictions on residential garage sales. A city ordinance requires anyone who holds garage sales more than twice a year to secure a license as a dealer in used goods. The law applies to even a single sale, if it lasts longer than three days. County laws do not specify how many sales one can hold over any period of time. But they do state that commercial activity is not allowed in a residential area. If a neighbor brings a couch to your garage sale, that’s a commercial activity, according to the county. Neither the county nor city takes action against violators unless neighbors complain, officials said. - Isamu Jordan

2. GARAGE SALE TIPS Garage sale veterans shared these tips:

Buying Shoppers should seldom have to pay the marked price for an item. Offer 25-50 percent less, and don’t let on that you care a lot about the item. Look for garage sales that are neatly organized with merchandise on tables instead of in boxes. Shop Fridays and Saturday mornings. By Sunday, anything worth buying already has been bought.

Selling Kids’ stuff - such as toys and clothes - sells. Old copies of Readers Digest don’t. Seasonal items such as Easter baskets, Christmas ornaments don’t sell well. Be friendly and talk to customers, but don’t annoy them by following them around. Be prepared for early arrivals. If possible, set items out the night before in the garage or covered in the back yard. To cut down on early arrivals, note “no earlies” in newspaper ads. Keep dickering customers in mind by pricing items a smidgen higher than what likely will be paid. Don’t bother having a sale on a Sunday. Consider donating items not sold on Saturday to charity. Keep it clean. People don’t like to shop in filth. - Isamu Jordan



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