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Yard Sales: The sociological treasures within another person's trash by Paris Daniell

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Why do people go to yard sales? This is the question I asked myself after hearing that my father in-law was planning on having one. With this in mind I observed the yard sale from a reclining lawn …

Why do people go to yard sales? This is the question I asked myself after hearing that my father in-law was planning on having one. With this in mind I observed the yard sale from a reclining lawn chair and waited for people to arrive.

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  • 1. YardSale Why do people go to yard sales? This is the question I asked myself after hearing that my father in-law was planning on having one. With this in mind I observed the yard sale from a reclining lawn chair and waited for people to arrive. Wave after wave of yard sale visitors began to reveal patterns, and eventually led to the identification of various yard sale persona’s and behavioral differences. After two days of fieldwork; my understanding of these flash social marketplaces which we callThe sociological treasures within another persons trash by Paris Daniell the yard sale had completely changed.
  • 2. Armed with questions, I was certain that my fieldwork would provide sufficient data to makeIntroductionWhy do people go to yard sales? This is the question I asked myself after hearing that my father in-law observations and conclusions about yard sales. Answering these questions would require observation andwas planning on having one. With this in mind I observed the yard sale from a reclining lawn chair natural conversation. I did not directly take notes in the field – instead I took short trips inside the houseand waited for people to arrive. Wave after wave of yard sale visitors began to reveal patterns, and to jot thoughts down, and after the yard sale I extensively wrote notes from memory while the experienceeventually led to the identification of various yard sale persona’s and behavioral differences. After two was fresh. This removal of the field site notebook was done in order to remove any intimidation of mydays of fieldwork; my understanding of these flash social marketplaces which we call the yard sale had presence.completely changed.My first pre-conceived ideas were that yard sales were part storefront, part social interaction. According Settingto Wandrey and Meierling, two graduate design researchers, “one reason why the cultural practice My plan was to observe a yard sale in Benicia, California over the course of two days with the intention ofof garage sales continues to grow is because it is an unregulated economy that generates somewhere identifying different nuances in the interaction and personalities between attendee’s. The location was atbetween $600 million to $1 billion per year.” (The Things We Sell, presented at the 12th Annual Chicago my father-in-law’s house, as he was moving onto a boat and wanted to hold a massive yard sale. I wasn’tEthnography Conference) participating in the sale directly, but instead observing from a distance. My role in the yard sale wasMy understanding of yard sales was also very similar to Helen Sheumaker and Shirly T. Wajda’s simply to people watch, as it would (hopefully) discourage theft. I was close enough to hear conversationdescription, “Also called curb, driveway, estate, garage, jumble, moving, porch, rummage, or yard sales are and ask questions, but not in the way of people.informal temporary venues in which homeowners or neighborhoods offer for public sale used householdgoods. Often held on weekends or holidays in the spring, summer, and fall when housecleaning andgood weather coincide, yard sales are popularly viewed as a means to rid themselves of “clutter” and for Methodologies of research and analysisconsumers to find bargains.” (Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life p.483) Despite The type of field research I did is considered Participant Observation, a method that many sociologistsit being thought of and described as a booming economic supplement for the nation, I had a hunch there and anthropologists use everyday in their studies. Bernard, an anthropologist known for his Participantwas more to these flash social marketplaces. I wanted to know many things, but specifically I sought the Observation methods, writes, “Participant observation can involve an array of data collection methods.answers to these questions: These include observation, natural conversations, various kinds of interviews (structured, semi structured, and unstructured), checklists, questionnaires, and unobtrusive methods. “ (H. Russell Bernard,• Why do people go to yard sales? Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches - Chapter 7 p.137). There were three other people working at• What are the need states that yard sale goers have? the sale, so I knew that my presence wouldn’t be a bother, as it is (apparently) common for there to be• Are there shibboleths or a secret code to yard sale goers? an observer at yard sales in order to keep an eye on everyone/thing. Bernard writes later on in his book,• How do people become aware of yard sales? “Unless you are a full participant in the culture you’re studying, being a participant observer makes you• What are the social connections established during a yard sale? a freak.“ (H. Russell Bernard, Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches - Chapter 7 p.145). In this case I• How do people interact with each other at yard sales? removed the “freak” title by playing a small part in the yard sale, and it was ideal for observation because• How does the urban environment affect the vitality of yard sales? the attendees expected my presence. I was considered a social norm.• What are the cultural differences between different yard sale goers?• Can archetypal patterns be found amongst the group of people visiting? My research online before entering the field revealed other people’s observations about yard sales on blog’s and e-publications. There was a peculiar commonality between many of the authors of these papers; they were natives in their field. Being highly involved in the sale of personal items, or in contrast highly engaged with the items being sold at other yard sales adds a large obstacle - and I was planning on avoiding that pitfall. This is considered an Etic position, versus an Emic one. Wikipedia explains the
