Garage Sales And Collectible Tales

Kristin K. Fouquet

Copyright 2001 by Kristin K. Fouquet

My mother had a great idea for a present for my grandparents' 60th 
anniversary, December 13, 2001. She requested that family and friends 
write stories about the couple to be included in a scrapbook. This is my 
story for my grandmother, Emma Mittelstaedt.

Photo of Kristin's grandmother.

Long before recycling came into fashion, my grandmother was an advocate. She firmly believed in the old maxim about one's trash being another's treasure. She also believed in stretching the dollar. She exercised both these ideals by being a frequent early morning customer of garage sales, coin-purse in hand.

 Garage sales are a mid-twentieth century invention. The concept, no doubt, was born out of rummage sales from church or community organizations and/or flea markets, but the yard sale or garage sale is truly unique. I read once that a San Franciscan woman named Alma de Bretteville Spreckles is credited with inventing the garage sale. Regardless of the actual origin, garage sales are still very popular, especially in my family.

 The Chicken or the Egg

 I'm not sure what came first; my grandmother's insatiable collections or her personal discovery of the garage sale, but in either case they proved to perpetuate each other. Roosters were one of her first and favorite collectibles. She began buying them at garage sales and putting them around her kitchen. Soon, everyone that visited her kitchen started giving her roosters and rooster related items. My grandmother's rooster collection grew to such enormous proportions that her children and their friends would play a game called, "Count the Roosters". She finally threw up her hands and pleaded, "No more roosters." She then moved on to cows.

 After the herd of cows, she amassed thimbles, bells, bird statues, whimsical monks, and angels. Outdoors, scores of fake alligators and snakes have migrated to her backyard pond. This collection trend continues with her daughter, my mother, who has displayed room themes over the years: The Mushroom Kitchen, The Frog Bathroom, The Owl Bathroom, The Chili-Pepper Kitchen, The Lighthouse Bathroom, etc... Her collections have included teacups, teapots, music boxes, thimbles, bells, match book covers, Coca-Cola and Mobil Oil memorabilia, and dolls of every description. I too have an enormous collection; my collection is of hats and has grown through the years mostly out of donations from my grandmother's hat connections (ladies who part with their hats) and garage sales, of course.

 Marry an Electrician

 Over the sixty years my grandparents have been married, my grandmother has found countless exceptional finds at garage sales. Some were in mint condition, but the majority just needed a little work or some new electrical wiring. It's a very good thing that she had the foresight to marry an electrician. He has refurbished otherwise useless objects, sanding and staining wooden bits and pieces she's brought home, and rewiring precious items that simply couldn't be passed over. His handiwork and exceptional electrical knowledge has salvaged many a forgotten article.

 One case in point, is a beautiful vintage chandelier that she pounced on one early morning at a garage sale. Often, my eyes have been drawn to it. I confess that I do covet that chandelier which looks like it is from the 1920's or 30's. That beautiful piece probably cost her only a few minimal dollars but would have been so much more out of pocket if she'd had to hire someone to wire it for her. That chandelier continues to hang and cast a lovely glow over her dining room.

Anything for Charity

 For many years, my grandmother volunteered to work the Doll Booth at the St. Jude's Fair. This was a multi-staged process. First, she would buy dolls of every kind and condition at garage sales. She'd then clean them up by giving them sponge baths. Thirdly, she spent hours sewing attractive little outfits for them. Then she'd fix their hair (if any) and put bows, bonnets, or hats on their heads. As if that weren't enough labor for charity, she'd spend a weekend manning the booth where the treasured dolls would be won by betting on the roulette wheel or sold outright.

 My grandmother has seen many dolls over the years. Some dolls' eyes open and close. There are those who take a bottle, eat mushy "food", burp, and need their diaper changed. Some cry; others walk and talk. Yet on one occasion, she bought a doll at a garage sale and found herself completely baffled by it. She had the feeling that it performed some type of function but she just couldn't figure it out. After close inspection by my grandfather, it was assessed that the doll's function was to throw-up. After the regurgitating doll, my grandmother's seen everything.

 Stick to the Ads

 Part of the excitement of garage sale-ing (yes, she made it a verb), is sitting at the kitchen table early in the morning and scanning the garage sale ads in the newspaper's Classified section. My grandmother would circle the ads of the sales based on two main criteria: the mention of promising goods in the ad and/or if the address of the sale was in close proximity to her neighborhood. Estate sales are avoided because the merchandise has usually been appraised with a very high value and a grieving family is not one to haggle with. However, moving sales bode well because you know the movers are desperate to unload their goods and will often allow themselves to be bargained down; for example "Would you take a quarter for it?" usually works.

 Occasionally, my grandmother would stumble across a garage sale that wasn't listed in the paper. These were especially prime hunting grounds for bargains due to the lack of advertisement. It was with such a stroke of luck that my grandmother happened upon one of these sales on a particular morning; it also appeared that she was the first to find the unannounced sale. She swooped down on that sale with the zealousness of a hungry vulture. The driveway was lined with some choice items and she eagerly picked up a few things and inspected them. A man in the garage nodded to her; she nodded back. Everything seemed to be in good condition but nothing was tagged. After several minutes passed, the man came out of the garage and asked, "Can I help you?" My confounded grandmother said with slight indignity, "Why, nothing is priced." He explained, "Lady, I'm just cleaning my garage."


 Recently, my grandmother was wearing a garment that I particularly liked. I said, "Ooh, I like your skirt." She replied in a sly whisper, "G.S." This is apparently the new "hip" way of referring to the sales where she buys practically everything except her food. Only the people in the know say, "G.S." She also couldn't resist whispering, "Fifty cents." You've gotta love that.

 It's also amazing what people get rid of at garage sales. My family has found such eclectic things as a fainting couch, an old player piano, and a Moroccan end table. At one sale, my mother bought some antique lace curtains and antique candelabra for me. When she was giving the woman the money, the woman told my mother that those items were part of her great grandmother's dowry from Austria. She rhetorically asked my mother, "What am I gonna do with that old stuff?" I've somehow managed to put those old things to good use.

 Garage sales have clothed generations of my family. Many of the antiques I sit on every day have been acquired from them. Some of the best things I own are from garage sales. I love scurrying through a big cardboard box of books and my husband enjoys thumbing through the old records for sale. My family's collections have fueled our quests for garage sales and the sales have given us the objects that make up our collections, both present and future. We certainly have my grandmother to thank for her thrifty influence on our collections and mostly for her generous inspiration on our lives.

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