The Revolutionary Potential of Yard Sales: Rethinking the Informal Economy as a Transformative Practice

JENNIFER HENDRICKS

Yard sale attendees gather during the first week of August 2021 at one of the stops along “The World’s Largest Yard Sale” in Camden, Kentucky, photo courtesy of 127YardSale.com, reprinted with permission.

Every weekend across the United States, people are anticipating or preparing for yard sales. The yard sale functions as a market for exchanging goods and capital, but its benefits truly lie in the social and cultural aspects that bring people together across geographies, ultimately encouraging suburbia to build community. A staple of American culture since the 1960s, the yard sale sprouted up in response to people overfilling their homes with consumer goods during a decade of affluence.[1] The prosperity of the 1960s fed into the economic crisis of the 1970s, in turn producing the impetus to sell. The cultural context of the 1960s also revealed that the value of material goods had changed. Young people strove to counteract hyper-consumerism by emphasizing reuse and recycling. Eventually, used items shed the stigma of poverty, creating a newfound appreciation for vintage and retro goods. Once confined to queer subcultures, camp sensibility became mainstream, producing a sort of cult following for all that is kitsch. As the 1980s approached, yard sales made their way into a broad cultural consciousness.[2] But what makes a yard sale more than a commercial exchange? Given the United States’ housing history and existing class and racial barriers, the value of yard sales extends beyond their financial functionality to become radical forces for communal cohesion. While yard sales have evolved from a practical means of earning extra income and discarding used goods, they have also evolved into a site of communal exchange that partially erases the barrier between the public and private spheres. 

Despite being considered sites of commercial activity, yard sales paradoxically function as social events; public events located on private property. As yardsale scholar Gretchen M. Herrman notes, successfully undermining and exalting consumption, yard sales are spaces where the exchange of used goods underlies the exchange of meaning. Although the goal of the yard sale is to make profit or to rid the home of unwanted goods, it actually has the power to encourage social capital within the community. Scholars Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein note that “bridging social capital” between people from varying social classes is vital yet arduous within pluralistic societies.  Yard sales have the power to transform urban space by allowing a unique opportunity for people from different classes, races, and ethnicities to mix by eliminating the bounds of residential segregation. But, as Herrmann highlights, it is important to note that class differentiations can also stigmatize certain neighborhoods and reinforce dualistic mentalities. Yard sales have become such a backdrop to, and a symbol of, contemporary suburban life that they are scarcely considered a relevant social phenomena. However, yard sales also break the stereotypical suburban pattern of unchecked individualism. In a place where almost everything takes place in private, curating an event that is semi-public opens the possibility for social transformation. 

The domestic nature of a yard sale changes the dynamic between seller and buyer, creating a “yard sale ethos” that denotes an overall more friendly and intimate relationship not seen in traditional shopping.[3] The exchange of goods that is present in a yard sale is unique in that it creates a social tie linked to an origin story or sentiment, which is also attached to the object. In car-centric cities such as Los Angeles, yard sales provide a renewed sense of neighborhood solidarity; through these sales residents are interacting with their neighbors, often for the first time. It is impossible to say if yard sales promote a prolonged sense of community unity, but inviting increased interaction draws residents from their private spaces, such as cars and homes, and invites them to participate in what can only be defined as a social exchange. 

Yard sale attendees gather during the first week of August 2021 at one of the stops along “The World’s Largest Yard Sale” in Camden, Kentucky, photo courtesy of 127YardSale.com, reprinted with permission.

Nowhere is the yard sale ethos of egalitarian friendliness more evident than along “The World’s Largest Yard Sale.” Spanning over 690 miles through the six states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, the lengthy corridor yard sale hosts thousands of vendors every August. The event was started in 1987 by Mike Walker, a former Fentress County Executive in Jamestown, Tennessee who had the goal of encouraging travelers to ditch the interstate and explore the offerings of rural and small city life. Testimony from yard salers reflects a community rooted in the tradition of yard saling, Anna Wyland a long time attendee relays her excitement about the event:

I look forward to this every year! My husband and I have been doing a bit of the trail every year. We have slowly (over the years) worked our way down to Crossville, TN… In the evenings we find a hotel or B&B and and walk about whatever town we are in to see the sites and talk to the locals about their town and history. 

Despite their commercial trappings, yard sales center personal histories and emotions through the possessions on sale. Wyland goes on to say, “I have found MANY beloved and well used treasures over the years.” Placing items in a yard sale revalues the goods, where they are then likely to begin new histories and sentiment. 

What started as a movement for reducing waste has culminated into a popular community event. Yard sales have even reached municipal levels as cities realize the environmental benefits of organizing a citywide sale. In 2012, the city of Sunnyvale, California became a leader in sponsoring annual yard sales in order to reduce the city’s solid waste stream. The persistent popularity of yard sales indicates that people want to rally around an event that happens to have tangible consumer benefit. A symbol of American excess and hyper-consumerism has ironically come to symbolize one of the few remnants of a communal exchange during a moment when it feels like such acts are rapidly dissolving. 


Notes

[1] Margaret Crawford, “The Garage Sale as Informal Economy and Transformative Urbanism,” in The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor, ed. Vinit Mukhija and Anatasia Loukaitou-Sideris (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT Press Books, 2014), 26.

[2] Ibid, 26.

[3] Ibid, 28.


Jennifer Hendricks is pursuing a master’s degree in Urban Policy and Leadership.  Her work explores sustainable urban practices and comparative urban policy.

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