  • 3. instance they heard good things through a friend. Another factor that should be considered is organicdifferences of Emic and Etic perspectives in relation to social and behavioral sciences, stating “An ‘Emic’ visitors, who acted on a whim and had no plan to stop at a yard sale. There were over 100 people thataccount is a description of behavior or a belief in terms meaningful (consciously or unconsciously) to visited the two-day yard sale, and I feel these four advertising components had a lot to do with its success.the actor; that is, an Emic account comes from a person within the culture. Almost anything from withina culture can provide an Emic account. An “Etic” account is a description of a behavior or belief by an The days that I spent at the yard sale were fascinating. Sitting in a reclining chair on the lawn, I watchedobserver, in terms that can be applied to other cultures; that is, an Etic account attempts to be ‘culturally the different people arrive in front of the house. If I were the only one available, I would greet the personneutral’.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emic_and_etic). The way I planned for neutrality was to not sell as they entered the driveway lined with tables and boxes. A wide array of people visited the yard sale,or buy anything, as I would most likely be distracted and essentially be joining the ‘tribe’ I am studying. and soon patterns arose. Taking note of the many details of our conversations, what they bought, andWithout this distraction I was able to focus my energy on the interactions and characteristics of the even how they looked allowed many different dots to be connected. Ultimately what arose from mypeople within this group. participant observation was the discovery of archetypes one finds at a yard sale. This segment presents what I observed throughout the yard sale experience. Informants are the people that are a part of theThe methodology of my analysis involves several aspects. One of the sociological methods I have adopted cultural even under investigation. These people are critical to understanding the yard sale environment.is Symbolic Interactionism, which is explained in detail by sociologist Kathy Stolley. She states, “Symbolic This information about yard sale community takes shape in a catalogue format, which includesinteractionism is the prevailing micro-theoretical framework in sociological theory. As a micro level characterizations of what the people look like, what they purchase, how they behave and interact. Theperspective, symbolic interactionism focuses on patterns of individual interactions. Although sociologists examples used are the best of the best out of many similar ones; I have removed their names in order toworking in this tradition recognize that larger social structures exist and are important in shaping our maintain anonymity.lives, they point out that society is actually created by people interacting together on a daily basis. It Yardis these smaller interactions that actually make up the larger social structures that are of the focus offunctionalists and conflict theorists” (The Basics of Sociology, p. 27, Kathy S. Stolley) Using this methodto analyze the data I collected would aid in the creation of different symbols and persona’s observed in afield site. I’m standing upon the shoulders of a founding father; Max Weber. I felt more confident enteringthe field with the ability to observe in a different way. Kathy Stolley also writes of the source of thismethod of analysis, “Symbolic Interactionism is based partly on the writings of German sociologist MaxWeber (1864-1920). Unlike other sociologists who had focused only on large structural relationships,Weber was also interested in how individuals interact.” (The Basics of Sociology, p. 28, Kathy S. Stolley) SaleSociological and anthropological focusA yard sale is nothing without people, and I wanted to know who these people were. How peoplewere becoming aware the yard sale was another interest of mine. The media used to advertise the saleconsisted of four elements. The local newspaper was the first method. The classifieds ad said that it wasa moving sale, would be held rain or shine, and the address you could find it at. The second media usedwas an ad in the ‘for sale’ section on craigslist.org, which included a phone number and pictures of all thestuff laid out at the sale. The third media was signs posted on the street. Miniature billboards that wereplaced on nearby streets, all of them fitted with arrows pointing in the right direction. Our fourth meansof advertising was initially un-known but became obvious later on, word of mouth. Yard sale attendee’s Personastalk at other yard sales, and soon enough word travels about your sale throughout the town. There wereseveral times people gave compliments about a specific element, perhaps the Craigslist ad, or in another
  • 4. The Lonely Ones The Entertainers Spotting a lonely is easy, they often arrive alone. These quiet folk have a Follow the laughter and you will find this group of yard sale visitors. This greater need for human interaction over material needs. After probing the personality thives on the crowd, and seeks their attention. Interests and environment for friendliness, they will eagerly engage in conversation. After personal stories are shared by these people, and enjoy sharing with others. a semi-involved conversation, the lonely ones will typically purchase a small They seem familiar with yard sales and will wisely select an item of interest item. This purchase is an offering for your time. If you do not greet or and ask about the price. There may be a purchase as an offering for the engage a lonely, they will probably not purchase anything. Some of the venue provided, but often not. lonely ones are new to the neighborhood, others are resident yard sale visitors. Example: Two younger men and women pulled up in their car, honking a after-market old fashioned horn. After exiting the car, you could almost see the charisma radiating Example: Middle aged male who browsed slowly and talked often. Discussion ranged from these people. Walking around with presence, one of the men would begin to tell from politics to the weather - brought up how he had no wife or kids. Older female who jokes and make commentary about various items for sale. recently moved from Berkeley, CA. Items Bought: Nothing. Items Bought: Old screws, flower pots, exercise bicycleNew to the Neighborhood’s Early BirdsThis couple arrives with a social and material mission. One partner may These are the re-seller and antiquers of the yard sale scene. You will findbegin browsing for their functional needs, i.e, patio furniture, and the other them waiting for you outside as you open the garage door and begin towill begin in social interaction. This combination of needs is brought into prepare for the day. The main interest for antiquers is the first pick onconversation depending on the reception of their arrival. A Yard Sale is a unique items. Dealers are mostly interested in brand name or brand new.social network. Wielding a list in one hand and cash in the other - they dig through boxes with a keen eye. True value is seen by this group - but don’t expect to makeExample: A middle aged couple who were happy to meet us. The woman was especially a profit.interested in the patio furniture, and the man curious to meet those at the yard sale. Thewoman left to withdraw money for the furniture, and the man (and self-proclaimed actor) Example: Older man and woman that arrive in a large truck. They are friendly andstayed to talk - mentioning that he and his wife had just move in down the block. upon being greeted begin asking about specific items. The woman asks about the fine art in the back of the garage, particularly interested in the frames.Items Bought: Patio Furniture, Coffee table book, pots and pans, Items Bought: Ornamental Christmas snowman, Pottery Barn shadow box The Braggers The Jealousies Braggers can be spotted after some initial conversation. Leisurely browsing, This group is a lively one, and highly engaged in the art of a bargain. they will bring up something of importance in their day. Maybe they Looking for the perfect find, they browse the many items at the sale, recently bought a new car, or in one case; directed a commercial. Don’t including the ones others have already picked up. Conversation involved count on selling much to them, as they are more curious about your other yard sale goers and the ones running the sale, comparing prices and at reaction to their big day. times becoming aggravated about the deals others were receiving. Yard sales are filled with one of a kind items, and this group always wants to know if Example: A middle aged man who introduced himself by his first and last name. there are more in stock. Shortly after the introduction, he brought up how he had just finished directing a commercial for a local hotel. He was looking for a bunk bed, which we didn’t have. He Example: Two women who both were interested in the many items, particularly clothing. then began to explain how the beds would be for his sons kids, whom he was meeting for Digging through the boxes, they would throw items of interest in a pile. There was dinner. noticeable tension and eventually one of the women began making a ruckus about other Items Bought: Nothing. people taking “too many items”. There were also many statements about the regret of ‘missing’ an item before it was sold. Items Bought: Clothing, belts, purse, and perhaps more if they had seen a couple items before they were sold to someone else.
  • 5. Adopting Cultural Identity Remote shoppersThis yard sale goer is commonly foreign and interested in American culture. These people were observed always in pairs. Generally husband and wifeYou will often find this group picking through items pertaining to holidays, would park and one of them would walk and browse the sale while thecities, or popular culture.They aren’t as interested in conversation, but more other stayed in the car. The one shopping would ask about items and thenso curious to what a true ‘American’ resident typically has hidden in their go and check with their partner. After returning from the car the verdicthouse. A yard sale is a cultural shadow box. would vary, either it was too expensive or they received approval. Occasionally the pair would switch, and the one waiting in the car would goExample: A mother and her daughter quietly picked through various cultural items. The to investigate the item in question. A yard sale is a scouting mission.daughter gravitated towards the stuffed animals, and eventually claimed a Mickey Mouseplush as her own. The mother was more interested in decoration, and items for the house. Example: A older woman who was petite and quiet visited the sale both days. She wouldBoth were engaged in observation of others and very much so interested in the sale. arrive with her husband and she would pick through items while he awaited her return inItems Bought: Mickey Mouse plush, folding Christmas tree, Christmas the car. There were numerous times in which he returned from the car saying she waslights unable to buy an item. Kleptomaniacs There were only a small amount of people who fit into this category. It is to be noted that this persona is highly conversational and sought to distract the ones working the yard sale. They had an eye for value and would gravitate towards those items. The offense is hardly worth prosecuting, but Low-budget shop-o-holic’s it seems a yard sale is an easy get away. This trend in personality encompasses a large amount of other personas found at a yard sale, but there are extremes as well. This group is highly Example: An older man who arrived alone. Initially was friendly and at times flattering. communicative and will speak about their desire for an item, despite not After he continued browsing and accumulated items, he began to stir up commotion. needing it. Verbalizing their love to shop, and will stop anywhere just to do Stating others were “practically stealing items” because they were getting them so cheap - so. Haggling prices from .50 cents to .25 isn’t uncommon, and at times will and creating focus on other areas of the sale. His swipe was never actually witnessed, but set items down after holding them throughout the visit. the items he was holding were un-accounted for and missing after he disappeared. Items Stolen: Vintage necklace, Vintage Loony-Tunes Christmas light set Example: An older woman who enjoyed having conversations with others while at the sale. She would speak openly about her love for shopping and would “stop anywhere just The Voyeur to get some shopping in”. She was interested in little things, claiming “most of it would This group is highly engaged in the items on display and the people who go right into storage anyways”. once owned them. Looking at everything around they touched almost every Items Bought: Assorted books and novels, glass figurine, shrub clippers, item around. They were interested in the person holding the sale, and asked framed artwork, stapler many questions. Seeing what is typically hidden behind closed doors is the drive behind their visit. Example: A middle-aged man who was friendly and spent quite some time browsing theNecessity seekers sale, despite the temporary rain-shower. He was curious about the details of the move,These people come to a yard sale for a reason - they need something. For who had lived in the house, and why we were moving. He was alone, but spoke about histhem, moving sales are a more attractive venue at times as you are more friends and others around him.likely to find appliances and items of utility. Price is a driving factor, and Items Bought: Nothinglike-new products are always of interest. This need state can be found inother yard sale persona’s as well, i.e, new to the neighborhood’s. Drive-By’s Be alert or you may miss this group. Within the safe confines of theirExample: A younger girl that recently moved from Boston to California on her own. She automobile, they slowly drive by and scout out the sale street side. Drivingarrived at the yard sale with a specific question, “do you have any kitchen appliances?” (or parking) on the wrong side of the road isnt un-common. Drive-by’s areGiven that this yard sale was for a major move, she had a large selection to choose from. potentially persuaded to park with a happy hello or wave.She walked away with a kitchen full of like-new appliances and items at a low price.Items Bought: Complete set of dishes, Blender, Football chip dip bowl Example: A younger man, in a red pick-up. Driving by slowly, he shouts out of his window; asking about the price of the dresser. After replying, he states he’ll “be back after work.” The people working the sale replied “if it’s here”. The drive-by man never returned for the dresser. Items Bought: Nothing
  • 6. 1. New to the neighborhoodsAfter compiling this list of thirteen different personas, several behavioral categories began to take shape. Big items buyers 2. Early BirdsComparative behavior analysisLooking at yard sales and how the people interact using pattern-based characterizations provides insight 3. Necessity seekerspreviously un-obtainable. Sorting and organizing information lead to better understanding. Here are a 4. Jealousiesfew things we can learn using the data. 5. Shop-o-holics 1. Lonely onesDesiring social interaction 2. New to the neighborhoods 1. Shop-o-holics 3. Braggers Trinket seekers 2. Lonely ones 4. Entertainers 3. Cultural identity adoptees 5. Voyeurs 4. Remote shoppers 5. Voyeurs 1. Necessity seekers After submerging myself in the culture of yard sales, observing the many different people who attend I need ______________ . Conclusion 2. New to the neighborhoods them, and presenting the data collected through field research, I have gained a new understanding of 3. Early birds this social marketplace. Much of my primary discovery involves the social intricacies of a yard sale. 4. Jealousies These personas and fine characteristics are not exclusive to yard sales but instead can often be found 5. Kleptomaniacs throughout any community. It is the concentration of these specific people that is interesting, how they quickly gather in one location and then disperse just as fast. Deciphering the soup of personalities that visit a yard sale reveals the true ingredients and ultimate recipe for urban interaction. In conclusion, a yard sale is an urban phenomenon, which creates an environment that nurtures both social interactionGoing to talk you down from .50¢ to .25¢ and material exchange. 1. Shop-o-holic’s 2. Remote Shoppers 3. Jealousies 4. Necessity seekers 5. Cultural identity adoptees Likely to park on the wrong side of the street 1. Entertainers or double park: 2. Remote Shoppers 3. Shop-o-holic’s 4. Early Birds 5. Drive-by
  • 7. Works CitedBernard, H. Russell. “7.” Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2000. 137, 145. Print.Meierling, Chris. “The $1 Billion Garage Sale Market | Tag Sell It.” tagsellit. N.p., 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2011. <http://www.tagsellit.com/article/1-billion-garage-sale-market-0>.Sheumaker, Helen, and Shirley Teresa Wajda. “4.” Material culture in America: understanding everyday life. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2008. 483. Print.Stolley, Kathy S.. “1.” The basics of sociology . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. 28. Print.

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